Guatemala, Part III: Exploring the Vine-Shrouded Ruins of Tikal
Following our setback at the end of Part II, Kristen and I finally boarded a Fuente del Norte bus and headed north. The next leg of our adventures would see us visiting the majestic ruins at Tikal!
“When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are.”Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meanwhile, somewhere in Guatemala…
If you browse through online forums about bus travel in Guatemala, you will find a near-universal complaint: the buses are cold. Fuente del Norte seemed to bear the brunt of most complaints about the A/C. Taking that advice in stride, Kristen and I showed up at the bus station prepared. I wore joggers, hiking boots, and a thick hoodie, and she had on jeans and two jackets. We would tackle this cold.
Four hours later, it was so hot I was finding it difficult to breathe.
Looking back on it, the Q130 ticket price should have been a clue. It didn’t really matter at that point, because we were both miserable. The bus was full to the point where there were people standing–and sleeping–in the aisle. The bathroom was padlocked. The windows didn’t roll down, and the A/C vents were doing nothing. It was hot and muggy on that godforsaken bus. It was hot, muggy, crowded, and loud.
The trip from Guatemala City to Flores takes 10 hours.
In situations like that, I use a neat little relaxation technique I learned from a counselor. It’s simple: just breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. But you have to breathe deep, like you’re trying to fill your entire body with air, and then exhale. Whenever you’re super stressed or anxious, try it. You’ll physically feel your shoulders relax.
Kristen had managed to (impressively) change into shorts and a tank top while still in her seat. I had to wait until the bus was stopped at a checkpoint to run out and change in a roadside bathroom. I should warn everyone reading this that there are virtually no free public bathrooms in Guatemala. The fee is typically two quetzals. The bathroom attendant hassled me about not paying, and I explained that it was hot as **** on that bus (in Spanish) and I just needed to change.
This was a checkpoint to check for fruit onboard the bus, which might be carrying diseases. Guatemalan soldiers in body armor carrying AR-15s patrolled the area. My altercation with the attendant was drawing their attention. At that moment, I heard the bus’ engine engage, with passengers still on the doorstep. I told the attendant what he could go do in his free time and ran to board the moving bus.
If you’re not accustomed to traveling in less developed countries, you might let your anger get the better of you. Lucky for me, the guard did not decide to get involved. Otherwise, I would have started an ordeal over two quetzals.
Knowing yourself and how you deal with stressful situations is paramount.
The route from Guatemala City does not go straight north to Flores, but rather heads northeast. The buses stop at Rio Dulce, by Guatemala’s coast, before turning northwest for the second leg of the route.
It’s worth noting that in this eastern corner of the country the demographics visibly shift. I had mentioned in a previous post that Guatemala is almost entirely Latino or Indigenous. There’s virtually no ethnic diversity outside of those two groups, aside from tourists. The two exceptions are the towns of Rio Dulce and Livingston. In these areas, you will find many people of African descent. They are the Garifuna.
The Garifuna were originally the indigenous Arawak islanders of St. Vincent. In the late-17th century, a slavers’ vessel ran aground, and the Nigerian occupants came into contact with the islanders. In the Garifuna culture at the time, it was taboo for men to be unwed. So, the islanders offered the Nigerian men women to take as wives. Thus began a long history of mixing between these two groups. This increased as European slavers brought more African people to the island. Following a series of uprisings against the Europeans in the early-19th century, many Garifuna fled to the coast of modern-day Honduras.
Today, most of the 600,000 Garifuna live in Honduras, with smaller numbers in Belize and Guatemala. They typically speak Spanish or English as a first or second language, although many also speak their own language. This language comes from that spoken by the ancient Arawak. In 2001, UNESCO declared the language, dance, and culture of the Garifuna as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
After getting boxed lunches of rice, fried chicken, and plantains to go, we got back on the bus. We had also purchased bottles of water and Pedialyte. Pedialyte is like Guatemala’s Gatorade, and I recommend you get some. Having picked up several Garifuna men, women and infants, the bus was now even more crowded. However, as we ate and as many of the new passengers played music on their phones, we began to relax. The bus rumbled off towards Flores, and I finally felt calm comfortable enough to nap.
