TIKAL, Guatemala — Early morning, and thin mist licks around the feet of Tikal’s towering Mayan temples. It is that haunted time, not quite light, not quite dark, when one feels that the odds of seeing a jaguar padding golden-eyed through the ruins are at their highest.
In Tikal there is one bat species that eats nothing but other bat species, but as the day strengthens the bats withdraw, and it is time for the birds. Some 285 species of birds have been recorded here. The dawn chorus is all but deafening.
Augmenting the shrieking flocks of low-flying parrots and toucans are Tikal’s howler monkeys, whose rumbling, dragonlike roars can be heard up to 7 km distant.
No two ways about it: Tikal is a thrill.
The highest of Tikal’s temples rise like periscopes above the towering foliage of the dry tropical forest of Peten, northern Guatemala. From the temple tops one has an unequaled view over the U.N.-declared Maya Biosphere Reserve, a 1.8-million-hectare sea of green that stretches, largely unbroken, north toward the Mexican border and east to the Caribbean sea.
Roughly 16 sq. km of central Tikal have been mapped, revealing over 3,000 buildings and, beneath them, the remains of perhaps 10,000 more. These include sweat baths, ball courts, tombs and tunnels, as well as the truly imposing structures such as the Bat Palace, the four great temples, and the perfectly named Mundo Perdido (Lost World) pyramid complex.
This archaeological extravaganza is just the tip of a much larger hidden world. Here in Peten Province the Mayan civilization rose to its most ambitious heights, witnessed at least 1,100 years of continuous construction, and then, under circumstances that are still mysterious, subsided just over a millennium ago and was buried by the jungle.
Countless other uninvestigated structures dot Peten, their enigmatic mounds held in the tight grip of tree roots, muffled by rubble and forest leaf detritus.
Visited from within Guatemala, Tikal begins with a short flight (or a very long bus ride, plagued by bandits and landslides) north from Guatemala City in the highlands, to Flores, “capital village” of the Peten plains.
Guatemala City at dawn, which is when Aviateca flights depart for Flores, has its own kind of magic. The daytime bray of bus horns and swirling traffic fumes have yet to start in earnest and the city sits as quiet as it ever gets. While waiting to board you can admire smoke and ash rising dreamily from Pacaya, one of Guatemala City’s many surrounding volcanoes.
Flores is a small town on an equally small island in Lake Peten, connected to the rest of Guatemala by a thin causeway. Like Venice, Flores is sinking. In the case of Flores that is because the lake is rising, an unpredicted side effect of human deforestation in the Peten.
Flores is distinguished by its adequate hotels and its gaily painted buildings, some of which are semi-submerged and explorable by canoe. You can walk right round Flores in 20 minutes and watch sunsets doing lovely things to the gentle ripples of the lake.
Hire a boat and visit the wild animal rescue center run by ARCAS, a Guatemalan NGO, for a taste of the wildlife that awaits in Tikal. Ocelots, scarlet macaws, toucans, anteaters, jaguars, turtles and preposterously wattled ocellated turkeys are just some of the many creatures confiscated by authorities from illegal wildlife traffickers and handed over to ARCAS for rehabilitation and, where feasible, release.
Volunteering at the ARCAS rescue center is possible. Volunteer work (one week minimum) can involve anything from mucking out parrot enclosures to releasing green iguanas on remote jungle river banks. The ARCAS center, newly rebuilt with assistance from the Japanese Embassy in Guatemala, is the largest facility of its type in the Americas. Its lakeside location is exquisite.
The hour-long drive from Flores to Tikal is noteworthy for the sheer quantity of imperious signs on the road’s edge. These begin by telling you not to drive drunk, not to throw litter, not to cross the center line and then (presumably because all three instructions go routinely ignored by Guatemalan drivers) rise to a crescendo of dictatorial irrelevance.
“Respect the signs!” blare the signs.
“Do not damage the signs!”
“Obey the signs!”
The only place where the road forks and one actually needs a sign, there is none. Turn left for Tikal. Turn right for a long drive. While we’re on signs, if you see any warning you about crocodiles, “respect and obey” them. Peten’s endangered Morelet’s crocodiles are the smallest crocodilian species known to attack man. In 1994 this honor fell to the Royal Chocolate Maker to the Queen of Holland while he was bathing in Laguna Yaxja.
Tikal logistics are straightforward. Three comfortable lodges lie within easy walking distance of the ruins. Their verandas aren’t quite as good as a 60-meter-high Tikal temple top for wildlife viewing; still, beset by hummingbirds, buzzed by fireflies, serenaded by ocellated turkeys and over-swung by spider monkeys, they certainly have their moments.
Tikal tourists tend to follow the same routes at the same times of day, which can generate the illusion that the place is overcrowded. Follow the routes in reverse order, or at different times, and you’ll generate the illusion that you have Tikal to yourself.
Numerous jungle treks to other rarely visited archaeological sites are available in the region and are best organized in Flores (ask at Propeten’s offices). Some expeditions are highly adventurous involving five or more days by truck, boat, horse and foot. The rewards include El Mirador, a Mayan metropolis even larger than Tikal, but completely smothered in jungle.
Intrepid (and we do mean intrepid) birdwatchers should not leave Peten without visiting Laguna del Tigre (Jaguar Lake) in the Rao Escondido area. Rao Escondido is the most remote protected area in Guatemala. It is also one of the largest sweetwater wetlands in Central America, and the last significant nesting site for the highly endangered scarlet macaw, a species which is now down to an estimated 400 breeding pairs in Guatemala. It is also very good for caimans. Keep an eye open for Morelet’s. No one’s got round to sign erection in this very remote neck of the woods.
Note: While there have been violent incidents involving tourists in the Guatemalan highlands recently, the Tikal area is secure and can be visited with confidence.