In the heart of the northern Guatemalan rainforest lives Tikal National Park, an ancient Mayan civilization buried in centuries of mystery.
I grew up in the United States, on the West Coast where history dates back barely more than 150 years. Forget ancient citadels; complex systems of architecture, culture, and intrigue, if a building stood more than 100 years I was downright impressed.
As for Tikal National Park, even moving amongst the eerie stillness of the trees and ruins at 4 am, I had no clue of the immense size and historic gravity of where I was - the light of my wimpy headlamp hardly illuminating the ground directly around my feet, reminding me I'd have to invest in a better one soon.
We made our way to Temple IV and climbed the steep steps to the top, still hours from sunrise. We perched there in total darkness, bouncing between respectful silence and eagerly chatting with each other about what was in store for us.
As the black of night lightened to gray, the howler monkeys began roaring to welcome the impending day - a frightening noise for the unsuspecting listeners.
I chuckled at my newfound fondness over this noise, the same noise that had woken me up the day prior. I'll never forget the sudden alertness that rushed through my veins as I sprung out of my day, wondering what the hell that noise was. If you've never heard howler monkeys, picture a T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
Listening to the howlers and watching the mist of the morning move with the gentle wind between the rainforest trees, as the sun crept slowing up illuminating the structure was only the start of the adventure in Tikal National Park.
Tikal was inhibited from the 6th century BCE to the 10th century CE. It's estimated to be comprised of thousands of temples, palaces, ceremonial platforms, small and medium sized residences, ball-game courts, terraces, roads, large and small squares on approximately 57,600 hectares of land, 400 hectares of which were the inner urban zone.
Tikal National Park is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed as both Cultural and Natural, for it's archaeology and biodiversity!
The diverse ecosystems and habitats harbor a wide variety of fauna and flora. Five cats, including Jaguar and Puma, several species of monkeys and anteaters and more than 300 species of birds are among the notable wildlife. The forests comprise more than 200 species of trees and over 2000 plants have been recorded across the diverse habitats.
Tikal is one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites, serving as a major Maya capital throughout much of it's history.
Tikal is such a beautiful, lush rainforest with stunning architecture that it was featured in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope! You can clearly see Temples I, II and III peering out from above the jungle tops.
Like the rest of great Mayan cities, TIkal fell into decline around 900 CE and was eventually reclaimed by the jungle. It would only be rediscovered in the mid-19th century CE.
However, archeologists began excavations in the mid 1950's. Because of it's important and sensitive nature, excavations have been so slow that roughly only 15% of the site have been studied.
Tikal was declared a national monument in 1931 and a national park in 1955, one of Guatemala's first protected areas. In 1979, Tikal was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tikal is located in the northern region of Petén in Guatemala. You can get to Tikal by a shuttle or collectivo from the towns of Flores (most common) or El Remate.
While Flores and El Remate both have their pros and cons, I chose to stay in El Remate, the smaller, quieter, and more local alternative to Flores. Additionally, you can swim in the lake by El Remate, you cannot swim in the lake around Flores.
Guatemala is often overlooked as a tourist destination, however wrong these tourists are for not visiting Guatemala, I'm equally pleased for it to remain uncrowded, peaceful and authentic that much longer.
Are you ready to experience the diverse beauty and history of Guatemala?
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