By the middle of that afternoon, we had arrived in Santa Elena. Santa Elena is connected by a narrow causeway to the island of Flores, where we would be staying, due to its proximity to Tikal. Home to approximately 14,000 people, the island is small, crossed on foot in about 10 minutes. But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in charm. It’s the kind of place I could see myself retiring to.
Because of the diminutive size of the island, the buildings are several stories tall and packed closer together. However, they’re all painted with festive colors, and so the feeling is more of joy and less of claustrophobia. The streets are stone and concrete and feature a number of back alleys, allowing quick access to the waterfront. The island slopes upward into a central summit, upon which is a nice little park, memorial pavilion, and church.
There are a number of restaurants, bars, and clubs that line the road encircling the little island, facing out onto Lake Peten Itza. Any one of the bars and restaurants is fun and serves Gallo beer, strong cocktails, and good food. Just realize that they can also get very crowded, and you may be waiting a minute for your order. I might recommend the Ristorante Terrazo for awesome pizza and pasta. La Casa de Enrico, where we stayed on our return from Belize, was an extremely good deal, and I can’t praise their breakfast enough.
We stayed at the Posada de la Jungla hotel, splurging for a room with A/C. I spoke with the people at the front desk and they set us up with a tour bus leaving for Tikal the following morning. Q70, and that included a guide. If your hotel does not offer one, you can check with any of the adventure companies scattered across the island.
The Ancient Mayan Empire was one of the most advanced Pre-Colombian civilizations. Flourishing between AD 200 and 900, the civilization covered all of what is present-day Guatemala and Belize, and large swaths of Honduras, El Salvador, and southern Mexico. They developed one of the most advanced languages in Central America at that time, as well as an advanced (and other misinterpreted) calendar system.
It is difficult to determine if there was such a thing as a capital city of the Mayan Empire, due to the fact that it was really an alliance of five different kingdoms. However, Tikal, or Yax Mutal as the Mayans of the time would have called it, could certainly have been a contender. With a peak population of around 90,000 people, Tikal is one of the largest Mayan cities that we know of. It would have also exerted tremendous military might and political and cultural influence.
Tikal builds on you slowly. It is not sitting out there in the open, gleaming white, like the religious ruins at Chichen Itza. It entices you into the jungle, making you earn the full experience of its splendor.
First, the microbus holding you and your fellow (mostly European) tourists arrive at a gate, where you pay Q150 for your ticket. Q150 is probably the most you will pay for entrance to an archaeological zone in Guatemala, but it is worth it. Be sure to stock up on snacks, water, Pedialite, and sunscreen at the nearby stand. Then it’s get back on the bus for the last several miles left until you get to the ruins.
There’s a fundamental difference between the administration of a place like Chichen Itza and a place like Tikal. Chichen Itza focuses on the preservation and showcasing of the ruins. They meticulously clear the vegetation around the structures and allow absolutely no climbing on them. That way the structures remain gleaming, and in perfect view of visitors. Tikal, on the other hand, is as much about the jungle as it is about the ruins. It is a perfect balance between the man-made ruins and the nature surrounding it.
Our guide Nelson, a half-Maya, half-West Indian man, explained that Temple II was off-limits to foot traffic that month. Apparently, a pair of rare falcons decided to nest in the summit of the temple. True to their mission of preserving both the ruins and the surrounding jungle, the conservators opted to let the birds be.
Nelson was a man who had found that thing so many seek and so few find: career satisfaction. The way he spoke to us about the ruins, and the jungle, and the Mayan interpretations of life, gave me a palpable sense that he genuinely cared about this place.
