Mayan Ruins: Tikal, Belize
In addition to exploring a Mayan cave, the other objective of our stay on the western border of Belize was to work in a trip to Tikal National Park, in Guatemala. We talked over the options of how this could be done with the Trek Stop owners and decided to just take off on our own without any prior arrangements. The Trek Stop was very helpful even with that, saying we could leave our backpacks in our cabin at no charge for the night we were away!
The next morning we headed out early to get across the border and it all worked out fantastically well (my 'Tikal National Park' page has the full story)! We had a great time taking in as many of the sights as we could during our two half-days there. Temple I (the Great Jaguar) and the surrounding complexes are the most impressive structures, but there was so much to see it was hard to believe. We certainly got our exercise in as we trudged up and down hills and temples in the boiling heat. The Park is set in the middle of the jungle all by itself - power goes off at night, with lights out from 10 PM to 6 AM!
We also succeeded in having a 'sunset' experience while at Tikal. After first scouting out where in the park the best viewing spot would be, we made the half-hour trek there from our hotel to one of the smaller temples - Mundo Perdido. It is located at the western edge of the complex of structures, a perfect spot for looking eastward toward the other large temples as the west-setting sun bathed them with soft light.
We joined a small crowd atop Mundo Perdido and it was great to be perched above the jungle canopy, with only the huge main temples and very large Ceiba trees managing to poke themselves through the canopy. We sat there in the fresh breeze and listened to the sounds of the jungle while different kinds of tropical birds flitted from tree to tree in the soft light. Once the sun finally does go down in the tropics, the light does not last long, so everyone quickly descended and hit the trails leading back to the hotel area before it was totally dark!
Tikal is located in Guatemala and is a HUGE Mayan ruin site. If you go, I would recommend getting a guide. It enriches the experience and makes it more enjoyable (and educational). Our guide, Ruben, was Mayan and very knowledgable about Mayan culture. He taught us much about Mayan religion, culture, and daily life. Not only did we hike up to the top of all the ruins (something you MUST do -- the views are breathtaking!), but Ruben also led us through the jungle on a nature walk, so we were able to see many native plants and animals. At one point we were able to watch as a family of howler monkey's swung from tree to tree directly above us!
Bring lots of water and be prepared for a grueling day. I was quite sore the next day from going up and down so many steps! You can choose to make this excursion less active by opting out of hiking up the ruins, but you'll truly miss out.
Neither my husband nor I are bird-watchers. But several of our group were "birders" and was delighted at the variety of birds they found at Tikal. So, bring your binoculars!!
I was excited to see a toucan - in fact, we saw several during our trip. We also saw these birds that nest in whats looks like HUGE hairy balls hanging from trees. Very amusing.
You must hike up at least one Mayan ruin for the spectacular views! Not only is it worth the effort, but you'll get a great workout (the ultimate stair-climber!). You'll be able to see several Mayan ruins set deep in the rainforest...truly a magnicant site (and a great photo-op!).
The largest ruin in Tikal was used in a Star Wars movie! Well, sort of. During the opening sequence of the first movie, the wooded/jungle scenery was shot from the top of this ruin.
Random tip: Climbing to the top of this ruin is very grueling and strenous, and to be frank, it doesn't even give you the best view. Unless you are up for a great workout, I would save your energy and climb some of the smaller ruins. They will give you better views and won't tire you out for the remainder of your visit!
During our visit to Tikal, we were able to see some howler monkey's in their natural habitat! Our guide led us down a path where we came across a family of monkeys swinging from tree to tree right over our heads. The best part is that the mother had a tiny little baby on her back -- aww!
Tikal means "the place of echos." Our guide took us to the center of a group of ruins (the one pictured here) and clapped his hands. The sound was echoed around the area and made a very unique noise. Make sure you try it while you're visiting Tikal -- it was very cool!
Please go and see any of the Mayan Ruins that you can! They are spectaculat and offer tons of information on the history and customs of Belize. There are informative brochures you can pick up and tour yourself, but I would recommend getting a guide because they can offer more unusual information. Tikal is actually about an hour an a half from the Belizian border, in Guatemala, but it was my favorite. See also my hotel/accomodation tip for Clarissa Falls for futher information.
At the bottom of this ruin there are several stone tablets where ancient Mayan sacrificial ceremonies took place.
All of the steps up to the temple were VERY high and steep. The Mayans purposely built it this way; the tall steps forced people to bow as they climbed them.
So be prepared for a bit of a workout! I climbed 5 or 6 ruins and was very, very sore the next day.
A little more removed from the Mayan ruins found in Belize, Tikal will require at least an all day journey or an overnight in the Guatemalan jungle. It is, however, quite extensive and an amazing, mysterious site that springs up in the middle of the jungle canopy.
We chose to stay overnight at the Jungle Lodge -- accomodations were spare, but clean and the hotel has a small pool, which was refreshing after traveling the morning in the jungle heat. We did not take a guided tour and instead chose to find our own way through the excavation site -- it took us approximately 4 hours to complete the route. We were there in early May and saw few other tourists (I understand the site gets extremely crowded during the high season).
If you are not afraid of heights, climb to the top of the (mostly) well preserved temples for some breathtaking photos and sights, especially at sunrise/sunset. (For a preview, watch "Sunrise Earth" on the Discovery Channel HD -- they filmed an episode at Tikal).
Tikal is a place for wondering, not only at the engineering accomplishments of the Maya, but at the jungle splendors of the Peten. The site of Tikal is a national park, where the native flora and fauna still flourish relatively undisturbed. In addition to it's numerous well excavated temples and pyramids, Tikal presents an excellent opportunity for animal and bird watching. Along the paths, spider and howler monkeys, gray foxes and red coatis are visible to the visitor. When I walked thru that jungle I saw a 'quetzal' (the Guatemalan national bird).... which is a gorgeous green tiny bird with red plumage on the chest and extra loooooong tail (green also) It was beautiful!
Today, one can sit atop a pyramid, gaze at the Great Plaza and roof combs rising up from the sea of jungle (that was an unbelievable view!!!! probably the most majestic view I've ever seen from all of the places where I've been, it's really breathtaking!) and imagine the times more than a thousand years ago when the plaza was alive with activity and the city was surround by cultivated fields dotted with houses. But one can do little more than imagine. There is not coherent history of Tikal and there may never be one. Bits and pieces of information are picked up from drawings on pottery and bone, finds of tools, similarities in artistic styles between Tikal and other Mayan and Non-Mayan centers, and the few glyphs that have been deciphered up to now.
The combination of archaeological remains and the natural environment of the Petén makes Tikal the only place in the world which has been declared both a Natural and Cultural Heritage for Humanity.
When you are driving to Tikal from Belize, you will pass two beautiful lakes in Guatemala. In the middle of one is an island that looks like a sleeping alligator!!
If going to Tikal try and alot 2 days to see it all. I went for 1 day and missed alot. But if you only have a day you must not missTikal.
Keep your eyes open for wild life, it is a bonus.