The mist was thick in the pre-morning dark. We wove our way forward, sometimes avoiding hidden tree roots and large stones, and sometimes not. Our flashlight was dim and the moisture in the air scattered the little light it provided
The jungle was waking up around us. A mysterious bird called out nearby, and another responded in the distance. A symphony of crickets played at increasing volume the deeper into the foliage we went. The screech of a howler monkey cut through the air like fingernails on a blackboard. The air was still, but leaves rustled as if by a light breeze
Still in total darkness, we came upon a wooden stairway leading up. Upward we climbed, first on wood and then on stone. The effort both warmed our bodies and flushed away the cobwebs of sleep, more than any cup of coffee. And then we waited
The jungle grew increasingly louder, with birds chirping and insects buzzing. The howler monkeys may have been preparing for battle, their screams rising louder than all the rest. The darkness wasn’t nearly as dense, but the fog seemed to thicken as if to make up for it.
As the sky lightened, the clamor died down. The only sounds remaining were from our own breaths, and those of the people around us. And the groans of disappointment
We had climbed to the top of the tallest temple in Tikal to watch the sunrise, and all we could see was fog
The jungle around Tikal lives and breathes. Toucans flew from tree to tree, closely resembling flying bananas as they did so. Spider monkeys chased each other through the canopy, their babies following close behind. Wild turkeys roam where they will. Allspice, maya nut, and chicle trees (for making chewing gum) were everywhere, along with the enormous ceiba, the national tree of Guatemala.
The ruins of Tikal are largely overwhelmed by the jungle around them, but what has been reclaimed and restored is spectacular. Temple I is the iconic image of Tikal. If you’ve seen tourist advertising for Guatemala, you have seen pictures of Temple I. We only missed our chance to climb this temple by 5 years or so; it is now only eye candy
The main plaza of Tikal where Temple I is located has been fully excavated and largely restored, and is a beautiful space to take in the enormity of the city. Every 54 years (the Mayan calendar cycle) construction would begin anew, with a new layer added to the main religious temples. In several places you can see 2 or 3 levels of construction. The stones get smaller with each layer. A scarcity of large rocks certainly didn’t help construction speed
It’s also clear that a major architectural shift took place. The Mexican city of Teotihuacan politically took over the town of Tikal at one point, and afterwards the construction techniques of Teotihuacan reigned supreme. We noticed similarities in some of the later era structures in Tikal from our visit to Teotihuacan many months ago
As high noon approached, the tourist population of Tikal exploded. We had to pay extra, but arriving at 4 am was definitely worth it, beating the crowds and the heat and humidity.
As the mist was finally clearing, we returned to Temple IV to capture the view
A large percentage of visitors to Tikal spend their evenings in the island town of Flores, on Lake Peten Itza. It’s a beautiful little island with charming red roofs, beautiful lake views, and at least one incredible sunset
We stayed at the Los Amigos Hostel, and found it acceptable if not of great value. Others on our tour paid less for private rooms with a lake view in other hotels than we did for a private room with a view of a rusted roof. Their food was also overpriced and their chef needs more training
Street food was incredibly good value, and we had some grilled chicken and street tamales for ridiculously low prices. All the street food vendors seemed to congregate on the walkway on the north end of the island.
We splurged one evening and ordered a white fish that is only found in Lake Peten Itza at a high end restaurant. It was light and delicate, with good flavor, and priced for the tourists. With Belize next on the destination list, it would have been more reasonable to wait for seafood
Just across the causeway from Flores is a modern mall with a Burger King and a giant Pollo Campero (similar to KFC), all of which would be hardly worth a visit, but they also have a modern movie theater that shows first run movies. We watched Monsters University in Spanish on a hot afternoon, and were the only 2 in the theater.
All up, Tikal was cool and Flores was even cooler. Next stop: Caye Caulker, Belize
Entrance fee to Tikal: 150Q each (~$19)
Extra fee for early entrance: 100Q each (~$13)
Cost of transport and guide (tour): 100Q each (~$13)
1 night in private room in Los Amigos Hostel: 150Q (~$19)
1 night in private rooms in better hotels: 120Q (~$15)
Bus ride from Rio Dulce to (just outside) Flores: 100Q each (~$13)
Taxi from bus station to Flores: 10Q per person (~$1.25)
Street tamale: 5Q for 2 (~$0.65)
Street grilled chicken with sides and a drink: 30Q (~$4)
White fish for 2: 250Q (~$32) (more than our hotel room)
Tuk tuk ride: 5Q per person (~$0.65)
Watching Monsters University in Modern Theater: 15Q per person (~$2) (cheaper than iTunes)