Suitcase and World: Tikal. Part 1.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tikal. Part 1.

Tikal!! Today, I will finally get to visit one of the great archeological treasures of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Our day began bright and early. According to our printed itinerary, someone would be by to pick us up at 7am so last night, we set our clock to go off at 6am. I had packed all my stuff up last night except for my toiletries so I only needed a few minutes to get ready.

I rolled out of bed at around 6:20am and the first thing I did was pull back the curtains to see what the weather was like. My heart sank as I saw the clouds and it sank even further as I walked out onto the balcony and felt the light drizzle hitting my face. Oh no! I can’t believe it’s going to rain. As I walked back inside, I thought to myself that a cloudy day would be good as it would keep the heat down and rain might not be bad either as long as it’s not torrential. Maybe, things wouldn’t be so bad after all.

My brother and I got ready for the day and made it down to the lobby at about 6:45a. With time to spare, we decided to head out to the store across the street and buy some bottles of water for the day. With the cloud cover overhead, the air temperature was fairly cool. My brother decided to sit down on the curb and break into the caimitos he had bought two days before. As he broke into the first fruit, he noticed something squiggling – little larvae!! Ewwwww!!! As he broke into the next two fruits, he saw the same. More squiggling larvae. Well, he couldn’t eat it but at least we know the stuff is organically grown :-)

By this time, Ang Bros had also made it to the street. It was their turn to hit the store to buy water. When 7am came and went, my brother went to check with the receptionist on when we could expect our ride to arrive. She called the tour company and relayed back to us that our transportation would arrive at 7:30a instead. So, we stayed outside and chatted to bide the time away.

Soon,  always a happy camper!
Waiting for our ride to show up.

Right at the appointed time, a van pulled out front of the hotel. The driver got out and confirmed he was there to pick us up. We clamored inside and found an African girl already seated inside. We said our “hello’s” and took our seats.

A short but bumpy ride on the cobblestone streets and we soon made it to the bridge connecting Flores to Santa Elena. Our immediate destination – the airport to pick up a few more passengers. At the airport, a woman and her two sons boarded along with another woman. The nine of us made up the group for the day.

As the van pulled away from the station, our guide introduced himself to us – Aquilino Martinez. He then proceeded to tell us our itinerary. It would be about a 40 minute ride from the airport to Tikal. Along the way, we would stop at a roadside store where we could use the facilities and presumably, where we would spend quetzales on souvenirs and other what-nots. From there, it would take about 30 minutes to get to the park. We would spend about 3 ½ hours touring the park. Then, it would be lunch at a restaurant inside the park. After that, we would be returned to our starting points which meant that we would arrive back at the hotel in Flores at around 2:30p.

Sticking to the plan, we arrived at the roadside store where we spent about 10 minutes before heading onwards towards Tikal.

The drive out to Tikal was my first opportunity to see the landscape. We were surrounded by tropical rainforest. In fact, according to Aquilino, Guatemala has the largest acreage of tropical rainforest in Central America.

As we drove along, Aquilino gave us some historical information on the rise and fall of the great Mayan civilization. As my brain had not fully engaged, most of what he said went in one ear and out the other. That’s okay. After all, there’s no way anyone can listen to and fully understand the entire history of the Mayans on a 20 minute ride in a van so early in the morning.

It wasn’t long before we pulled into the parking lot outside the entrance to the park. The entrance building houses a model of the park itself. Aquilino used the model to explain how we would be seeing the park – exactly what temples and plazas we would be seeing and how we would get to each location.  The complex looked H-U-G-E!   No wonder it was going take us 4 hours to just walk a small part of it. 

Armed with that information, we set out….following Aquilino of course as none of us had the faintest idea where were headed.

As Aquilino bought our entry tickets, we watch a small group of coatymundi, Central American cousins of the raccoon, feeding in a small grassy patch. Very interesting animals who were obviously accustomed to seeing human beings – the crowds did not seem to alarm them at all.

So cute.  Soon had the best vantage point so he did the videotaping honors.

Our starting point was the map for the park.  Luckily, Soon had bought a real paper map so we could figure out where were as we went along.

Valiant and I posing for a picture in front of the map to the park.

With Aquilino back, we followed him down a stone path – one of the original causeways built by the Mayans centuries ago.

Along the way, we admired the jungle flora – stopping at one point to view a ceiba tree.  I have to admit, I have no idea what the fasciniation with this tree is other than it has wierd growths all over its branches.

We continued to stroll along the stone path, heading towards the ruins.  All around us was dense rainforest. 

Thanks to Aquilino's sharp eyes, we spotted spider monkeys swinging from tree limb to tree limb high above our heads.

Thanks to Soon for videotaping the monkey in action.

Then...., we caught sight of our first temple – simply named Temple I (one) or the Jaguar Temple. What an amazing view - this ancient temple nestled in thick tropical jungle.  I don't know why but it was a lot taller than I had imagined it to be.  We would get opportunity further down our walk to have a closer look at the monument. In the meantime, we took a few minutes for our photo ops.

Side view of Temple I.

Me, with Temple I in the background.

I made them climb up on the platform so I could take the photo.  The boys did a lot of
climbing at Tikal :-)

After we took a few minutes to admire our view of Temple I, we then clamored over the base of some ruins and made our way down to the Central Acropolis – a small square ringed with more limestone monuments.

