Our Central America tour (20): the wonders of Tikal

If yesterday was something of a washout (literally), then today (Monday) was a spectacular contrast because the weather was great (for most of the time anyway) and we were visiting the Maya masterpiece that is Tikal. We left our hotel in Santa Elena at the usual start time of 8.30 am in a locally-supplied coach, drove along the south of Lago Peten Itza, and then up north to the national park enclosing Tikal – a journey of around a hour and a quarter.

Set on a low hill and first settled in about 700 BC, a complex of buildings was in place by around 200 BC and the civilisation was at its height from 250-900 AD with a heyday in 7th century when the population was an estimated 50,000-100,000 people. The territory was ruled over by a succession of kings with exotic names, including ones called by archaeologists Lord Water and Lord Chocolate. This most resplendent of all Mayan cities was believed to be mysteriously abandoned around 900 AD.

Tikal was properly rediscovered in 1848 and became a World Heritage Site in 1979. Today It is Guatemala’s most famous and impressive Mayan ruin and what makes It different from other great Maya sites is that it is located in the jungle.

The weather was very warm, yet not too hot, but humid because we were in a tropical rain forest. Walking along the trails underneath the tall tree canopies, we inevitably spotted animals, including the guan bird, the trojan bird, the spider monkey, brightly coloured oscillated turkeys, and (a rare sighting) an ant eater. But, of course, we were here to see the monuments.

Tikal is a huge site covering 222 square miles and containing over 4,000 structures, so we could only view a small portion of the place. We started by studying a large-scale model of the main site so that we had a sense of the scale and layout. Then we visited the small Ceramics Museum which contains the burial goods of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (K’awiil that clears the sky).

The Grand Plaza is flanked on either side by tall temples. You used to be able to climb Temple I but this was stopped after a couple of people fell to their deaths. At the rear of Temple II is a wooden staircase enabling visitors to obtain a safe, panoramic view of the whole plaza and surrounding buildings. Next we walked through the Acropolis area, a maze of courtyards, little rooms and small temples, and around the location of Temple III (55 metres) which is still totally covered in vegetation.

The highest structure in Tikal is Temple IV, standing at 64 metres (212 feet). It was competed about 741 in the reign of Jasaw Chan K’awiiI I’s son, Yik’in Chan K’awiil (K’awiil that darkens the sky). A series of steep wooden steps and ladders provide access to a very high but not very wide stone ledge with no fencing or protective rails but a jaw-dropping view. At this height, you are above the jungle canopy and can see for miles and miles. A little to the right, the top of Temple III protrudes above the canopy and straight ahead but further away are the tops of Temples II and I respectively. Roger made the climb but Vee stayed on terra firma. “Star Wars” enthusiasts will want to know that the view is used briefly in the 1983 movie “Return Of The Jedi”.

After four and a half hours looking round the site, there was time for some lunch before our coach took us back, not to the hotel but to Flores airport since, for the final leg of our time in Guatemala, we were taking an internal flight to the south of the country. At the airport, we had to pay $3 a person to use the airport but, once through security, there were absolutely no facilities – not a single cafe or shop or machine. So Roger managed to negotiate a return to the public area of the airport where, at the only facility in the establishment, he bought 10 coffees and four muffins for the group.

On the road trip to the airport, there had been some heavy rain and, while we waited for our flight, there was a downpour of monsoon proportions, but our aircraft still left on time. It was a small turbo-prop plane called the SAAB 340A and took just three quarters of an hour to reach the capital Guatemala City.

Here we were met by the same coach and driver who had left us at Santa Elena before driving down to Guatemala City and we were driven to Antigua where we arrived at 9 pm – twelve and a half hours after we left our last hotel – to receive a pleasant surprise. Throughout this holiday, we have been staying in what is classed in Central America as three-star hotels but, because of lack of accommodation in the hotel intended for us in Antigua, we found that we had been allocated to a five-star hotel: Camino Real.

The advantage was, of course, that the facilities were wonderful: huge rooms around courtyards and everything you could want in the rooms. The restaurant had the best selection of desserts that we had encountered in Central America and Roger had a delicious desert called Banana Heaven (banana, rum, almonds, berries, whipped cream, and ice cream). The disadvantage of this hotel was that they charged a fortune for everything, so WiFi – which had been free almost everywhere else – was $10 for Roger’s iPad and a further $5 for Vee’s iPad mini for only 24 hours.


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