During my stay in Flores, I scheduled a tour with a guide to Tikal. I was told that you don't need a guide but it is highly recommended. So to get all of the history and the story behind Tikal, which I believe to be as important as seeing the site itself, I went with the guide.
The tour bus was supposed to pick me up in front of my hotel at 8:00 am. Of course, at 8:15 I walked down to the bus company to inquire about the location of the bus. The guy at the bus company said "The bus left here at 8:00." I told him that he told me three different times on three different days, that the bus would pick me up at my hotel. So, he put me in a van and drove me to meet the bus.
Do you sense a theme yet in my journey? Buses in Central America pretty much go on their own time and schedule. Buses, bus stops, and bus schedules are just a general guideline, and not necessarily followed...especially when it applies to me! Grrrrr!!! They are basically a pain in the ass most of the time.
One thing I have found is that it really doesn't do any good to get mad or even frustrated over things such as transportation. It happens all of the time in Central America and Mexico. It is much better to find the humor in such things than to get mad and make everyone, including yourself, miserable. Plus, Americans are known for getting mad and acting like assholes in other parts of the world, just like we do at home. It is actually quite embarrassing.
It started raining during the night and never stopped. It was raining in the morning and continued to rain until I got on the bus. Once I was on the bus the rain stopped. I hoped that it would stop for the entire day but after looking at the sky I could tell we were in for some more rain throughout the day.
The bus ride from Flores to Tikal is about 45 minutes. We picked up a medium build local man from one of the small villages along the route. The man gets into the van and then informs us, "I am your guide today, and my name is Louis." Louis informs us all that he is of Mayan descent and has lived his whole life in Guatemala. Louis is a licensed tour guide for Tikal. It is encouraged to use a guide and most especially a licensed reputable tour guide. This helps to benefit the Mayan people as they are most often the guides.
Once we arrived at the gate we had to pay our fees and then continue on the bus to the parking area. Once off the bus, we had to pass through another gate where they checked our tickets and they gave us a color-coded bracelet to wear while inside the park.
Louis, gathered the entire group and explained the rules of the park and took us to the map of the entire park. Louis said, "I suggest that you take a picture of this map in case you get separated from the group or lost." So, I took a photo with my camera...and of course NOT my cell phone. More about this issue later...
As we walked down the path that winds through the jungle, Louis explains to us the history of the Mayans at Tikal. As he talks, Louis explains that "Tikal is the 2nd largest Mayan city ever built. The 1st is El Mirador on the border of my country (Guatemala) and Mexico. Tikal was discovered several hundred years ago and El Mirador. The reason Tikal is so popular is that it has been excavated for a long time. El Mirador's excavation wasn't started until about twenty years ago."
Louis also explains that all excavation for Mayan ruins is done by hand. No heavy equipment or machines are used. Only hand tools and actual hands. The excavation takes decades to complete and El Mirador will probably take 50 to 70 years to fully excavate. Amazing!
All of Tikal has been excavated by hand. Nobody visited or saw Tikal for several hundred years. Think about that. Think about how much vegetation grows in a jungle and how fast! The entire ruins were swallowed up by the jungle just like in the Indiana Jones movies (parts of which were filmed in Central American Mayan ruins).
Temple 1 is the temple that visitors see and it is the official symbol for Guatemala. Temple 1 is not the biggest but was the first Temple built. Do you know why Temple 1 is the symbol of Guatemala? Do you know why it is so important? It was the first structure excavated in Tikal but this is not the reason it is so important.
The importance of Temple 1 is that the two most important Mayan people ever discovered were buried in a tomb underneath Temple 1. The tomb was located directly underneath the temple and directly in the center.
The people recovered are known to be important based on the amount of jade they contained within their tomb. Both bodies were adorned with large amounts of jade jewelry, the huge adornments for the ears, and other artifacts found with the bodies.
After getting the story of Temple I, we were taken around to the other side which opened up into a huge courtyard. The courtyard had Temple I facing Temple II. On the side, there was the Acropolis and another huge structure. This place is massive. We were given 45 minutes to explore these structures before the tour moved on to other places in the park. I used all of the 45 minutes to explore and take photos. I was only able to cover about 1/2 of the structures in the area because of the sheer size. I spent most time exploring the Acropolis.
During the tour, the differences between pyramids, temples, altars, and other structures were explained to us. The Mayan calendar and how it worked was explained along with a brief explanation of how the pyramids were used in relation to the sun and the seasons.
