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Tikal, the Ancient Mayan City of Guatemala

Copyright 1999 - story by Jean-Philippe Soule

Towering pyramids rise above the jungle’s green canopy. Howler monkeys share the tops of trees with colorful birds. This may sound like some over-the-top promotion from a tourist pamphlet, yet it is indeed what the guidebooks say. I usually approach world famous sites with reserve, often fearing to be disappointed. Rediscovered in the Guatemalan jungle in 1848, the ancient city of Tikal lives up to its fame. Today it is considered one of the three best Mayan sites along with Copan in Honduras and Palenque in Mexico.

The Mayan settled in the area around 700 BC supposedly for the abundance of flint they used to make spear points, arrowheads, and knives. By 200 BC there was already a complex of buildings on the site of North Acropolis. In 250 AD Tikal had become an important religious and commercial city. In the 300’s, King Yax Moch Xoc also named King Great Jaguar Paw, founded a dynasty which grew to a believed population of 100.000 by the mid 500s. He is today considered the founder of Tikal. A second powerful king named Double Moon (682-734) also called Ah Cacau (the lord Chocolate) restored Tikal’s power which had been lost to neighbors and added new temples including Temple 2. He was buried under a temple which his son erected according to his plans. Today the Great Plaza comprised of Temple 1 and 2, the North Acropolis, and the Palace Reservoir represent the main tourist attractions. Temple 1 appears on most book covers and tourism pamphlets. It is the tallest monument and is best seen in the evening from the top of Temple 2. Walking around the park of Tikal is more than just a trek through history. The temples are magnificent, but what makes this park so unique is its setting. All groups of monuments are separated by thick rainforests with century old trees. The forest only is worthy of a visit even if the Mayan temples weren’t there. At least tropical birds think so. I sighted more species there in a day than anywhere else. Most birds I didn’t know, but I recognized a few Toucans, parakeets, a type of colorful Turkey, and Vultures. A couple of spider monkeys jumped from tree to tree while howler monkeys were heard in the distance. The trees were spectacular as much from the ground, where they offered valuable shade, as they were from the top of temples surrounding the monuments with an array of colors complementing the darker earth tones of the stones.

My favorite view was from the top of a pyramid called Mundo Perdido (the lost world). The climb offered a breathtaking view of Temple 1, 2, 3 and 4 towering above the tree canopy. They seemed isolated and preserved forever. What surprised me in Tikal was the lack of tourists. It is remarkably uncrowded for a site which is magnificent and world famous. I came for the opening of the park at 6:00 AM out of fear of having to fight my way through a crowd during mid-day. A few tourists and school groups were present between 10:00 AM and noon, then the place was deserted. Most people preferred to return to their hotel or alternatively sit in the protection of a fan in a restaurant instead of climbing temples under the powerful heat.

In the late afternoon the only visitors left were howler monkeys which roared like an army of lions. Tikal is one of those places you just wished you had more time to visit longer. Your interest could be art, anthropology, archeology, history, ecology, bird watching or just to look for a peaceful place in a beautiful rainforest, whatever your purpose, Tikal will easily seduce you and remain etched in your memory.

Jean-Philippe Soule


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