Tikal, Guatemala

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Before I saw it on a list of Most Amazing Ancient Ruins to See Before You Die, I had never heard of Tikal.  So, in my quest to visit exotic places that show up on “lists,” it was off to Guatemala!  I signed up for full day tour that included everything:  hotel pick up, flight from Guatemala City, shuttle to the site, expert guide, lunch and return (and because it was a few years ago, I don’t remember the company….only that they did a good job of making arrangements).

There are a few things that really stuck out about the day.  I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport:  it was so early, it was still dark outside (there is a reason, which I will get to shortly….)  It was a small airport with small planes and very relaxed regulations.  No one checked my ID or ticket or the contents of my purse:  they simply made an announcement, and whoever was in the boarding area got on!  Less than an hour later, I arrived at the even smaller airport in Flores.

A tourist van was waiting to pick up our group for the 90 minute ride to the ruins, and it was a lively bunch, so the time went fast.  As a claustrophobe, getting on that kind of shuttle strikes terror in me, knowing I’m going to be crowded into a small space sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and I typically avoid it like the plague.  But I was able to procure a seat near the door (so there was some breathing room), and off we went.

Tikal was the ceremonial center of the ancient Mayan civilization, believed to be inhabited from between around 900 BC to around 900 AD, and is considered one of the most important archeological complexes left behind.  They were quite sophisticated, as indicated by their planning and construction of great plazas, pyramids, palaces, their own system of writing and calculating time, stone carvings and artistic decorations, and agricultural production.  After mysteriously disappearing about the 10th century, the sprawling metropolis was abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle and indigenous wildlife.  It lay forgotten in the northern Peten Province for several hundred years, until the Guatemalan government sent an expedition to find it, clear the debris and being to study the site.

Clearing debris in 1882

The work is ongoing, but what you can see is impressive.  I read somewhere that Tikal is to Guatemala what the Pyramids are to Egypt, a national symbol and source of pride.

I happened to be there in October, the dry season.  By the time I arrived mid-morning, it was hot and steamy outside, and what I really mean to say is it was nearly unbearable (hey, I’m used to the dry heat of Arizona)!  The tour lasted several hours, and fortunately because it is in the jungle, there was plenty of shade.  That being said, it was still uncomfortably hot.  My cotton dress, which I thought would help keep me cool, soaked through, partly due to the fact that there is no relief.  Once you are out in the massive park, you just have to keep going.  Rivulets of sweat ran down my face, arms and back all day long, and I don’t want to even think about how bad I must have smelled!  When we finally took a break and sat down for lunch (a lovely buffet right on the grounds), it was an open-air restaurant which was virtually as hot as walking around the ruins.  Drink LOTS of water! 

Another memorable part of the day, for all the wrong reasons, was climbing to the top of one of the pyramids.  The steps are very tall and very steep!  Surprisingly, I scampered up with no problem (can you say “Billy Goat?”), and the view from the top was spectacular!  It wasn’t until I tried to come down that things went awry.  I stood there looking down at those steep steps and in my mind, they became the sheer face of a cliff you would use rock climbing gear to rappel.  I went into a full-blown panic attack and couldn’t move.  By this time, my group was at the bottom, waiting for me, and there I was frozen.  Fortunately, a young couple from Australia recognized what had happened (perhaps by the stricken look on my face), came back up, flanked me on both sides and held my hands to help me down.  Had they not, I was just about ready to sit and scoot down on my backside.  Funny thing is (if there is one in this very embarrassing tale), I’ve never had a panic attack before or since, so I don’t know what brought it on.  The point of the story is to remind you that (like the 1973 Tyrone Davis song) “What Goes Up Must Come Down,” and just make sure that you can go both ways!

Relieved to be safely at the bottom!

One final story about Tikal:  did I mention how small the airport is in Flores?  I’m guessing tourists are the majority of those using it, so when I had to go through strict screening, including an invasive physical pat down, taking everything out of my purse and confiscating my tweezers and nail clippers (not sure why those would be considered weapons), it seemed like overkill (especially when there was NO security on the morning flight out).

In summary, it was a very long, very sweaty day, with several highs and lows, but an experience that I will never forget!


Tikal National Park




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