Tikal is the greatest man-made place I have ever seen. As I stood up on Pyramid 3 I looked out and saw the famous scene from Star Wars (yes, this was a scene in the original Star Wars movie). What an amazing site. The towers protruding out above the jungle with all of their power and glory. The scene is so amazing that George Lucas used Temple IV again in Return of the Jedi (for all you Star Wars nerds like me) and Morgan Freeman filmed part of his documentary series The Story of God here at Tikal and also Mirador.
Standing there looking out over the jungle is just so breathtaking. The tropical birds make all kinds of wonderful noises. You also get the true feeling of the jungle as you hear the howler monkeys making noises and "howling" throughout the jungle. The howler monkey is the loudest animal in the Americas. The call of the howler monkey can be heard as far as 6 miles away! They sound fierce but they are not normally agressive towards human unless they feel they need to protect themselves.
Tikal is incredible considering the tools the Mayan people had to work with and the ability to build such structures that have withstood the sands time. Although lost for hundreds of years in the jungle, these structures still tower high above the trees.
The tour took us to many of the pyramids. We were able to go to the top of the tallest pyramid to witness the most incredible scene of the temples rising above the jungle, which included Temple IV, which was the tallest temple in Tikal. In fact, Temple IV is the tallest known structure to have ever been built by the Mayan people. It stands at 65 meters high (213 ft.). If you go to Tikal you MUST climb to the top. It is a hard climb but is definitely a great way to end your tour through Tikal!
I wasn't able to stay on top of Temple IV for very long as the rain began pouring down. In fact, since it had been raining the last few days, everything in Tikal was extremely slick. I spent half of the trip trying not to fall down! It was like walking on ice most of the time.
The end of the day it began raining and continued to rain harder. I still climbed the stairs carefully to the top of Temple IV so I could see the view for myself. The rain prevented a great view but I could still see the magnificence of this place from the top of the temple.
Remember the map in the beginning? The one I took a photo of with my camera instead of my phone? Well, somehow during the visit to Temple IV I ended up missing the small trail to the stairs and ended up going around the side of the temple. I wandered around for a few minutes looking and exploring before realizing that I made a wrong turn somewhere. I turned around and went back. I found the stairs and headed up to the top of Temple IV. Once I got to the top I realized that nobody from my group was on top. They must have hurried because of the rain. I also quickly realized that I didn't see any of them on the way up either.
Since the rain was coming down pretty hard, I limited my time on top of the temple. I took a few photos. Looked around and tried to enjoy the view but it just kept raining harder. It was raining so hard I was unable to see the other temples. I knew at this point it was time to get down and go find my group.
After descending, I looked around and nobody from my group was around. They left me behind. I started walking the way I remembered coming. I made it quite a distance before I ended up walking a circle and found myself lost. I turned again and ended up in a part of the park I had never been to. The rain was not letting up. I had to put the rain fly on my backpack to keep everything halfway dry. I was soaked, so it was pointless to put on the raincoat I brought with me (plus far too humid).
I wandered around lost for about 20 minutes and nobody else was around. I found some cover and pulled out my camera. I tried to pull up the map but couldn't see it clear enough to be useful. If you ever go to Tikal, take a photo with your phone of the map! That way you can actually pull it up easily and be able to see it.
At some point, I made a right turn and boom! The Acropolis, Temple I & II were right there! I made it. I walked as quickly towards the entrance which was still a mile and a half from my current location. I was hoping dearly that the tour group and most importantly, the bus, didn't leave me!
I walked about 1/5 of a mile when an older, very thin Guatemalan man asked me in Spanish, "Do you want a ride?" I said, "Absolutely!!!" He told me to get in the front seat. So piled in and he drove me to the gate. I paid him a tip and took off to find my bus which was still waiting for me and a few others. I was extremely relieved and happy that I made it before the bus left!
I was able to reflect on my experience and try to soak it all in during the bus ride back to Flores. I was soaked, hungry, and tired from the day's adventure. I did have these thoughts; I had come to see Tikal as one of the places I really wanted to see. In a way, my journey actually began here for me. It was the experience I was not quite expecting, but the experience I got which could never be replaced. I was seriously blown away by Tikal. It far exceeded my expectations. Although the rain made it slick and not optimal for photos it would have taken away from the experience.
Tours do not normally cover the whole park because there are so many structures to see and investigate. It takes multiple days to see the entire park because there are literally thousands of structures. I want to someday return and maybe stay in Tikal for a couple of days to explore the entire park at my own pace.
I recommend to anyone that is interested in Mayan ruins and choosing a destination based on this interest, to choose Tikal. I have not been but have heard multiple times that the ruins in Mexico are far too touristy and that Tikal is the gem. Make sure to bring great shoes with excellent wet traction because Tikal is slick!