Tikal - Mayan Magic & Mystery

Many people who travel to Belize are repeat visitors. Although each time they visit this diverse country their taste for adventure is satiated, they are left wanting more, and they are lured back to explore more of what holds their heart captive, be it the tropical beaches, the deep blue Caribbean waters or jungles that harbor exotic creatures and nestle the secrets of past civilizations. Belize has left them spellbound…and they hunger for more.

For those who are intrigued by the Mayan mystic, Belize and her neighbors cradle the archeological remains of the ancient Mayan people. The Mundo Maya covers a territory of over 5,000 square kilometers which is now occupied by five southern Mexico states, and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In this land of great contrasts, where rivers and mountains intertwine with jungle and sea, the Mayan civilization developed three thousand years ago. It is one of the most outstanding cultures of ancient times. Today, the massive temples and ceremonial centers built by these people are impressive archeological sites. But the Mayan culture does not belong in a museum; it lives and breathes in the people who populate the Mundo Maya and who adhere to ancient customs through their art, religion and agriculture.

Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent, and is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and natural preserve.
The world of Maya has many faces; the steaming tropical jungles, gently sloping farmlands and harsh savannah flatlands are as much a part of its character as are the towering mountain ranges, soaring volcanic peaks, and sun kissed Caribbean beaches. It is a utopia for divers, a haven for adventurous travelers and a fertile source of biological and ethnic diversity for historian and ecologists. Charming colonial towns appear at every turn, and ultramodern resorts co-exist with tiny indigenous villages. To explore these lands is to take a step back in time while walking with the very people who are of same Mayan blood that first built these forgotten cities. These people still bear the family resemblance of classic Mayan royalty, portrayed in their sculptured faces and proud stature.

Stone pathways lead you through lush landscapes at the Hotel Jungle Lodge.
Perhaps the most impressive of all Mayan ruins is Tikal, located at Tikal National Park in the district of Petén, Guatemala. Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent. It is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and natural preserve. Tikal possesses a certain magic…like all puzzles without answers, it fascinates everyone and is so enchanting that once you are there, you will find yourself captivated by the mesmerizing culture and complex society of this intriguing civilization.

Depending on what your time and budget allows, there are a variety of ways that you can travel to Tikal. If you are staying in San Pedro you can either fly or take the water taxi to Belize City. From there you can fly to Santa Elena, Guatemala, where you then travel by bus for an hour to Tikal. From Belize City you can also travel by road on a bus, rent a car or charter ground transportation.

A maze of stairs leads you to a temple top.
We have hired Menzies Tours to transport us to Tikal, and Henry Menzie awaits us at the municipal airport in Belize City where we board a very comfortable, brand new Toyota passenger van complete with air conditioning and satellite radio. This is traveling in style, and we feel half guilty that we are not traveling by “chicken bus,” where you truly immerse yourself in to the sights, sounds, smells and characters that make up this Latin American culture.

It is a four hour drive from Belize City to Tikal, and the road trip allows you to view the incredibly diverse terrain. In Belize you travel through vast savannahs, and as you gain elevation rolling hills of farmland unfold and pine forests give way to lush rain forests.

Wildlife abounds at Tikal National Park, including, clockwise from top, the Collared Aracari Toucan, the Spider Monkeys, and the Crested Guan.
Upon reaching the Belize – Guatemala border Mr. Menzie is very helpful in assisting you through customs and can also serve as a translator if needed. You are immediately approached by “money exchangers” who will convert your Belizean or US currency into Guatemalan “quetzales”, and there is no mistake, you are entering a new and different country. Once on the road again, you travel through the rustic and raw village of Melchor. The bumpy dirt road is shared with chickens, horses and wandering pigs. Children dart about on ruined bicycles or run ahead, barefoot and full of life. As you pass sleepy houses and modest wooden shacks you notice villagers napping in hammocks, colorful laundry drying on strands of barbed wire fence and children busy with the job of being a kid. Gently sloping hills and pastures of verdant green grass are dotted with huge coconut and palm trees, while creamy white Braham cattle and their sweet calves graze and grace the landscape. Caballeros ride by on bony, worn-down horses and are always accompanied by a dog or two. This is a look at Guatemalan life, and it is not hard to imagine that indeed the Mayan lifeline is still very much alive in these hardworking and gentle country folk.

