This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize, participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. More specifically, it details a brief side-trip to Guatemala. The rest of this series is located in the Travel category of this blog.
On the morning of June 16, 2017, I awoke in Flores with a start. My first night back in ‘civilization’ had not been restful, haunted by the knowledge that I must eventually return to Northern California. Fortunately, the day was about to improve dramatically. We were going to Tikal.
Tikal is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the Americas. Encompassing 57,600 hectares, Tikal is the largest excavated site in the New World (UNESCO, 2018; Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, 2015). It was initially settled by the Maya in 800 or 900 BC; grew to one of the most important Mayan cities during the 8th Century AD; declined during the 9th Century, and was abandoned during the 10th Century AD (UNESCO, 2018; TikalNationalPark.org). According to TikalNationalPark.org, “Tikal is to Guatemala what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt.”
At the time, however, I knew none of this. I had barely heard of Tikal before joining the Dos Hombres to Gran Cacao and Programme for Belize Archaeological Projects (DH2GC and PfBAP, respectively), and had no idea what to expect. I was in for a colossal surprise.
We arrived at the entrance to Tikal National Park after a short drive. Here we disembarked and bought our tickets; all under the watchful eyes of friendly, armed guards. As we waited in line, I was struck by how lush the area was. The road to the archaeological site was bordered on both sides by a dense jungle, whose vegetation wore a rich hue of green.
Had I done my research beforehand, I would not have been taken aback by Tikal’s vibrance. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2018), Tikal is, “One of the few World Heritage properties inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria for its extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance.” Based on my experience, Tikal deserves its World Heritage status.
After leaving our vans in the main parking lot, we took a short walk through a tree-shaded path. Before long we left this patch of jungle, passed by a large ruin on our left, and pivoted to the right to behold the Main Plaza.
I was stunned by what I saw. The Main Plaza is bordered on either side by Temples I and II. Temple I stands at 47 metres (154 ft), and contains the tomb of the Mayan ruler Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate). At 38 metres (125 ft), Temple II is no less imposing (TikalNationalPark.org).
In between these two pyramids was a large field, with the North Acropolis (pictured in the featured image) at the far end. Many Mayan rulers were buried in that stelae-adorned acropolis, along with some of Tikal’s first inhabitants (Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, 2015).
As I approached the North Acropolis with DH2GC’s director, she told me how a group of archaeologists had dug a trench along part of the artificially raised platform. The trench collapsed, revealing a Preclassic (2000 BC – 250 AD) Mayan floor (MesoAmerican Research Center, 2010).
We wandered around the Main Plaza and North Acropolis for a while, and climbed a wooden staircase to the top of Temple II. This gave us an excellent view of the plaza below us, and we stayed there for a few minutes before returning to the ground. We then made our way to Temple IV.
Temple IV is the tallest pyramid at Tikal. In fact, this 65 metre (213 ft) temple is the tallest known structure in the pre-Colombian Americas (TikalNationalPark.org). We located the modern staircase that led to the top, and then began the long ascent to Temple IV’s summit.
We reached the top of Temple IV after a strenuous climb. We were now above the trees, and from our vantage point their canopies fused to become an endless sea of green. The tops of Tikal’s temples occasionally broke the surface to create small, grey islands.
It was a beautiful, peaceful scene. We sat on the top of Temple IV for a long time, drinking in the fresh air. Our rest was warranted, because there was still a lot more of Tikal to see. Those sights will be the topic of the upcoming post, Tikal: Part 2.
My day in Tikal was too eventful to cover in one post. The second half of this series-within-a-series will be posted in one week’s time – at the latest.