Probably our most favorite day on our vacation in Belize wasn't even spent in Belize - it was spent in Tikal, Guatemala.
Tikal was an enormous city in ancient Maya times. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in the area. Only about 25% of the ruins have been excavated; the area is huge and there is a lot of buildings for future generations to discover. Tikal is tucked in the jungle state of Peten, which I think is the largest of the Guatemalan "states". There are still Maya people living in the area, but it is a huge national park. I'd say it took us about 90 minutes to get from the border to the park.
The roads in that part of Guatemala are not very good. There was some pavement, then it would abruptly change to gravel and hard packed dirt with lots of big potholes and washerboard areas. It was very bumpy. It was not surprising that the van we were in had a big crack along the windshield. Our driver, Julio, spoke only Spanish but understood a little English. I speak English but understand a little Spanish, so we did ok. We were Julio's only passengers that day.
The countryside we drove through was very green and lush. Unlike Belize, there are many rolling hills in that part of the country, and I thought it was very beautiful. We passed several signs for Maya ruins along the way. The area was a big part of the Maya empire.
We finally arrived at the village that is just outside of the entrance to Tikal. It reminded me a a Central American West Yellowstone: there were little restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops along the road. We stopped at one such souvenir shop for a potty break and a chance to get something to drink and a snack. That is also where we met our guide, Samuel.
Samuel is Mayan. He was born in Tikal and now lives in Flores. (Flores seems like a cool place. It's on an island in the middle of a lake. I think it would be fun to visit there.) Samuel spoke excellent English and was proud of his heritage and homeland. We felt very lucky to have such a great guide all to ourselves.
Julio drove us into the park and dropped us off. He and Samuel made arrangements to pick us up about three hours later, and we were off. Here we are, heading into the jungle.
It looks pretty flat, but I can assure you, it wasn't. It was a pretty steady but slight uphill the whole way to Temple 4.
The first structure we came to was an astronomy tower. The Maya were very good astronomers and spent a lot of time studying the heavens. This was the first thing we climbed.
Not too bad, right? Here's what the climb looked like from the top. It was pretty steep. Once I started up the steps, I just kept going without stopping or looking back.
This is the view from the top, looking at the back of Temple 1.
Temple 1 is enormous, but it is not the first temple we are going to see. We are going to start with Temple 4 and end at the Main Plaza which has Temples 1 and 2. The way to get to Temple 4 is through the jungle.
There are many, many trails in Tikal that will get you to different areas. I was very glad to have Samuel there to lead the way. I explained to him that I have arthritis and couldn't walk as fast as the others - yet another reason that I'm glad it was just the three of us and our guide. Samuel was wonderful about going at a comfortable pace for me. The three men would often get ahead of me, but the would wait until I caught up and they would often ask me if I was doing ok. They would also prolong the wait if I needed to stop once I caught up with them. I mostly think I did all right and didn't slow them down too much, especially early in the day.
In the jungle, it's kind of dark and very green. We heard lots of noises, like howler monkeys growling from far away - they are very noisy. At one point as we were walking, I heard noises above us in the trees, but I couldn't see any animals. Samuel told us what we were hearing was spider monkeys following us. They would stop when we would stop, as if they were playing hide and seek or follow the leader. It was kind of creepy, but kind of cool, also. I kept my eyes peeled for snakes and jaguars, but I didn't see anything like that, thankfully.
Finally we arrived at Temple 4. It is so gigantic, that you can't even really see the top of it. It's just HUGE. It's about 70 meters tall, which is about 40 meters higher than Xunantunich. A nice set of stairs have been built to climb to the top. There are hundreds of stairs. I was pretty tired from dragging myself through the jungle and I was dripping sweat because it was extremely humid, but there was one thing I knew for certain: there was NO WAY that I was going to come all the way to Tikal and not climb to the top of Temple 4, no matter how tired or sore or sweaty I was.
And you know what? It was totally worth it.
The near temple is the back of Temple 2 and the far one is Temple 1 (I think, I could be completely backward.) But look at that. You can see for miles and miles. The other people who were up on the temple on the very narrow walkway with us were all as jubilant and awestruck as we were. One guy said (in Spanish), "Thank you Mayans!" It made me smile. This is my favorite picture I took up there:
Look at how happy T looks. If I hadn't climbed up there, I would have missed the most beautiful view of all. Didn't I tell you it was totally worth it?