Once you enter the Tikal National Park you cannot help but feel the excitement. The jungle lined corridor takes you deep into the forest and road signs that warn “slow down for the critters” are complete with jaguar, fox, coatimundi and wild turkey symbols. What ever you do, don’t try to see all of Tikal in one day, even if you are in excellent shape! To truly experience all that Tikal has to offer you should plan to spend at least two days exploring the area. Again, depending on your time and budget, there are many options.

Tikal is an endless network of impressive structures and courtyards.
You may stay at nearby Santa Elena or Flores, and travel daily by bus to the ruins, or if you prefer to stay right in the park, there are two lodges to choose from and a well equipped camp ground. The Hotel Jaguar Inn even offers “hammock” camping where the hammocks are completely enclosed with mosquito netting. We opt for more civilized accommodations, and are guests of the Hotel Jungle Lodge. This lovely jungle lodge is surrounded by pristine tropical forest and is located just one kilometer from the central plaza of Tikal. Stone-paved paths lead you to quaint cabañas that offer all the creature comforts you need, plus a private porch and a symphony courtesy of the jungle. Multicolored Ocellated turkey’s and sly, little gray foxes wander the grounds while tropical birds of all sizes and colors fly from tree top to tree top above. The hotel has a large, inviting lodge where you enjoy your meals, a well stocked bar complete with big screen satellite TV and a cozy, relaxing lounge area with comfy overstuffed furniture. From their beautiful swimming pool you can watch keel-billed toucans and spider monkeys grooving in the trees. The experience of slumbering in the jungle is a rare one, and alone it is worth the trip.

Park guides are full of helpful information and can lead you through the complex grounds.
Tikal is a fabulous spot for adventure, and is a majestic archaeological gem that is comprised of 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center. It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover about 10 square miles of structures at Tikal. However, much of it is still left to be unearthed. Tikal remained a mystery for centuries, after being abruptly abandoned by the Maya over 1,000 years ago and overgrown by a relentless jungle. Only a legend survived among the Indians of a lost city, where their ancestors had achieved a high cultural development. In 1848 the legend faded, giving way to an exciting era of discovery. It was a serendipitous discovery made by Ambrosio Tut, a gum collector or chiclero. He saw the temple’s roof combs in the distance. He ran to tell Modesto Mendez, the Governor of the Petén Province. When they arrived at the site the impressive temples, the open plazas and the several-story buildings, where priests and kings once lived, stood in front of Governor Mendez’ and Ambrosio Tut’s very eyes. They visited the site with an artist who recorded some of the carvings at Tikal and their findings were published by the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1853. It was only a matter of a few years before curious scholars started traveling from the corners of the world to see what had been discovered. Having some information on what you are looking at can make a world of difference while exploring the ruins.

Local Mayan girls sell colorful corn husk dolls adorned with a variety of natural materials.
Guidebooks may be purchased at the local hotels and restaurants as well as from park personnel at the entrance or at the Sylvanus Morley Museum. Coe’s guide to Tikal is popular as it is concise and includes a map, and there are several guides at the park who can take you on walking tours of the area. The paths travel through dense jungle and tropical birds and noisy monkeys top the forest canopy that envelops the trails. Take plenty of water, mosquito repellent and a good pair of walking shoes. Be prepared to walk, and walk and walk. There are mazes of trails to explore, flights of wooden stairs to climb and temples to mount. Your journey will take you to courtyards and temples of all sizes, and from the temple tops the views are breathtaking. Low lying clouds steam above the jungle and the thick, warm air is alive with the buzz of winged insects and the roaring sound of nearby howler monkeys.

Large black vultures slowly circle above you as you are transported back in time to the “Mundo Perdido” …the Lost World. If you are an early riser, some of the tour guides offer sunrise hikes, where you greet the day from atop a temple. The warm colors of the sunrise wash the morning sky, slowly waking the jungle creatures, who sing in a chorus of animal song to the new day.

Tikal is Mayan magic, mystery and melody. All that you experience at Tikal will forever remain in your heart, and like a favorite book, you will want to relive your Tikal story again and again, remembering and savoring the tale of Mayan magic, mystery and melody that you have memorized by heart, never to be forgotten.

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Maya Sites in Belize
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