08 APRIL (Tuesday)
We took a taxi to the airport, where we left on the 6:30am flight to Flores (Guatemala). We arrived at Flores at 7:50am, noting the remains of a crashed aircraft (a DC-3?) on the side of one it's runways. Interesting how they just left it there.... it left us wondering how often things like that occurred there. We deplaned, and rented a car from of the four local car companies at the airport. It was a little Suzuki jeep-like car, which would suffice for the short trip to Tikal and back. We checked in with the desk for the Tikal Inn at the airport, to see if they had a room available, and they did. (Tikal was the only destination where we were unable to get a reservation in advance.)
The little rent-a-car in front of the Tikal Inn
We drove the 71 km (1 hour) drive to Tikal, passing along a large lake (Lago Peten Itza, I believe), and threading our way through a herd of cattle that shared the road with us. We saw a spider monkey scamper over the road, but we were past it before I could think to get out the camera. Soon we were entering the nature preserve at Tikal.
Once at Tikal we checked into the inn, and dumped our stuff in our room. The room (bungalow) was very sparse in its amenities, but we didn't care. It was all part of the adventure. It had two beds and a bathroom with shower. What more do you need? The upper third of the room walls (just above head level) was open screen. This allowed the smells and sounds of the jungle to come right into the room. One of our unforgettable memories was lying in our beds that night listening to the sound of the howler monkeys calling through the jungle. Note: this is one spot where a small flashlight can come in handy.... electricity is provided by a gasoline generator which runs from 6pm to 9pm, so don't expect to have electricity (i.e..- lights) outside of that time. After making the brief stop at the room we had lunch in nearby comidor (informal eatery). We explored the small museum and visitors center, then we walked the short distance from our inn to the archeological site. We spent the rest of the day (until closing time at 5pm) exploring Tikal. I wasn't feeling my best, but that didn't stop me from climbing any pyramid that we were allowed to.
That's me standing next to the stelae in front of the Templo I pyramid at Tikal (you have to look close... I have a light-colored shirt and dark pants, and am smaller than the height of the doorway at the temple's top). Unfortunately, this pyramid is off limits for climbing due to the deteriorated condition of of its steps. On the opposite side of the courtyard it is faced by the Templo II pyramid.
It was at Tikal that I reconfirmed my (moderate) fear of heights. I have nothing against height itself (I've bungee-jumped and parachuted without fear in the past), but I don't like height with no supportive apparatus nearby. For example, I could lean out over the top railing on the tallest skyscraper without hesitation, but I would be uncomfortable standing on the edge of a one-story house's roof with nothing to grab for if I should mis-step or lose my balance. At Tikal I developed a method that I was to use for most of the steeper pyramids on this trip. Going up I would use the "jaguar crawl" (where you climb the stairs like a monkey, using both hands and feet), and coming down I would sit on each step, and with both hands and feet supporting me I would lower my butt down to the next lower step. Then I would repeat for each step. It was a little slow, but a lot safer. You have to keep in mind that the steps on Mayan pyramids are not like the ones we're used to... they can be a foot or more in height, and are at a much steeper angle than normal. Having heard stories about tourists falling to their deaths while climbing New World pyramids didn't help either. They don't get as many casualties as they used to, however, as the more famous pyramids (like El Castillo at Chichen Itza or the Temple of the Dwarf at Uxmal) now have a secured chain that you can cling to running up the middle of one side. Also, those pyramids with crumbling stairs are more frequently being roped off as inaccessible (like Temple I at Tikal, the Temple of the Warriors and two sides of El Castillo at Chichen Itza). I've heard that the steps were made to be steep so that a freshly-sacrificed body could be rolled down from the top without much trouble. I doubt if that is true (at least for the mostly Mayan cities, although the Aztec or Toltec-influenced sites could be a different story).
I do the "jaguar-crawl" up the steep stairs of Templo II at Tikal. (Note the elaborate sculpture above the white walls of the pyramid's temple. This is known as the roof "comb".)
Compared to the relative compactness of Copan, Tikal was huge. Not only is it much more spread out (one walk down a pathway between buildings took twenty minutes), but the pyramids are much taller and more impressive. You can walk along a path through the rain forest for many minutes without seeing any buildings and few people. This was great because you would occasionally run into all kinds of local wildlife (it is a nature preserve). I think we saw just about all of the local animals and birds there, except for the most famous (monkeys, jaguars, and quetzals), though you could hear the monkeys at certain times. The bird sounds were awesome. I made sure I bought a tape of the bird sounds of Tikal; it brings great memories when I listen to it. They were supposed to have the tapes available at Tikal (either at the giftshops or the comidors), but the only ones I could find were at the Flores Airport giftshop.
CLICK HERE to hear a sample of the tape (MP3 format, 369KB) This sample is of a blue-headed mot-mot bird (pictured at left) calling another mot-mot, who answers from a distance. The background of the sample is filled with countless other birds and insects as well. It will give you a partial idea of what the Guatemalan rain forest sounds like. The sound of the various birds is almost non-stop, and each species has a different sound. It was incredible to hear, and you'll want to record it (or buy a recording) when you're there.
My favorite animal at Tikal was the coati (or coatimundi), which is a member of the raccoon family, with a cat-like body and tail. It's cute little masked face and semi-inquisitive nature gave them a unique personality. We were to find them occasionally throughout our trip, and especially at La Venta.
Pictures of coati (unknown photographers)
One of the more interesting pyramids there is Templo IV (Temple 4). Almost all of it is still buried, and the climb up to the top involves scaling a series of wet wooden ladders built into its hillside.
Only 3 of the ladder levels on the side of Templo IV (you can barely see a person standing at the base of the topmost ladder shown).
From the door of the temple on its top you can see out across the top of the rain forest, and can see the tops of the other Tikal pyramids poking up through the tree canopy. This is where the scene of the Rebel jungle base in the first Star Wars movie came from. It is quite spectacular... make sure you have your camera with you.
Framed in the doorway of the temple at the top of Temple IV, you can see the tops of the other pyramids poke up through the jungle canopy in the distance. These are the same ruins shown as the rebel base in the end of the first Star Wars movie. (Left-to-right: front of Temple I, rear of Temple II's roof comb just in front of it, and the rear of Temple III to the far right)
Temple IV is also a good vantage-point to watch the sun rise or set from, though you have to have special permission (and have paid a special fee) to be there before or after the official park operating hours. Check with a guard or guide to arrange it. It's worth it to get up before dawn and hike through the dark rain forest (with a guide) and then climb Temple IV to watch the sun come out over the jungle canopy. The birds start to sing, and you can hear the jungle come alive. Don't expect to be alone though, there were twenty to thirty other people there with us, mostly college students. And, as was usually the case, most of them were European (I guess Americans are just not as interested in Meso-American culture).
We continued exploring until the park closed, then had dinner at the Jaguar Inn, and turned in early so we could make the pre-dawn trek to Temple IV the next morning.