Skyscrapers aren’t new. The Mayans were building them years before the glass and steel variety of today, and with far less technology to help them reach for the sky. What’s more, there’s no chance that contemporary slithers of glass, concrete and steel will be standing nearly two Millennia after they’ve been built, unlike the unsurpassable ruins of Tikal, deep in the jungle of Northern Guatemala. And for you Star Wars fans out there….does this look familiar?
Burying my head in the pillow I found it hard to believe that it was time to get up. Asking who’s idea it had been to get up at 4.15am…and then remembering it had primarily been mine meant that I’d better shake a leg and set a good example of sleep walking towards the bathroom. Shower on, body underneath the slightly cool trickle of water and…..bingo – ready to go.
Right on time the bus pulled up outside, and because we were first on we got the pick of the seats. Great move having a hotel next to the bus station! Off we went to Flores town and picked up a variety of people all with one thing in common – their eyes were virtually shut as they boarded the bus and fell into seats, hardly noticing the cheery shouts of ”Tikal! Tikal!” from the bus driver.
It was to be an hour driving north before we got to the entrance, paid our dues and set off in the direction of the ruins, a fair walk into the thick rainforest jungle. It was still only 6.30am and the most noticeable thing was a scary, bellowing, booming noise that for all the world could have come from the lungs of a herd of belching elephants. It was surreal, echoing across the tree tops way above our heads and drowning out the cacophony of bird song that could be heard between belches. I remembered the guide book had said we may be lucky enough to hear and see Howler Monkeys if we got here early enough. Well, we could certainly hear them!
Being almost the first into the Park that morning meant that we were in for a real treat in terms of spotting wildlife, and hearing things move in the forest all around us without ever knowing what exactly it or they were. As we hastened along the cleared path towards the Grand Plaza and the main group of Mayan buildings at Tikal the trees were literally alive with many different bird species, squirrels and other animals of a similar ilk, not to mention the thrashing, crashing of groups of spider monkeys throwing themselves between trees as they had their own breakfast.
On reaching the Grand Plaza from behind Templo One, we could see just two other people within the complex, one sat cross legged at the top of the Acropolis del Norte and another ascending the wooden staircase alongside Templo Two. Both Templo’s looked stunningly steep, and it was easy to see why a wooden staircase with hand rails had been erected relatively discreetly alongside the southern portion of Templo Two. Climbing these Temples comes with a health warning; access up Templo One is no longer allowed after two people fell to their deaths from the top.
I had a cunning plan. Knowing that soon the Grand Plaza between these two Temples would become filled with reds, yellows, greens, blacks and multi-coloured shirts, blouses and t-shirts, spoiling the chance of getting some good clean pictures, I’d identified Templo Five as the one to go for at this time in the morning as the sun was just beginning to appear from the East. Not only was Templo Five taller than Templo’s One and Two, at a staggering (literally!) 190 feet high, but it was also to the South of the main complex, meaning the sun could be caught fully casting its early morning rays onto the temples to the north and west of this great limestone pyramid.
Off we headed back into the jungle, another 15 minute walk through a myriad of wildlife all around us before coming into a clearing in front of this mighty edifice. WOW! It was incredible. Stood squat amongst the thickest jungle we’ve ever seen, with its ceremonial room and highest platform reaching skyward and just above the tallest of the trees. There was no way that Em was going to attempt the near vertical wooden staircase fixed against the side of the main steps, and I had to think twice too before beginning a very scary ascent with 110% concentration on where my feet and hands were going.
Ninety steps later and I topped out with the narrow ledge in front of the ceremonial building to my right and only sky and tree tops to my left. Crikey, the heart was beating with adrenalin and the body slightly shaking with this awesome panorama around me. The ledge was no more than four feet wide, but I had it to myself, and the sun was just casting its rays onto the tree tops and the stupendous tops of the other temples to the north of where I sat, still slightly shaking and trying not to look down the near vertical flight of stone stairs in front of me.
The trees slightly below me were buzzing with birds and monkeys, the sounds of the latter crashing through the trees blending with the incessant calls of too many birds in one place. Immediately to my left I caught sight of Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal, a pair dancing between branches and displaying their wonderful plummage in flashes of brilliance. The antics of the spider monkeys were enthralling to watch, and far below Em looked up anxiously as swathes of leaves came drifting through the forest canopy to lay at her feet.
I spent nearly one hour perched on my airy ledge and was joined for only ten minutes by a couple of Germans who also knew they were in a very special place. With a little reluctance, but also knowing there were more temples to climb, I very gingerly made my way back across the ledge and prepared to descend the 90 steps. They didn’t half look even more steep now, and it took some courage to put my first foot down and begin to methodically move downwards, not looking anywhere other than where the next foot and hand would go. I hate to imagine what it’s like when the temple and staircase is busy, with pushy people all around. Reaching the bottom with a sweat across my brow from fear rather than exertion, I sat quietly with Em and shared with her the pictures IŽd taken from the skyscraper in front of us.
Moving back into the jungle, we circumnavigated some excavations currently underway, and ascended more temples (with Em firmly at the bottom for all of them!), before we came to the tallest of them all, Templo 4, a mere 210 feet tall. This too had a wooden staircase, but it wasn’t anywhere near as steep as Templo 5 and also benefitted, in terms of exposure, from being shrouded by trees for much of its weaving way up shattered stones that were once the grand steps of this monument. Em said she’d give it a go, and on reaching the top I think she was pleased with her ascent and the magnificient views it afforded.
Tikal is built on a slight promontary within the flatlands of the Northern Guatemalan jungle, which means that once you’re on top of one of the temples you can see for miles and miles and miles in all directions. There were trees for as far as the eye could see, supporting an amazing wealth of wildlife, and we both felt extremely lucky to have the chance to view such a natural spectacle from such a manmade spectacle.
Back into the jungle once again and onto yet another complex of tumbling down ruins via a long causeway. Tip toeing quietly along we saw, amongst many other things, red crested woodpeckers and groups of monkeys high above us. At one point, watching a monkey feed while casually hanging by its tail, I had to quickly alert Em to the fact that it had decided at this point to release the contents of its bladder. Now that would have been one in the eye if we hadn’t noticed in time!!
With hordes now arriving, the sun beginning to make its very hot presence known and our early morning beginning to catch up on us, we headed back to the entrance and waited for the bus. Before we left the Grand Plaza for the final time I took one last look back on this, the greatest of all Mayan cities we’ve had the good fortune to visit. It was a special moment and one that will live with me for ever.