When we got back down the stairs, we were just euphoric. And thirsty. Thankfully, there was a little rest area that sold cold drinks. We all guzzled some water and took a little break. We also spoke with some German tourists who were wandering around Guatemala exploring all the ruins they possibly could. It was interesting to talk to them. They were much more rugged than me. They would hike, ride horses, canoe, sleep in the jungle, etc. That is not for me. Never has been. I admire their adventurous spirit. This trip was about as adventurous as I want to be.
From Temple 4 we wandered through the Lost World area where T climbed another temple while MT, Samuel and I sat on some tree stumps and chatted. T seemed very content to wander around and explore on his own, and we were happy to let him. While we waited for T, we learned about Samuel and his life growing up in Tikal and his life as an adult with children of his own. It was really interesting. I really enjoy hearing about other cultures.
Like I said before, only about a quarter of the ancient city has been uncovered, and there are signs of structures throughout the area. Here's a picture of a structure that has yet to be uncovered. You can see the pyramid-like shape underneath the jungle growth.
Many movies have been filmed in Tikal, including scenes from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" as well as scenes from various "Star Wars" movies. I think Tikal was the setting of the Rebel Base in "Return of the Jedi." Maybe while I'm recovering from my knee surgery, I will watch those movies to see if I recognize Tikal in any of the scenes.
I haven't seen the Transformers movies, but don't you think this kind of looks like a Transformer?
The May were very good at putting decorations on their buildings. There are lots of faces and carvings on many of the temples.
Temple 1 is THE main temple in Tikal. It is a symbol of Guatemala. It is HUGE. Once you get to the Main Plaza area, you can see it from almost anywhere, at least side views of it.
Seeing it from the side and from far away, though, is nothing like seeing it head on for the first time. It is spectacular.
The main plaza consists of Temple 1 at one end and Temple 2 at the other end. On the sides are many, many other buildings that were homes or holy places called The Acropolis. You are not allowed to climb Temple 1 because it is so steep and sheer on each side. No steps have been built and a few tourists have fallen and been killed, so no climbing there. You can climb to the top of Temple 2, though. Stairs, more like ladders, have been built to get you safely up Temple 2. I wasn't going to do it, but I couldn't resist getting a different view of Temple 1.
It was really steep. You can see I'm clutching a water bottle in my left hand and a towel in the right hand. That towel saved me. I was constantly mopping my face throughout the day. I would have been miserable without that stupid little towel!
I was just looking back through my pictures for a view of Temple 1 from Temple 2, but the only pics I have like that include me looking sweaty and exhausted. I will not include them. I think MT was holding the camera because by this point in the day, I was a little shaky and in some pain from my knee. However, there are a couple of pictures of the Acropolis and a view down to give you an idea of how high up we were.
This picture shows the main part of the plaza. Most of you know that the Maya predicted the end of something significant on 12/21/12. In speaking with Samuel, he explained that 12/21/12 was the end of a part of the Maya calendar, and a new calendar would begin. It is like a rebirth of time. Christians think that the end of the world means the second coming of Christ, but the Maya don't think that way. They just think it will be a time of new beginning. I like it. Samuel said that there will be a huge festival at Tikal on 12/21/12 and he will be there, in the Main Plaza with thousands of others at sunrise, to celebrate the new beginning. Wouldn't that be amazing?
The three of us loved Tikal. Since we've been back from our trip, we have often referred to Tikal as our favorite part of our vacation. We all liked Samuel very much and learned a lot from him. We liked that we had him to ourselves so we could ask any questions we liked. We could hear and understand everything he said. He pretty much let us choose what we spent time looking at. He guided us to the coolest things, but never told us know when we wanted to wander off over there or spend a little more time over here. He was quite accommodating to me even though I was slow, especially at the end. And he took our picture whenever we wanted him to! Here we are in front of Temple 2.
The last part of the day was spent wandering around the Acropolis a little, then we headed back down the hill to the parking lot. Walking down was much more difficult for me than walking up. Because I have lost some of the ability to bend my right knee and because it just can no longer take the pounding that happens when I step down, I had to step down with my left leg first all the time, following with my right. Because of that, my left quadricep muscle, the big muscle on the front of the leg, was extremely sore for the next couple of days as was my left calf muscle. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat!