So I said goodbye to Orange Walk Town, which by the way is a really cool little place, but not before we made a stop for breakfast at the little market where we had more breakfast tacos and watermelon juice. As hard as it may be to believe, these tacos were even better than those from yesterday.
Anyway, once we had breakfast behind us, we made the three hour drive back to San Ignacio Town along the same route we had used on Saturday. We stopped briefly at the bank in San Ignacio Town before driving on to San Jose Succotz for some lunch at Bennys Kitchen, which was the same place where I had lunch last Friday. There, we met up with Albert, Odilia’s husband, who would be taking me on the rest of my tour.
After another lovely lunch at Bennys Kitchen, Odilia, Albert and I made the short ten minute drive to the Guatemala border where I said my goodbyes to Odilia and then made the walk across the border passing through immigration and into Guatemala where Albert and I met up with Genny (pronounced Henny), my Guatemalan guide. (Guatemala requires that you hire a Guatemalan guide to visit Tikal.)
Once in the car we had to pass through another checkpoint for Guatemalan immigration before we were finally on the road. The drive to Tikal was going to take about an 1 ½ hours passing through villages and jungle.
Now it was immediately apparent from the first couple of kilometers that I was no longer in Belize. All the signs were in Spanish (as opposed to English) and the buildings looked a little worse for wear. In addition, we soon were passed on the road by motorcyclists with three and four people on board and folks simply standing in the back of pickup trucks. These were not sights I saw anywhere in Belize.
Once out of the little border town, the terrain became a mix of jungle and rugged farmland as we made our way to Tikal. Genny explained that the soil in the area is not as good as in the south so most everyone in this area simply raises livestock.
As we continued, Genny pointed out large mounds covered in thick jungle where the remains of Mayan ruins lay waiting to be excavated. Apparently, Guatemala has over 200 different Mayan dialects so the prevalence of the Mayan culture is deeply ingrained here.
We soon passed a number of freshwater lakes, including Lake Atitlán, the third largest lake in Guatemala. There is a large tourist spot on the other side of the lake, but the lake is primarily used by the locals for fishing.
We reached the entrance to Tikal just over an hour into the trip. We purchased our tickets (no ticket no entrance) and the guards lifted the gate to allow us to pass through.. Now Tikal is in the middle of a heavily forested area so the speed limit from the entrance to the ruins is reduced to minimize endangering animals. Failure to abide by the speed limit results in an approximately $100 USD fine. As a result, it took approximately 30 minutes to drive from the entrance to the ruins and our hotel that sits just inside the entrance.
After checking into the hotel and changing into my hiking boots and pants, we set out for a hike through the jungle to reach the ruins of Tikal. Yep. The Tikal ruins are not simply sitting beside a parking lot. You have to hike approximately a half hour, partly up hill, to reach the site. And as we left the hotel, we didn’t have to wait long to see some of Tikal’s finest birds. First we passed some oscillated turkeys, which are found throughout Tikal, and then saw a couple toucans in the trees outside main area of the hotel.
Now why did I want to visit Tikal you ask? Apart from the fact that Tikal contains some of the most iconic Mayan ruins in the world (and you know I love ruins), Tikal is one of the few sites in the world where the ruins have been excavated, but the jungle and tropical rainforest remains. The only way to see the ruins is to hike through the jungle for 20 minutes or so, which is really unique.
Now it is believed that Tikal was first inhabited around 700 B.C. with evidence of remains dating to 400 B.C. Tikal dominated much of the Mayan region up until its demise around 800 A.D. At one time, the population at the site, which spans approximately 16 square kilometers, exceeded 300,000 people. And an interesting factoid about Tikal. The city had no water except for what was collected by the inhabitants in reservoirs from periodic rains.
Anyway, once we handed the guard my ticket for the sunset entry, Genny and I made our way down the road to the entrance to the jungle. We passed a giant Ceiba tree used by Mayans for cotton. We then stopped briefly at a sign showing the layout of the site before continuing on the road. About ten minutes into the walk, we took a path that led us up a rocky, dirt trail. As we walked, we could hear the sound of impending nightfall with crickets beginning to chirp and birds getting in one latest squawk before bedtime.
The hike up the dirt trail took about twenty minutes through heavy forest. We walked over a trail of army ants and could hear spider monkeys all around, but with the dim light through the trees they were hard to see.
Once at the top of the trail, I caught my first glimpse of Temple I, which is the iconic ruins for which Tikal is known. We made our way around the remains of a palace before entering the Great Plaza, which holds both Temple I, Temple II, the North Acropolis and Maler’s Palace.
I was thrilled to finally see Temple I up close, but was surprised that it wasn’t taller. For some reason I had this vision of Temple I simply towering over everything and while it is enormous at 157 feet, I guess I envisioned it would seem taller. However, height aside, the structure was magnificent. Ironically, the most famous site at Tikal was completed sometime between 740 and 750 A.D., only a couple hundred years before Tikal fell.
Now we did not spend a great deal of time in the Great Plaza as the sun was setting and I was here to see the sun set over Tikal. I would spend more time at the site tomorrow.
We we left the Great Plaza passing a whole “herd” of oscillated turkeys, which appear to be everywhere. We then took another trail on our way to the Lost World Pyramid where I would hike up 97 feet to the top to watch the sunset. This new trail was equally as rocky, but did not take long to hike. At the top, we could hear spider monkeys. We stopped to take a look and all of sudden three of them were flying through the air grabbing vine after vine. The little devils were so quick every picture I took was a blur.
Eventually we turned to go and what should be run across but at least a dozen coatimundi, little raccoon like animals that climb trees at night to stay safe. As they bee lined it around us they made there way to the base of a couple trees and skeedaddled up to the top. It was a really hoot to watch.
And just when I thought the show was over, the howler monkeys started up. The first calls were off in the distance, but the next group chimed in and were really close by. We scanned the trees, but with the fading light, it was impossible to see them.
We decided to press on so we walked down the hill past the magnificent Temple V with the howler monkeys continuing, past the mostly covered South Acropolis to the Plaza of the Seven Temples before reaching the wooden steps that would take me to the top of Lost World Pyramid. By now, the sun was low in the sky so the shadows were long as I made my way up the stairs.
Once at the top, I was above the tree canopy and could see the tops of a number of ruins, including Temple IV, the tallest structure at Tikal and one I would climb in the morning to see the sunrise. It was really incredible. Eventually, there were about 20 people gathered to watch the sunset and as we waited, parrots flew by squawking and a lone toucan came to rest on a branch of a tree on the other side of the platform. The little guy sat there for a good two or three minutes allowing many of us to snap a number of pictures.
By now, the sun was beginning to set and the colours from the sun cast a beautiful orange glow over the ruins and the trees. I took a couple pictures, but mostly watched in awe. It was really, really beautiful.
Once the sun had set, Genny and I made our way back down the stairs and took a main path back towards the Great Plaza. We turned on our headlamps and begin to walk through the near pitch black rainforest. At one point, a group of students in front of us stopped with their guide and were looking at something in the bushes. Uh oh. That could only mean one thing … tarantualas. NO THANK YOU!!!!!
I kept walking and told Genny that under no uncertain circumstances was he to show me a tarantula if he spotted one. Snakes. OK. Creepy crawly bugs. If I have to. Tarantulas. NO. NO. NO.
Anyway, after the close call we reached the Great Plaza and took a seat on the steps of Temple II. Tonight was a full moon and we were going to watch moon rise up over Temple I. At least we thought were were. Turns out that the full moon was not rising until 8:00 p.m. and it was only 6:45.
We ended up watching the sky for a bit and all the magnificent stars, saw the space station pass by and then called it good.
The hike back through the jungle was not as tough as I thought it would be. The headlamps worked great and we were serenaded by the crickets and sounds of the night. We even heard a few howler monkeys letting lose.
We reached the hotel just after 7:30, had some dinner and called it a night. I had to be up at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise. YIKES!