Gruffly waking up at 5am to the distinct growls of the howler monkeys, our alarm clock became their curiously deep throated bellowing, as I blinked in the faint light of false dawn. I closed my eyes for a moment, savouring the last strands of sleep as they parted company and shook the final filaments of slumber from my clotted thoughts. Stretching both arms and arching my back outside the tent, a mist spun down around us; thick and sparkling, it resembled a benign blizzard of minuscule snowflakes. I peered down and marvelled at a blotchy red-ringed bite on my leg the size of a two-pound coin; more than appreciating where I was. Deep within the maw of the Guatemalan jungle.
In the heart of the rainforest surrounded by lush vegetation, also lies the mother of all Maya sites. Tikal. Located in northern Guatemala’s Petén Province amid 57 lush hectares, the ancient city of Tikal—a name that means “at the waterhole”—flourished between the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD, give or take. It’s one of the few World Heritage estates inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria; for an extraordinary spectrum of neotropical flora and fauna—including the hermitic jaguar, elusive cougar otherwise known as the aloof puma—as well as profound archaeological significance.
Resisting the white-hot itch, I launched for the insect spray; what did I expect? Jungles are always full of biting no-see-ums, and here was no exception—microscopic flies working feverishly alongside the more conspicuous mosquitoes to keep you a part of the bloody food chain. A flock of flycatchers wheeled in the sky above and all along the horizon, the tree line extended in a solid, unbroken mass of green. Engulfed in the clutches of the untamed place left me as energetic as a twisted rag. Eager to meet the vestiges of these magnificent Maya treasures, I still surrendered on the spot to the wonder of the morning.
Courtesy of careful excavation over years, a pocket of urbanisation poked out of the thick jungle, which hit us square on—after 20 minutes astride our bikes, from the entrance the day previous—and a 20 minute stroll from making camp at The Jaguar Inn inside the national park, at the crack of sparrows. The monumental size, restored condition and architectural brilliance of Tikal will more than astonish. Occupied for some 16 centuries by an estimated population of around 100,000 people, Tikal is perhaps one of the most compelling testaments to the cultural and artistic heights scaled by a jungle civilisation.
No surprise that Tikal became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Tikal is the best understood of the lowland Maya cities, certainly in terms of its long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the rulers’ tombs and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces. For centuries the city was completely covered under jungle where there are thousands of remnant structures yet only a fraction of these have been unearthed, after decades of archaeological work. However, the urban layout is still clearly discernable, which is also home to an almost surreal array of pyramids and ceremonial platforms, palaces and modest dwellings, and even ball-game courts.
In between strolling ancient causeways around the ceremonial centres, the abundant wildlife effortlessly averted our eyes and attention. Healthy numbers of white-nosed coatis roamed about our feet, lineated woodpeckers were easy to spot while the place crawled with Geoffroy’s spider monkeys. That alone was worth the entry fee. A troop of spider monkeys flung themselves with wild abandon from the canopy down to the lower levels of the forest to feed their faces and make their existence known. A sign near the first Maya site clearly informed passing visitors that it’s actually the howlers most likely to assert their dominance—and expect them to do so by defecating on your head. Super!
But no. It was the spider monkeys that took a disgruntled dislike to our presence. I bent my head unnaturally back to gawp at the monkeys where they peered through a hole in the patchy trees, taking the measure of us—limbs splayed wide and mouths agape—these guys were definitely on the defensive. The branches continued to rustle overhead, upon which a monkey lost patience with our disturbance of his peace and thrashed away from us, seeking the solitude of the forest into the maw of blackness.
Others in the troop advanced the proceedings by snapping off branches and lobbing them straight at us—I can vouch they’ve a remarkably good aim—aloft from the treetops. As I sidled up to a gigantic kapok, the sacred tree of the Maya, a male met my eyes with a crystalline intensity, waiting for the perfect moment to to dampen our day and treated us to a golden shower..! At the time, I shrieked in a successful attempt to dodge the spray but the smile still lives on my lips when I think about that. Cheers mate, we get it—we’re in your territory.
Walking beneath a canopy of emerald—the broadleaf, Honduras Mahogany, cedar and palm trees intertwined overhead in the lush bright green of new foliage. Wild grapevines—as thick as a man’s thigh—hung from the forest giants. Birdsong rose endlessly as parrots arced across the blue sky to caw excitedly. I’d barely looked up before a falcon flapped off to the north with a rasping of wings spiraling a deluge of delight through my soul.
Tikal is a wild place, which as national parks and UNESCO sites go, wasn’t bustling with bodies—human ones that is. It fell fabulously short of the masses, remained untamed for the large part and I was thoroughly enraptured with the notion of propelling myself back 2,500 years. Green parrots flitted from the brush up to the treetops in splashes of colour as they sang out. A thrill fit to burst built in my chest as we crept soundlessly through the forest screening the jungle for toucans or temples, pumas or pyramids and the myriad ruins and remains.
Many of the existing monuments still preserve decorated surfaces, including stone carvings and mural paintings with hieroglyphic inscriptions. They illustrate the dynastic history of the city and its relationships with urban centres—as far away as Teotihuacan and Calakmul in Mexico, Copán in Honduras or Caracol in Belize. The quality of architectonical and sculptural ensembles—serving ceremonial, administrative and residential functions—were exemplified in a number of places such as: the Great Plaza at the core of the place, flanked on the east and west sides by the Twin Pyramids; the Lost World Complex; as well as sophisticated irrigation structures built for times of draught. I poured over the location names within the city such as the Central Acropolis for the palace complex, the Temple of the Mask and the Temple of the Jaguar Priest.
Over moss-furred tree roots amid jungle clearings, we circumnavigated the entire ceremonial site with stone-heavy feet, sapped somewhat by the wet heat. Jason went back in for seconds before sunset and happened upon a grey fox to stalk. They kept each other company for hours. ‘More coy, less cunning,’ Jason urged as he tried to bend the fox’s will and gave chase to this beguiling little creature until twilight. There’s always more sly than shy in fantastic Mr Fox. Evening settled; the tropical birdlife of the day grew silent as the crickets trilled, and creatures of the night began to stir. I slept with the single-minded intent of any log in Tikal’s forest savouring the day of sunshine-lit jungle, cheeky monkeys and relics of an ancient past.
With not even two per cent of Guatemala’s landmass urbanised, I’m hard pressed to say we’ve encountered a more emblematic country to date in Central America. Akin to unwrapping a sweet surprise: sweeping with untouched jungle-clad landscapes teeming with indigenous wildlife lurking within and eagle-adorned skies above; pockets of emerald green and turquoise blue swimming holes; the cultural jarring of traditionally dressed Maya women toting the latest mobile phone next to age-old totemic Mayan ruins beneath rouged sunsets—will leave prickles of euphoria hovering around the soul. That said, the country’s prickles might also make the hairs on the nape of your neck stand on end with boisterous road blockades, gnarly dirt roads and lava-spewing volcanoes—sure serves Guatemala up as one heck of a rare if not raw dish to chew on. Not even age will devour that from a person’s soul.