The Mayan Doomsday Prophecy
“The Mayans looked at life as a cycle,” he told us. “Just like the sun burns hot during the day and then falls and the moon rises, you can change throughout the day. You can feel anger or jealousy during the day, but it is okay. Because you go to sleep, and tomorrow is always a new day.”
Indeed, people have wildly misunderstood the Mayan notion of cyclical time. There is no Mayan End of the World Prophesy. The end of the Mayan calendar does not in any way signify the end of life as we know it; it’s just the end of their calendar. It’s like buying a 2019 calendar and fearing the world will end just because there’s no page after December.
Along the way, it’s possible to see howler monkeys, birds of paradise, and more coatis. Beware of the howler monkeys though, as they are liable to urinate in great streams down to the jungle floor. At least one young woman shrieked and jumped back at this impromptu cascade.
“It’s just rain, surely,” she said in a posh British accent.
When we arrived at the central core of the ruins, Nelson showed us various stelae and other monuments, explaining their meanings to us. He also explained the symbolic numeric system they used. Some of you have probably seen the dot-and-bar system that I’m talking about. You can even see it in stores around Guatemala, just like certain convenience stores in the Midwest will feature transliterations of Native American languages.
The bars used in this numeric system, Nelson explained, actually represent fists. The dots? Knuckles. He explained this twice, switching between a mix of Spanish and Maya to a mix of English and Maya.
Eventually, our group reached the Central Plaza. This is where you can see Temple I, also called El Gran Jaguar, because of a wooden lintel found inside that depicts a ruler sitting on a jaguar-shaped throne. It is also called The Temple of Ah Cacao because of the king buried inside. Temple I is to Tikal what the Temple of Kukulcan is to Chichen Itza, or what the Temple of the Sun is to Teotihuacan. If you have seen any photo of Tikal, you have seen Temple I. Built in 732 AD and rising 154 feet, the stepped limestone structure almost seems to resemble a human figure, perhaps a Mayan king draped in a cape and adorned with a ceremonial headdress.
Directly across the plaza from Temple I is Temple II, as of April 2019 inaccessible due to the falcons roosting in it. Looking to the right from Temple II you will see a terraced area, known as the Central Acropolis, which was mainly markets back in ancient Mayan times. Turning 180 degrees from that, you will see a wide staircase leading up to the Southern Acropolis, which were residences. Nelson explained to us that these residences would have been inhabited by the wealthier classes of Tikal’s population; not necessarily nobility, but merchants and the like. You are free to explore these residences, and I recommend you do. Looking inside these small rectangular rooms, you can see why: etched graffiti covers many of these walls, from floor to ceiling.
It’s worth noting that the central core of Tikal, what you see in the map above, is a fraction of the archaeological zone. They are excavating new areas all the time.
In the middle of the plaza, a small group had gathered. A man in the middle had started a fire and was walking around its perimeter. He invited people to join him in a blend of Spanish and Maya. I asked Nelson what the meaning of it was. He hesitantly replied that it was an offering to spirits for a blessing. That blessing, he said, could be money, or love, or luck.
He observed the scene quietly, noting that the man by the fire had a young girl with him. “I don’t like it when they get the kids involved,” he said after a moment. “Because like in life, it is a balance. There are gods to give”–he shot me a knowing glance–“and gods to take away.”
The best, however, was yet to come. After a short break, Nelson lead our group on to Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal. In fact, at 212 feet, Temple IV holds the distinction of being the tallest Pre-Columbian structure still standing in the New World. The summit is accessible by a series of steps and walkways that takes you high up in the jungle canopy. As you step out onto the temple’s summit, you are presented with a beautiful vista of the jungle, with Temples I, II, and III jutting out in the distance.
We sat up there relaxing together for a while. Some of the other people began to leave, saying there was another temple you could climb a short walk away, but we were in no hurry.
I can honestly say that Tikal is one of my new happy places.
You can find some videos of the ruins at Tikal on my Facebook page.