Reading of Mayan pyramids deep in the jungle lured me south to Guatemala. I had pressed on even after my two companions lost heart, backing out the week of our departure. And as I stood overlooking the Great Plaza in Tikal, with its twin pyramids facing each other across a green expanse of grass and jungle foliage, I knew it was journey I'd remember.
The trip began on a February Sunday when I left Columbus' cold air and flew Continental Airlines to Houston, then further south to Guatemala City. As our plane banked for landing, shuddering in the 45 mph winds, I chuckled to think how Julio, one of my erstwhile companions. would have reacted. With his fear of flying, he might have had a heart attack on the spot! I rank Guatemala City, set amidst the mountains, as one of my "white knuckle" landings.
I was met at the airport by Carla Molina, the travel agent from Ecotourismo, who'd arranged some things for me. She kindly saw me on my way to my hotel, Posada Belen, which her material described as in "The Heart of Guatemala City's Historic Center." To that I say a big, "Yeah, right!" Oh, don't get my wrong -- the hotel was nice (an old, family-run hotel with bright, if slightly worn, furnishings). Its location was awful, though. Picture any inner city blight across the world with boarded up buildings and bars on all the windows and you have Posada Belen's neighborhood. No conveniences were nearby -- no restaurants, shops or sights of interest.
As it was early afternoon, I decided to escape Guate (as the locals call it) and head to nearby Antigua -- a colorful, cobble-stoned, colonial town. I navigated my way to the bus station, noting at night these street corners could be dangerous. My ride to Antigua on the local (or "chicken" as travelers call it) bus was full of color and charm. Of course, some people's charm doesn't include three adults wedged onto one bench seat of a garishly-painted U.S. school bus!
An hour and a half later, I stepped off in Antigua, but not before confirming the last bus back to Guate left at 7:30 pm. Antigua is perched high in the cusp of three volcanic peaks. It is a paradise for the international backpacker crowd -- I recognized thier massive packs and slightly scruffy look. The sight is always nostalgic, as that was me more than a decade ago. Anyway, Antigua draws them with its cheap rooms and bars, colorful churches and ruins, and nearby excursions like climbing the slopes of a still-smoldering volcano.
The park in the town square was thronged with travelers and locals, listening to free music as they ate ice cream and soaked up the sun. Being Sunday, many sites were closed, but I did get to wander around the atmospheric, centuries-old ruins of the Convent of the Capuchin Nuns. From its rooftop, there were nice views of the town and countryside. I spied the lemon-yellow Our Lady of Mercy Church and marked it as my next stop. The church's exterior was gorgeous with intricate white and yellow swirls and carvings winding all along its facade. In the church's shadow, I also discovered a place to call Sharon and let her know I'd arrived safely.
After dinner, I hurried back to the bus stop only to be told the last bus had left at 6:30 pm (it was now 6:45). I checked with a couple others to be sure, then high-tailed to a travel agency I'd seen advertising shuttles. I plopped down $20 for a ride directly to my hotel, and my slowly rising panic subsided. It ended up having plenty of time to subside, as I hit the Sunday evening traffic jam as weekenders headed back into Guate. What should have been a one hour trip took twice as long.
It was still dark the next morning when the shuttle arrived to start my journey to Tikal. We drove to the airport where I boarded a flight to Flores, the closest town to the ruins. Since I was staying at the Tikal Inn, one of only three hotels actually on Tikal's grounds, I was by definition part of a package tour. Those who know me are aware I detest guided group tours. However, it was the only way to spend the night at Tikal, so Carla had signed me up. It seemed many of the others in our group felt the same, so perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all.
Our guide Hector explained things during the one-hour ride to the hotel. We would begin our tour immediately upon arrival. After four hours, we'd return for lunch, then we would have the rest of the afternoon, evening and next day to ourselves.
A light rain began to fall as we left the hotel. Hector's tour got off to a slow start, as he explained Tikal's rainwater storage system (no nearby rivers or lakes), then went on to somewhat laboriusly point out a half-dozen or more plants and trees along the jungle path. It was at least 45 minutes before we saw our first Mayan pyramid. The rain had ceased and the sun blazed down, drawing out the jungle's moist heat. I will spare readers a blow by blow of our tour, and instead, summarize my impressions.
Tikal was simply amazing. The sight of the sun shining on the temple pyramids surrounded by lush green jungle was almost mystical. Ranged in front of most pyramids was a row of stellae (carved vertical slabs of stone taller than a man), each with a round disc of a sacrificial altar in front of it. The pyramids themselves were often arranged in pairs, facing each other across a plaza. They are in various states of restoration. Some are fully reconstructed and you can climb their tall stairways (steeply spaced, as if the Maya were a race of giants). Others are partially cleared, but have their lower portions or one or two faces still cloaked in jungle vegetation. The final type are untouched and appear as conical mounds of jungle growth. Beneath them, though, lies a pyramid.
