Sunday, 16 September 2012

Magical Tikal

Of all the archaeological sites we’d planned to visit over the course of the summer, it was Tikal I was most looking forward to. Something about the soaring pyramids set in a jungle location teeming with wildlife set my imagination racing, and after a long bus journey to Flores I was eager to explore.

We’d decided to stay in one of the very few hotels actually inside the park, paying much more than usual for one particular perk – the ability to take a sunrise tour through the ruins. Limited to the guests of the in-park hotels, the tour guarantees tiny numbers and the chance to watch the sun rise from the top of one of the pyramids. So at 3.30am the following morning, we were up and at reception, ready to go.

One thing that isn’t usually mentioned in the books is that as well as being a very large site, Tikal is rather hilly, and as our guide set a very fast pace in order to reach the far side in time for the first rays of colour, we were exhausted before we’d even begun to climb the many, many steps that led up the temple’s side. As we all know, I’m not exactly a fan of steps, and was grateful to plonk down at the top, snuggled into a prime viewing spot where no more than thirty of us sat, absolutely still and in complete silence, as the first flickers of orange appeared in the distance.

The experience was incredible. As a blazing sunrise burst into life, the jungle came alive, birds flying through the orange mist as Mayan structures gradually appeared around us. The howler monkeys announced themselves soon afterwards, their piercing calls breaking the silence and lying loud and heavy in the air from all directions. Once the sky had turned a brilliant blue, toucans flocked to the tree tops and settled, providing us with great views of these beautiful birds.

Still an hour away from the park opening to the general public, we descended and were taken on a tour of the main parts of the site, marvelling at the jungle reclaiming areas and the well-preserved temple. Finishing in the plaza, we said farewell to our guide and spent the next few hours on our own, climbing to fantastic view points and attempting to find some of the smaller attractions. At one point, we were walking along a path when we spotted a troop of monkeys in the trees above, swinging around and creeping closer, many with babies in tow. Being the monkey fanatic that I am, we spent around an hour just watching them chattering away and searching for food, the babies gently setting off on their own for a short distance, testing the waters before clambering quickly back onto mum’s back. Although I’d expected the site to be teeming with people, starting at 4am meant that we were satisfied by lunchtime when the coaches began rolling up, and even a few hours after opening at 8am it had been calm and quiet.

Tikal was one of, if not the best, Mayan sites we visited in Central America. Great location (except for the huge amount of biting bugs, and not just of the mozzie variety…), fascinating buildings and not too many other visitors – I couldn’t recommend it enough.


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