The sounds of the wildlife at Tikal are what sold me on the experience.
Within minutes of listening to the pattering of feet and chatter of other members of the group, we are all pulled to an abrupt halt by our guide, Luis. He holds up a single hand to silence the group – a mere formality though because we all immediately started to quiet the chatter as we saw his head cock to the side with an ear tuned to the distance and an intense look of concentration on his face.
I follow my guide’s example and listen for the sounds.
In the distance I hear a deep growling sound – it almost sounds like hogs…but only magnified times ten in both volume and intensity.
It’s the howler monkeys.
The ruins of Tikal, a pre-Columbian Mayan site, sit buried within the Guatemalan jungle, and although archaeologists have uncovered numerous ruins all over the area, the forests are left in tact…and in fact they’re still hiding secrets as yet uncovered.
As we wander through the jungle (on set paths following our guide) we pass huge tree covered mounds that shoot up into the sky – you might even call them a hill if you didn’t know any better! Under these mounds, though, are hundreds (thousands?) of unexcavated Mayan temples. The Tikal complex is absolutely huge and although it was rediscovered in 1850, there are still numerous areas and ruins that have only been given a cursory glance because of funding limits.
Tikal’s temples are surrounded by a cacophony of noise from all of the animals– it’s almost as if the animals refuse to give back their secret temples. If you’ve never heard a howler monkey, take a moment to listen – no description can do it justice – you’ll also get a mini tour of Tikal!
Other animals are rampant – I saw my first wild Toucan, some ant-eater like cuties, and even held a tarantula!
The Temples of Tikal
The most recognizable temple, Jaguar Temple, is powerful. The photos and postcards just don’t seem to do it justice because in person, as I stood with the acropolis and living quarters to my right and temples complete surrounding other sides, it just seems so illogical that these tall structures jutting into the sky could have been built dating from the 4th century BC!
I had the incredibly rare opportunity to witness an actual Mayan ritual taking place in the center of the area. The Mayans normally avoid Tikal because of the rampant tourism, but the place is still holy to the Maya people. A family of about ten built a fire in the middle of the courtyard to perform various ceremonies around the fire that lasted for hours.
The grounds feel limitless. We walked for hours and saw the majority of the major temples that have been excavated, but these are still just a tiny percentage of what is left undiscovered.
This is what sets my imagination really spinning. After climbing to the top of a designated temple (it has a wooden staircase so that tourists don’t destroy the ruins) I stared out over the top of the jungle and just wondered how much they still haven’t found. The jungle is incredibly dense in this region and there is an undoubted potential for new discoveries…it’s just a matter of when.
Logistics: Trying to get to Tikal?
Two options – stay in Flores (Los Amigos is a really “backpackery” hostel) and bus in at 4:30 am (it’s about an hour fifteen from Flores to the ruins). Flores is a full town (shops and ATMs) and transportation should run about 60 quetzals to Tikal. For about 120Q you can get a roundtrip bus and guide! You cannot do sunrise nor sunset if you’re leaving from Flores to Tikal no matter what the touts tell you in town.
For sunrise and sunset stay at the Jungle Inn actually inside of the park. Take the last bus to Tikal (about 2:30 pm) and you can camp out in tents (provided) behind the Inn. Then you have the park to yourself and your ticket will get you double entrance for both sunset and sunrise over the temples.