By Shelley Seale
We walked down the dirt path, no sounds except that of our footfall and the birds calling in the tree canopy high above us.
The jungle was clearly master of the land here in Guatemala, and its untamed force was making its inexorable way toward once again taking over the path, and everything else around it.
We came into a sudden clearing, where the sunlight fell more freely into the forest and there it was: the first of the Mayan pyramid ruins we would see that day.
This was one of the smaller temples that had been excavated and was known as Temple VI. It was largely unearthed, with the steps revealed and cleared away only at one side.
A climb to the top of those steps would yield the first views over the vast complex that was once the thriving, prosperous Mayan city of Tikal in northern Guatemala.
Tikal National Park covers 575 square kilometers of jungle and is part of the one-million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve created in 1990 to protect the dense forests of the Peten, which started to disappear at an alarming rate due to population pressures, illegal logging, and slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
It’s one of only three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Guatemala (the other two being the city of Antigua and the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua).
The Ancient Mayan City
Archeologists estimate that the Maya settled in the area now known as Tikal in about 900 BC. In its heyday during the 8th century AD, Tikal was the greatest metropolis in the Mayan world, with a population of around 100,000 people. Like Maya complexes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Tikal fell into decline at the end of the ninth century and was virtually abandoned.
The causes of the Maya empire’s collapse remain a mystery, but wars, famine, overpopulation, and resource depletion have all been blamed.
Tikal’s great stone monuments languished for centuries and were gradually reclaimed by the jungle. Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, and his motley band of conquistadors marched by Tikal in 1525, but they failed to see its temples concealed by 40-meter-tall silk, cotton, cedar and mahogany trees. Today, fortunately, we are able to discover them for ourselves.
Temple VI was one of the thousands of ruined structures of Tikal — most of them still underground. It’s estimated that only 30% of the structures that make up the complex have been unearthed by archeologists.
The central part of the ancient city alone contains 3,000 buildings and covers about 16 square kilometers.
After passing by the rather unassuming Temple VI, our guide led us to Temples II and III, fully excavated and imposing stone pyramids and some of the best restored at Tikal.
At Temple I in the middle of the park (also known as the Jaguar Temple), the burial remains of one of Tikal’s greatest rulers, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, were discovered in 1958. Temples I and II loom like a pair of colossal bookends on opposite sides of the Great Plaza, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces, and ball courts.
The last structure we arrived at was Temple IV, perhaps the most magnificent for its sheer size and the views it affords. At 65 meters (over 213 feet) tall, it is not only the tallest structure in Tikal, but also thought to be the tallest edifice ever erected by the ancient Maya.
Visitors can climb to the top of this temple for jaw-dropping views across the central plaza and other pyramids, and the lush jungle. Wooden stairs with handrails make it a fairly easy ascent, but there are a lot of them, so (Indiana Jones excepted), there’s a lot of catching your breath.
You’re well rewarded at the top, however, by those majestic views.
Fun fact: Although Star Wars is said to take place in a galaxy far, far away, Tikal was used as a filming location for the Star Wars IV movie used as the “rebel base.”
Post-Indiana Jones Relaxation
Not nearly as many people visit Tikal as other Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza in Mexico, because it isn’t quite as easy to get to. Or rather, it’s not so long or difficult to get here, but there’s not nearly the development or nearby amenities and attractions that are near other such sites.
A one-hour flight from Guatemala City lands you in Flores, Peten; and Tikal National Park is about a one-hour drive from there. With all that trekking and temple-climbing, my bet is always on having a welcoming, relaxing place to come “home” to at the end of the day, with perhaps a massage to ease away sore muscles.
The perfect combination, and antidote, for Tikal’s rigors, is a stay at Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, just a 10-minute drive from the Flores airport.
Not only is this a beautiful property offering guests their own separate, private, spacious bungalow — but its setting amidst the jungle at a private reserve lagoon continues the feeling of Guatemalan adventure, history, and nature that you came to Tikal and Peten for.
Each of the 19 bungalows at the luxury eco-resort is built with shining, gorgeous wood all around — floors, walls, and high-raftered ceilings.
Every comfort is provided for, from luxurious bedding and air conditioning to satellite TV, Wi-fi and room service. The real gem, however, is the outdoor living space; each unit has sliding glass doors that lead to a large, enclosed deck with furniture and its own private Jacuzzi hot tub.
Now that’s living, after a day of exploring Tikal. Coming home to Las Lagunas and a Jacuzzi soak, perhaps a massage at the lovely spa, and gourmet dinner at Shultun Restaurant (try the native Blanco fish, only found here), followed perhaps with drinks by the infinity pool, is hard to beat.
The 300-acre reserve is protected and acts as a breeding facility for native wildlife species.
If you haven’t gotten enough action and adventure at Tikal, Las Lagunas guests can trek, kayak, bicycle or go on 4×4 ATV rides.
Bird watching is sublime here, with more than 500 native species. Every stay also includes a boat trip to nearby Monkey Island, where you can expect regular appearances from the friendly monkeys, and even feed them.
And if you want to explore more of what the Mayans left behind, the ruins at Yahxá and Topoxté are both about an hour and fifteen minutes from Las Lagunas.
Check out the UNESCO guide to Tikal.
Get more information about Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel.
Go to the official Guatemala Tourism site.
Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”