View of the Acropolis captured on video by Soon.

The top of Temple III poking above the rainforest canopy.
From the northeast corner of the Acropolis, as I stood high on the stone wall, I could see the tops of Temples V and III in the distance. We would get to see Temple V later on but Temple III is still being excavated – its base still surrounded by thick jungle growth so the top would be all we would see.

Aquilino also pointed out the area in the jungle that the archeologists think served as the stone quarry for Tikal. It’s mind boggling to imagine just how difficult it must have been to mine the stone, carve it into blocks, haul long distances through the thick jungle and then stacking the massive stones atop one another to build each monument – especially the temples, most of which are between 30 -50m in height. AMAZING!!

We had no ideas what the holes in the walls were for.

Sitting on the ruins in the Central Acropolis.  Temple I in the background.
Yo Bro!!  Wave!!

From the Central Acropolis, we made our way southwest and entered the famed Grand Plaza – THE *hub* of ancient Tikal. Perched on a long stone wall above the plaza, we got our first view of the grassy plaza area.

Occupying the plaza are Temple I, (the Jaguar Temple), Temple II (the Temple of the Masks), and several other monuments including sacrificial altars. Thatched roofs shielded stone masks which we would see as we explored the plaza. The vantage point from the stone wall provides such a stunning view of the plaza that when you first see it, all you can do is utter “WOW”. 

Temple I, the Jaguar Temple.

Temple I (far right) and Temple II (far left).
It was our first view of Temple II, the Temple of the Masks, which is slightly shorter in
height than Temple Iand has fewer tiers.

A video view of the Grand Plaza taken by Soon.

In the center of the plaza, we could see a small group of locals all huddled around what looked like a circular stone platform. Before we headed down to the plaza, Aquilino explained to us that Mayans today still use Tikal as a religious ceremonial ground though sacrifices are no longer part of the ritual. Aquilino told us we could observe was was going on – even take photos but to not be intrusive as what was going on was an actual service.
We headed down to the plaza and Temples I and II are even more impressive when seen standing on ground level because it’s then that you realize just how tall they are and just how massive the limestone blocks are that were used to build the temples.

I immediately walked towards the religious ceremony that was going on. I was curious about what was going on.

A small group of local Mayan were standing and sitting around a circular stone pit. Inside the pit, there was a small mound of something or other – looked like peeled potatoes piled up. They were each hold a set of candles which they lit up by passing the flame around from one candle to another. Then, someone held the candle to the mound inside the stone pit and it caught flame. As the fire ignited, the chanting began. I’m guessing it was some sort of a prayer. It didn’t long before thick black smoke billowed up from the stone pit. What started as a small flame had very quickly became a raging fire. When the heat of the fire and smell of the smoke became too much for us, we left and went to explore the two temples.

At 45m in height, Temple I slightly towers over the 38m tall Temple II but it’s the latter that visitors are allowed to climb as Temple I is cordoned off to visitors. Soon and my brother opted to scale Temple II that while Valiant and I wandered the grounds.

Standing in front of Temple I.  This was as close as
I would ever be able to get to it.
Sacrificial altar

What an amazing feeling it was to standing in the Grand Plaza, flanked by two grand Mayan temples, watching
an incredible religious ceremony taking place.  Truly memorable!!

To one side of the two temples was a set of stone altars and beyond that a small number of thatched roofed shelters. After a quick stop to look at the altars, I headed for the shelters.

What I saw under the first one took my breath away. It was a gigantic carved mask – something I had only seen in sci-fi adventures like the Indiana Jones series except this was not a cheesy Hollywood prop…..this was the real deal and it was magnificent. I don’t think my photos do it justice because I had to crouch down in a difficult angle to a capture the image.

Stunning artwork, absolutely stunning.  What the photo does not capture is the size of this carved mask.  My guess
is that it was at least 6 feet in height.

Under a second thatched roof shelter was a stone carving….not quite as impressive in detail as the mask but still awe inspiring enough to take my breath away.

Thatched roof shelter....
....and the priceless carving it's protecting.

Seeing the stone carvings and the surrounding altars and temples, I could imagine how spectacular the Grand Plaza must have been in Tikal’s heydays.  I also wondered how many living things had been sacrificed on those altars.  Thank God that practice was abolished centuries ago.

By this time, my brother and Soon had reached the platform of Temple II. I snapped a photo of them from the ground – they were tiny little figures but I could spot them through my camera lens.

See that white spot near the opening at the top?  That's my brother in his white shirt.

Waving back.  Hey!

Zooming in, I caught a picture of them waving back to me.

Later, the guys told us the climb up was pretty steep but it was worth it because the views of Tikal from high above were amazing. They stayed up there for quite a while. Here's what the Grand Plaza looked like from their vantage point; video courtesy of Soon.  Valiant and I are somewhere in the video but we're way too teeny weeny to spot :-)

In the meantime, I was enjoying myself just people watching and trying to snap photos of the oscillated turkeys that roam freely about the grounds.  You have to admit, this is probably the prettiest turkey you've ever seen in your entire life!

Aquilino had just given us about 45 minutes or so to wander around the Grand Plaza.  We waited for my brother and Soon to climb back down from Temple II.  After that, we headed towards Temple V.