If visiting Mayan archaeological sites is like cheese tasting, then Tikal is the ultra-sharp, super-aged Gouda that you save for last because anything after would seem bland by comparison.
When rediscovered, the city was dubbed “Tikal” (“place of voices”) due to the echoing acoustics of the main plaza; ironically, no voices remain to tell the city’s original name for certain. The city lies across the border from Belize in the northern jungles of Guatemala, and getting there took some doing.
I parted ways with my Belize companions and made for the border. The first thing that struck me about Guatemala was the ubiquity of Kevlar-armored duos riding motorcycles with shotguns slung over their backs. Private security personnel outnumber police 4:1 here due to what the US state department describes as “critical” levels of violent crime throughout the country.
Outside immigration, several men materialized to sell taxis with twice the persistence and none of the charm of New Yorkers hawking tickets to a comedy show. After haggling the price down 50% (I remembered practicing just such an exchange in 10th grade Spanish class), I got in an unmarked car with plastic zip-up windows. Amazingly, Guatemalan driving made this Boston-bred Masshole implore his driver to slow down. Overtaking vehicles on blind corners of two-lane mountain roads is a national pastime here, and not surprisingly, every inhabited area is bounded by sets of speed bumps.
I made small talk with my driver, Adrian, who’d driven trucks professionally throughout the United States and had a son in Iowa. We got stopped at separate police and army checkpoints, and I was glad I knew enough Spanish to commiserate about the hot weather and explain myself as a humble tourist with bags full of nothing but dirty clothes (and priceless American electronics). After a 100km drive I arrived at the little village of El Remate (roughly meaning, “end of the road”) and arranged for a guide to take me to Tikal for the sunrise.
[This is where I’d put the selfie with the soldiers I’d have taken if I was dumber or ballsier]
The next morning at 4am my guide Carlos and I walked by forest paths lit only by our flashlights and a thin crescent moon. Carlos pointed out several venomous snakes and scorpions after we walked over them.
The path widened, and I saw a large swath of stars was missing from the brightening sky- they were blocked from view by an enormous stone pyramid. We had arrived at the Grand Plaza.
All grogginess left me. There I was, emerging from a jungle before dawn to explore a millennia-old lost city. Hundreds of other tourists would be along later that day, but there was as yet no trace of anyone to spoil the illusion of discovery.
Dawn neared, and the howler monkeys took up their blood-curdling shrieks as I began to climb the pyramid above the tomb of Yik’in Chan K’awiil, known to latter civilizations as just “Temple IV”. I’d known how much the Mayans liked stairs, so I’d already practiced on the steps by Morningside Heights in NYC. I reached the temple’s pinnacle and gazed out over the jungle canopy. Two other temples’ broke above the greenery, but otherwise I could see no trace of the enormous stone city I’d just walked through.
The scene felt very alien- it’s no coincidence that sci-fi films love to borrow Mayan architecture for their archetypal ancient alien ruins. It’s hard to believe these stone temples share a planet with the colonial style duplexes of my New England home.
You can only gaze in wonder for so long before you want to gaze at some other stuff, so I descended the pyramid and Carlos showed me some cute animals.
And a Royal Toucan! Check “photograph a cool bird” off the adventure bucket list!
And leaf cutter ants building their own edifices upon the ruins.
Carlos showed me many of the other ruins, including the nine ball courts where Mayan ballers would compete for the honor of being sacrificed. On the one hand, killing a sport’s winners keeps the competition from getting stale, but on the other it’s hard to build a following for a crowd favorite or develop long-term endorsement deals. Peyton Manning with his innumerable almost-championships would’ve had an excellent Maya-ball career.
Carlos turned back around 9am due to a rolled ankle or a Mayan curse (my Spanish is still rusty) and I went exploring on my own. For a site of Tikal’s magnificence, there were shockingly few other visitors; I had many of the ruins entirely to myself.
I returned to the Grand Plaza and found a very toned and sweaty man standing atop a pedestal and drinking Guatemala-Powerade. Apparently today the temple plaza was also the finish line for a marathon, ninety degree heat be damned. I bought a Coke from a vendor at the finish line and enjoyed the taste of globalization from the lower steps of a conveniently placed pyramid.
I wandered through the woods for several hours more- Tikal has largely been preserved in the state it was found. Jungle still separates most of the temples and palaces such that you can be standing 100m from a pre-Columbian skyscraper and have no idea it’s there (as apparently Cortez did when he passed by Tikal oblivious to its wonders).
I retired to a stone bed-alcove in one the palaces to escape the midday sun and got out my copy of Seneca’s Letters (a Stoic a day keeps the existential dread away!) Seneca and the Maya had been contemporaries, and though the Stoics’ texts survive today, much of Mayan literature was destroyed by the Spanish. Said the bishop who burned nearly every Mayan text ever written:
“We found a large number of books in [their] characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which [the Maya] regretted to an amazing degree…
I wondered what modes of thought Mayan philosophers had explored, what orthogonal approaches to understanding life in contrast to Western thought- but I contented myself with climbing some more pyramids.