The full impact of Tikal's beauty hit me as Hector led us atop the North Acropolis, overlooking the Great Plaza. Two massive pyramids (Temples I and II) face each other across a wide green space. The other sides of the plaza were lined with stairs leading to the ruins of palaces, temples and other buildings. Toucans flitted from tree to tree in the surrounding jungle foliage, which closed off your view of the rest of Tikal's site. The effect was of winding your way through a wooded path and suddenly finding Ancient Rome in a clearing. You feel you've found a hidden city. It is the essence of Satruday afternoon movies and Indiana Jones: Something great, something magical, some mystery you've discovered. The feeling of wonder bursts from your heart and you either utter, "Wow," or shake your head or stand speechless.
I nearly raced to the top of Temple II and stood and gazed around me. The view from atop was every bit as grand as my first sight of the plaza. Beneath me, I saw the less sure of themselves ascending or descending crabwise. Nearly the height of a football field, these pyramids are TALL. Even those who claimed no fear of heights got wobbly-legged going down. Temple II's twin across the plaza is closed to climbers precisely because somebody did fall to their death a decade ago.
The sights only became more tremendous when we ascended partially cleared Temple IV (thought to be the tallest Mayan pyramid found). The view is truly other-worldly. Miles and miles of jungle spread out before you, merging with hills and clouds in the distance. Poking through the green canopy, though, are the tops of four other pyramids like gray stone islands in an undulating green sea. The rest of Tikal remains hidden. The view is so out of this world that the movie "Star Wars" used it back in the 70s as an alien world. For the curious, it was the rebel base from which they launch their attack on the Death Star. When I reached the summit, I immediately recognized the view, nodding, "Yep, this is the scene..." Others on the pyramid steps agreed. Although Hector had allotted us 15 minutes to enjoy Temple IV, by mutual consent we all lingered, savoring the panorama.
We saw a good portion of Tikal in the four hours plus of the tour. Some of the group were more exhausted than others, but we were all ready for lunch at the Tikal Inn. I'd hit it off fairly well with another solo traveler, Andy, from Charlotte, NC. We'd both read that sunrise from Temple IV was supposed to be awesome (if it is not foggy). Hector told us to also check out sunset from the Great Pyramid in the Mundido Perdiddo complex (yes, that means Lost World -- although we saw no dinosaurs, the setting was perfect for them).
So, a short time later, Andy and I trekked back into the jungle. There we got our first lesson in how trickly the trails and terrain of Jurassic Park, er Tikal, were. Of course, we only had our maps from the guidebooks we'd brought with us. A true disappointment of the guided tour was their failure to give us ANY map of the park. The only park guidebook I saw for sale was an overpriced picture book. Andy and I blundered about, but eventually made it to the pyramid. About 20-30 people ended up crowding atop its flat summit to watch the sunset. Clouds moving in from the west ruined the show, though.
Returning to the Tikal Inn, we once again took a wrong turn or two, so by the time we made it back, we both had our flashlights out. Dinner was pleasant at the Comedor Imperio Maya, that our guidebooks recommended. We swapped travel stories over beers, and even talked college football. We finished the evening with one final cerveca at the Tikal Inn, watching the brilliant stars come out. Shortly after 10 pm, the electricity at Tikal Inn flickered a couple of times, then was shut off. Yes, to "save electricity," it is on only from 10 am - 4 pm and 6 - 10 pm. Oh, and there is hot water for showers only in the evening. Other than that, it was a nice hotel, and even has a pleasant pool with attractive thatched bungalows alongside.
At 5:30 am, Andy and I each stepped outside of our rooms into a wall of blackness. It was DARK! We made it to Tikal's gate, where a nervous Dutch couple joined us. We refused to purchase the services of a park ranger to guide us to Temple IV. Andy and I had been there -- we knew the way! We thought. Third time is a charm, so we charmingly got lost on the trails once again, taking twice as long as we probably should have to find the temple.
The sunrise? Well, it was foggy. The mist was a definite disappointment, but on our return trip through the Great Plaza, it was an unexpected bonus. I'd said before Tikal was mystical in the sunshine, it was positively mysterious looking in the fog. Once again, my heart thrilled to Tikal's magic.
After breakfast, I returned to the park, alone this time. Andy was off to Flores to check out that island town before his flight. The mist had turned to a gentle rain as I wandered the jungle trails, taking in a few parts of Tikal we'd missed yesterday. I love Ancient ruins, and being alone among them heightens the experience for me. So, I savored the temples, palaces, and of course, drank in the awe inspiring sight of the Grand Plaza one last time before leaving.
Since my flight didn't leave till after 6 pm, I was also able to squeeze in a couple hours in Flores. The island town, often described as a mini-Antigua, is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The international backpacker set had overrun the town. One of every dozen buildings was a hotel, it seemed. I shopped for souvenirs for awhile, then took a taxi to the airport. As pleasant and colorful a town as Flores was, with its pretty lake views, it seemed an anti-climax. I walked the cobblestoned streets, examining the brightly-painted buildings. No matter how I tried, though, I couldn't get excited about Flores, though. My heart was still on the jungle trail, my soul still soaring among the pyramids of Tikal...