Soaring Skyscrapers of the Jungle-City of Tikal – Tikal, Guatemala

Soaring Skyscrapers of the Jungle-City of Tikal: A Day’s Discovery Tour to the Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala

George Lucas wasn’t too discreet imagineering the aerial scenes in his film “Star Wars”, unmistakably copied from the magical fantasy city of Tikal where pyramids drowning in a sea of emerald jungle reach out skyward as if desperately reaching-out for a lifesaver.

This once belly of the shifting universe was a strategic trading post to overland transfers from river and sea routes reaching as far west as Central Mexico and east as Costa Rica.

Temple I
Temple I
An alliance of envious neighbors coveted its prosperous monopoly and reduced it to a vassal-state. More than a hundred years later, Tikal produced its messiah, Ah Cacao the Great who brilliantly hatched a war strategy to break away and once again dominate.

In a new round of bragging rights akin to Francois Mitterand’s “Grand Projects” public works program, building boom ensued.

Exhausted from excessive exploitation, the region succumbed to drought after 1200 years of existence. Abandoned sometime 900 AD, it was reclaimed by the jungle leaving-off the topmost comb-crests of pyramids. Discovered 1847 and declared UNESCO Heritage Site by 1979, it ranks together with the Great Pyramids of Africa, the Great Acropolis of Europe, and the Great Wall of Asia as an the enduring symbol of man’s achievement in this hemisphere.

Within an hour, the plane I was riding from Guatemala City touched-down at the international airport, a five-minute drive from the dusty sleepy town of Santa Elena.

At a travel agency, I booked a 5:30 a.m. trip. Santa Elena’s absence of street lighting, my poor eyesight, and early evening fast-snoring inhabitants all combined to detain me from venturing-out to find tomorrow’s excursion provisions.

At pre-dawn, the coach picked me up then stopped at Flores town for another batch. Along the bus stop, food stalls sell bottled water, soda, and fresh fluffy bread. I sat for an early-bird breakfast, settling for rice, sunny-side, beans, and fried plantain ensemble. Happy on a heavy meal, I headed back to my seat for a chat with fellow-passengers.

An American seatmate recounted last year’s encounter in Greece with hostile locals as vented reaction to geo-political turn-of-events. Becoming very concerned, this time on this trip, he heard that a few weeks before, bandits got away holding-up tourists who were made to strip-off to their birthday suit.

The coach gingerly set off, meandering for 20 kilometers on a well-paved road towards the Reserve and 20 more for the Ruins.

Tikal’s temple-pyramids were used as burial-shrines or memorials honoring the milestone passing of time. Seven are must-sees and only two are access-friendly. Supermodels of pyramids, they’re slender as sylph when set side-by-side alongside pudgy Mexican ones.

The bus then reached a disused airstrip used presently as a parking lot. The driver turned off the engine and announced that here is the assembly point. Departures are on the hour, by the hour, the last one at 6:00 pm.

Misty describes the site, visibility a mere two paces away. Each impromptu group picked its path, mine lead to the nearest pyramid as we’re itching to climb one, encountering one with “NO CLIMBING” sign. A guidebook explains this low-isolated Temple VI or Temple of Inscriptions for its abundant hieroglyphs, hosted the rape of a tourist on the dawn of 2001.

We then headed off for Temple IV on the extreme west end crossing through the Central Plaza and saving it for later exploration. A lone trooper on patrol, cradling a long firearm was veiled by a wafting morning jungle mist.

Rushing to Temple IV or Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent was as urgent as dashing through the cinema as if a movie screening started 10 minutes ago. The rising-sun’s aura has commenced and viewing it is suggested by guides. There are conflicting views regarding this activity, some aficionados dismissed it as mere time wasting.

Almost all pyramids are single-faceted bisected by a central stairway, unlike the four-faceted Egyptian and Mexican ones. Tallest at 65 meters, this one faces east to the Great Plaza.

Hill-like, with rather four sharp edges, it’s preserved in vegetation-suffocating condition except for the last top-steps of the stairway now seating spectators for the sunrise spectacle amidst blurring low-floating mists. Access is through a Robinson Crusoe-type stairs.

Temple III
Temple III
After a yawning non-event performance, it’s time to peer on the cell up, enjoy the breezy southern scenery, meditate on the west, moonwalk on a sprouting tree trunk on the north, and scoot down.

Next is Temple III or Temple of Jaguar Priest at 55 meters.

Centrally located is the Great Plaza where important structures huddle.

North Acropolis, a collection of stelae, altars, and pyramids in various sizes was built on one massive platform.

West is Temple II or Temple of the Masks, eroded to 38 meters; distinguished by three diminishing muscular tiers. King Ah Cacao memorialized his sweetheart-queen in this shrine a la Taj Mahal’s romantic storyline.

East is Temple of the Great Jaguar, honorably bestowed Temple I for the King himself. Standing at 45 meters, it’s marked by nine auspiciously diminishing tiers, or as one sees it – as platforms, balconies, or terraces.

South is Central Acropolis, a juggernaut of juxtaposed shrines and palaces.

By now, the Plaza is crowded, mostly with school-kids on a field trip. We encountered a local tagging her bored brood of husband and eight kids, all mistaken for blond, blue-eyed European tourists. They call attention to their bright orange caps bearing the logo of her marketing executive-brother’s multinational drug company.

With aplomb, she tested the air waxing-out an operatic excerpt high up the platform toward the Plaza. Her crystal-clear soprano voice precisely sliced the air. Crowds clapped after the impromptu performance. The corral of high buildings makes an accommodating acoustical infrastructure but not for her. Not pleased, she switched to chatting.

Exchanging insights from an eagerly approachable English-speaking local, I think is a satisfying visit.

Further is South Acropolis. Eastward, a welcoming committee of trees teasingly open-up to a wide plaza where awe-inspiring and dignified Temple V sits, yet unnamed and second tallest at 58 meters, distinguished by its seven round-cornered tiers. Encountering this temple came close to Indiana Jones’ slow cautious approach to Petra, the rock-hewn city. The trees form a narrow corridor stimulating a feeling of suspenseful wonder much like the rocks leading to the Holy Grail site.

Up close and personal access to the temple top is through a steep wooden ladder, much like a combined sensual and acrophobic experience of scaling-up a 15-storey building. The unstable central stairway is off-limits.

Climbers make a curiosity like the high-heeled woman in long narrow skirt, an obese American more determined and out-of-breath than me, or a Japanese shielding his milky-white complexion with an umbrella. At the top, a ready-to-descend grandma greeted me.

Tikal Pyramid Conquerors
Tikal Pyramid Conquerors
Summit ushers ensure everybody gets a fair share of time, lingering is discouraged.

Nearby is Lost World Complex highlighted by the uniquely squatty, equal-sided, no-access Great Pyramid – large but only at 32 meters and carpeted by grasses. Its flat top used to be the gathering ground for gazers getting high on the twilight experience.

Hundred more clones abound. It’s downright information overload to view all of them.

Occasionally, coatis – cousins of raccoons and lemurs – follow the food trail, turkey chuckles break jungle silence, howler monkeys swing-by for the reservoirs constructed to attract wildlife, while guacamayas and toucans sneak-in. Nature lovers will find it irresistible as they further explore. After all, this park is within a huge sphere of nature reserve.