Tikal is the largest ruins city of the Maya civilization. It’s an incredible site of over 160 square kilometers, in the middle of the forest. Only 10% of the site has been excavated, i.e. 16 square kilometers (or 6 square miles), and there are still thousands of buildings to save from the overgrowing jungle. Spider and howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, spiders, are the permanent residents of Tikal since its abandonment a thousand years ago. At its peak, the city, active between the 4th century BC and the 10th century AD, welcomed over 200,000 inhabitants, more than New York in 1830.
The closest biggest city is Flores, an island on Lake Peten.
Where from: Coban and Semuc Champey
How: 6am direct local bus from Coban to Flores, tourist shuttle to Tikal.
We were told that there might be a direct bus early in the morning at the market. So we decide to try our luck and get there at 5:30am. Good choice, there is a bus leaving at 6. As always, the bus stops at every corner to bring new passengers in, or let people out. There are no tourists outside of Coban, and for the next 4 hours we drive and drive through an amazing and beautiful countryside. Sugarload mountains in the middle of the jungle, small villages and farmers climbing in, rice jute bags on our knees, …
At Sayaxché, the bus has to cross the Rio de la Pasion. It parks on a platform, and a very small motor boat engine fixed on the side pushes the heavy steel platform across the river. After the crossing, in Sayaxché, we drive another hour to Santa Elena. From there, we take a rickshaw to the island of Flores for a quick lunch. The region is very touristic, and not a lot of Guatemalans go to Tikal, so it’s quite difficult to find a cheap local mini van. We buy a tourist return ticket and leave at 3pm for an hour drive to the site. At Tikal, there are just 3 hotels and a camping. So after confirming our initial thoughts - that it would be really expensive, we settle in the Jungle Lodge, a beautiful hotel after the entrance of the park.
Sunrise at Temple IV ?
Early wake up at 4:30am. We find our way to the entrance of the park where a group is supposed to leave for a morning sunrise from the top of Temple 4. The guides walk fast in the dark and humid jungle, we struggle with our small torch to step over the roots and stones. We start to hear the howling monkeys, and glimpse the shape of temples through the trees. After 30mn running in small sand paths, we finally reach what looks like wooden stairs. We climb as best as one can, but the stairs are steep, slippery and it’s still dark….
At the top of the temple, maybe 30 to 40 tourists (the only tourists we’ll see for the entire day). However, it’s completely quiet and we find a place to sit and enjoy this magical moment - even though the clouds darken the sky. The temple overlooks the jungle by 15 feet, we perceive other temples in the distance just higher than the tree line, the fauna is waking up, parrots and toucans sing while flying over the trees, and tribes of howling monkeys mark their territories on the left, the right, in the front, on the right again, the left, …. We are the live spectators of an animal opera in a scenic thousand year old stage in the middle of a dense jungle. Unique.
El Mondo Perdido
Once the 2 groups are gone, we are left alone on the temple and enjoy another half hour of that fantastic moment. We then climb down the stairs and head to the Mondo Perdido, the Lost World. On our way, we meet a very lazy couple of ant-eaters.
El Mondo Perdido is composed of a few temples, and just one or two completely dug up from the jungle. The others are still partly covered with plants, and in ruins. It’s very quiet and we are all alone, with the toucans and parrots, and the howling monkeys in the distance, of course.
The Place of the Seven Temples
We go on to the Place of the Seven Temples, the last area to be excavated. It’s quite impressive to see the work in progress, how man literally snatches the thousand years old stones out of the hands of the jungle. It reminds me of the Preah Khan temple in Ankor, Cambodia. Facing the seven temples, you clearly see the trees growing from inside and with roots between the stones, it really looks like the jungle swallowed the temple.
We continue, still alone, to the Temple V. On our way we meet a tribe of spider monkeys jumping from trees to trees. Their legs, arms and tails are as long or more than their bodies, and they really use their tails to hang, balance or even propel themselves.
Temple V is the highest temple of Tikal. A steep set of wooden stairs brings you to its top, culminating at more than 190 ft, almost 60 meters - very impressive when you realize the base is only 50 to 60 ft large. The stone stairs are completely eroded, and we are afraid to fall. From the top, you can see Temple IV, Temple III and the two temples from the great plaza, Temple I and Temple II. We get there before a group arrives, and enjoy the the view and the calm of the place, Howling monkeys still active in the distance.
The Great Plaza and the whole site
We leave Temple V as it gets crowded and head to the Great Plaza. The Great Plaza was the center of life when Tikal was active. Two beautiful temples face each other (Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar, and Temple II, or Temple of the Moon), and are surrounded by the royal palaces and administrative buildings. The surface is completely flat for about 1 square mile. Mayan ceremonies still happen in the center.
We walk around and wander for an hour or two, understanding how huge the city must have been. It welcomed over 200,000 inhabitants at some point, so there must have been effervescent life all around. The whole construction of the site is very impressive. For instance, there was no rivers around, and to get water, the Mayas built underground water tanks to collect rainwater. The entire site is scattered with those tanks. Also, when the Mayas settled there, the site was literally in the middle of a wild jungle, with hills, rocks, mountains, millions of trees. They managed to clear the area, flatten out the ground and create foundations for the temples and buildings that resisted a thousand years of rain and supported the million tons of the massive temples. Getting to the site, you really feel while walking in the jungle when you reach an area where you might find constructions, as the ground becomes flat and solid. And as always, since this morning, howler monkeys keep howling all around us.
Lost temples and hidden howling monkeys
It’s already 12pm and we realize we have been walking since 4:30 this morning. And since this morning, we heard tens of howling monkeys but haven’t seen one. Their howl travels fast and far in the forest, and you never know if they are 50 or 1,500 ft away. Howler monkeys are pretty impressive: their howl makes them look like lion - though they have a small body but huge head and mouth.
We take a small trail in the jungle, pass close to Temple III and Temple IV. In the middle of nowhere, we hear one acorn falling from the trees. Then a second one, a third one, and more and more. We look up and see spider monkeys in the trees, throwing the acorns at us. We seriously thought this only happened to Moogli and Baloo in the Jungke Book !! We go on and arrive at Complex Q and R, two vast areas with buildings still nibbled by the jungle. There are monkeys in the trees, but they don’t howl anymore ! A last tour around to the central plaza, and we decide to head back to the hotel (and swimming pool !). We have been walking for 10 hours in the humid and slippery jungle, and are exhausted !
An evening in Flores
From Tikal, we manage to catch a mini van back to Flores and find a very nice little restaurant where we will eat and rest. The lake overhanging terrace is facing the sunset, it’s beautiful. Some nachos and guacamole and we are ready to go. We spend the rest of the evening uphill, in the central plaza of Flores, watching kids play football while drinking beers rehearsing what we saw today. A great day.
At 11pm, we catch an overnight bus to Guatemala city and get ready for the night.
Where to next: Antigua for our last day in Guatemala