Our guide led us through small dirt paths through the overgrown jungle. As we trekked toward, rustling sounds and deep throated roars stopped us in our tracks. Craning my neck to the thick canopy of the rainforest a group of 4 or 5 howler monkeys swung from branch to branch. The foliage did a good job hiding their round faces from the lens of my camera. Fascinated our group stood and stared until our necks grew weary and the anxiety of seeing the great pyramids, temples, tombs and hundreds of other structures that comprise perhaps the grandest of all Mayan ruins refocused our attention.
Joining me on my tour of Tikal is a family from Coshocton, Ohio who after many years sponsoring a Guatemalan child decided to make the trek to this country to visit the child and her remote village. While many people eager to help those less fortunate get “sucked” into supporting a “foster child” through television ads or direct mail, perhaps many wonder if the money ever gets to the child and his or her family. For Jan Myers, her parents Judy and Dave Milligan and her son 12-year old son Maxx and 7-year old daughter Maggie, I was warmed by their generosity and inspired by their courage and adventure to drag young children to a country considered to be the most dangerous in Central America. Hiking for several miles through the jungle was an arduous task for the grandparents. As the monkeys swung above and the Toucan’s and other birds screeched, Judy casually reflected on her recent visit to her doctor.
“Do I need any shots, immunizations?” she asked her Coshocton-based family physician.
“No. You don’t need anything,” her doctor confidently comforted her. “You’re not going to be in the jungle or anything.”
She turned and looked at me, “It’s not like I’m going to be in the jungle.” I grinned as we stomped through trails thick with vegetation and with vines hanging from the tall trees begging us all to take a Tarzan-like swing and a let out a yell. Nope. Not like you’re going to be in the jungle!
Fact is, Tikal is deep in the jungle of the Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected zone of some 200 square miles which itself is on the edge of the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve. Unfortunately, the winds and rains of hurricane Wilma swept away my chance to see and compare Tikal with the Mayan cities of Palenque or Tchen Iza. Consider to the be the grandaddy of all Mayan ruins, it dates back to 900 BC and fell to ruin by 900 AD, perhaps triggered by an immense draught. It was rediscovered in 1848 by a government expedition and then later in the 19th century a Swiss scientist visited the temples and removed beautifully carved wooden lintels form the tops of Temples 1 and 4. Story has it that he hired Mayans to carry the massive carvings to Belize City where they were loaded on a ship bound for Europe. Somewhere during the journey the scientist was stricken with malaria and died. Mayans believe this was the spirits of rulers taking their revenge.
For nearly 100 years the site could only be visited by horseback and the ruins remained buried in the jungle under earth and choked by massive roots until 1951 when the Guatemalan army build an airstrip. The massive project to restore the ruins began in 1956 with teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology. It wasn’t until 1984 that most of the work we see today was unearthed and partially restored, though Temple 5 was restored in 2003. And until the mid 1990’s visiting Tikal was 2 day journey by bus over painfully bad roads. Today it’s an 8 hour drive over decent roads or 50-minute flight from Guatemala City.
The Mayan world spread from central Mexico to Honduras where today dozens of cities, many barely restored, are scattered throughout Mesamerica. Many of these cities battled for power over their outlying geographies. Wars between Mayan cities were common and Tikal’s victories generated hundreds of years of prosperity when giant temples were built and rebuilt and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 residents. Every 52 years the Mayans built temples on top of temples creating the massive dominating structures we see today. Coinciding with the merging of the Mayan and Astronomical calendars, during solstices and equinoxes shadows cast by the temples of the Grand Complex in Tikal create mind-bending visuals as they rise and fall in mirror like fashion on the opposing temple.
In the North Acropolis just north of Tikal’s Great Plaza, several stelae with circular alters at their bases were used for human sacrifices where it was common to pull the heart out of those sacrificed. Twin Pyramids in Complex’s Q and R (one still buried under the jungle and other only partially restored) are thought to be the youngest of all the structures at Tikal, built by Chitam, Tikal’s last known ruler perhaps to mark the passing of a katum (twenty 360-day years).
To go into depth of each of the plazas, acropolises and temples that I visited in Tikal is well beyond the scope of this entry. But suffice to say the sheer expanse of Tikal is amazing, if not daunting. Sitting nearly 200 feet above the jungle at the top of Temple 4, Tikal’s tallest structure I gaze over the jungle canopy where the roof combs of many of Tikal’s great temples push up through the jungle canopy as proud reminder of a great civilization that dominated these lands a thousand years or more before the religious Spanish cast their colonial net over these lands.
Photos: (1) from the top of Temple 4 view of Temples 1, 2 and others puncture the thick canopy of the jungle; (2) looking into the Tomb of Jaguar, the Mayan leader that built Temple 1 for himself and Temple 2 for his wife; (3) hiking thorugh thick jungle to the great ruins of Tikal; (4) Temple 1 in Tikal’s grand plaza; (5) the rear of Temple2; (6) front of Temple 2 in The Grand Plaza.