Once I fell in love with the photos and day dreams of the open air cabin the next thing I began looking into was what to do besides laze around in the sun all day (even though that sounded pretty good). The most popular tourist destination in Guatemala is definitely the ruins of Tikal. Tikal is one of the largest archeological ancient Mayan sites in Central America. Tikal itself, rests in the northern Guatemalan rainforest of Tikal National Park which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
With Steve being such a history buff, Tikal was an obvious choice. Flores and El Remate are major hubs for tours to and from Tikal, it wasn't difficult discovering which tour to take from the multitudes that were offered. There was one that stood tall over the others, Roxy Ortiz Tikal Tours! Archaeologist and Naturalist, Roxy conducts private tours through various Mayan sites. She has maintained #1 tour operator on Trip Advisor for quite some time and I have never seen less than a perfect 5 star rating. What could possibly be better than visiting these ancient Mayan temples with an archaeologist by your side! I was sold. Later I discovered that she offers sunrise tours of Tikal, where you climb up one of the highest temples and watch the sunrise over the jungle and ruins. Now I was ecstatic! Over some email correspondence with Roxy we decided on a sunrise tour of Tikal and a sunset tour of Yaxha - a ceremonial centre and the third largest Mayan city. Our only instructions were to bring cash (the park only accepts Quetzales - Guatemalan currency) and a good flashlight. For some reason the flashlight request got me so excited! This was proof it was going to be a real adventure! Apparently in my mind, flashlights = adventure.
Your day starts early when you need to beat the rise of the sun! Roxy was to meet us outside of our hotel at 3:45am - yes, you read that right - and that's just the time we had to be ready to go, never mind the time we actually had to get up! The sound of the car horn was like clockwork at 3:45am, and there they were at the bottom of the winding path! We were greeted by Roxy's assistant and two well-travelled Texans, and off we went!
The journey there wasn't so bad - about a 30-minute trek on the dark empty highway surrounded by dark and somewhat scary looking jungle. A flat tire on the side of the road in the pitch black would be a perfect horror movie setting. When we arrived, we checked in at the front gates and paid an extra fee for entry into the park before their official opening hours - a perk of having an official guided tour! The park rangers also seemed very intimidating and scary - no English, very stern faces and guns, always guns. They would also be a good addition to the horror movie I was creating in my head.
We met up with Roxy and an additional Polish-American couple in the center of the giant, empty dirt parking lot of the National Park. Everyone took a couple minutes preparing themselves for our morning trek in the dark:
- Mosquito repellent - applied
- Sunscreen (to be applied at least 20 minutes after mosquito repellent to ensure efficacy) - check
- Hat - check
- Camera (as if I needed to check - I never let it out of my sight!) - check
- Water - check
- Snacks - check
- Flashlight! - check!
Roxy started off with some basic warnings while walking - Try to stick to the centre of the path, avoid dark spots on the ground (most likely mud and you may get stuck and probably fall), avoid stepping on rocks with moss, and step over what you think is a branch, since apparently snakes can often be mistaken for branches - until you step on them!
I was on full alert for branch snakes as we walked up a slight incline for about an hour with my flashlight on full blast - I was ready for snakes or spiders or whatever this jungle was going to throw at me. Right - who am I kidding?! I would have been the first one to run had anything popped up - luckily nothing did.
During our hike up towards Temple Four - where we would be watching the sun rise over the other temples and the jungle - we got to a small clearing where the trees broke away and you could see a small portion of the dark sky. Roxy stood a minute staring into the sky, thinking. She let us know that there was a lot of mist and we probably wouldn't be able to actually see the sunrise that morning. I was so disappointed - I actually had a couple tears in my eyes that I forced away. I had been dreaming of the moment of the sun coming up over the ancient Maya site for months. Roxy gave us a choice - we could either go up the temple like the other groups and watch nothing but a grey overcast sky... Oooooooor we could take a different route, one which would take us close to where a group of spider monkeys feed each morning. Our small group all decided it would be better to see something rather than nothing and decided to check out these monkeys!
We got to the site where the monkeys apparently feed and I couldn't see a single monkey. As Roxy explained the history of the ancient Ball Game courts we were standing beside, the the darkness started to fade and turn into a deep mist so thick you could feel it's chilly moisture. Suddenly, interrupting her own thought, Roxy pointed to a section of the jungle tree tops and said, "look, over there - do you see it?" And there they were! Not just one spider monkey, but one-by-one they all slowly followed each other to get to the best fruits and plants to fee on. Watching them all emerge from the dark jungle, swinging from branch to vine to branch was one of the highlights of the trip. Some slow, with carefully planned steps; others took daring leaps, making me gasp each time in fear they would miss catching the branch - but they were experts. Far better than any circus performer, it was as if they knew we were watching, and they were putting on a show just for us. The monkeys came to feast on the tree right in front of us! I tried taking some photos but it was too misty and dark, but I was happy just to watch. Once their bellies were full, they set off together. If they are anything like me, probably in search for a good napping spot.
We followed Roxy around the 16 square kilometer park, learning about and climbing many of the 3000 structures and of course, the Ancient Maya culture and history. The ruins are massive, but make up just a small portion of what is known as Tikal National park, which covers 570 square kilometers.
Halfway through the tour, we got to climb Temple IV (were we would have watched the sunrise). Several years ago, when I was visiting Mexico and the ruins of Coba, I had a bit of a panic attack when I climbed my way to the top of a tower. I am afraid of heights (as you know) and I didn't realize how high I was until I was at the top. I was so nervous that I had to climb down on my butt, because my legs were too shaky and unstable because of my nerves. The feeling when my feet reached the ground was a mixture of relief but also the bliss that I got a bit closer to conquering my fear. This memory was stuck in my brain all morning and I was a little nervous that history might repeat itself, but also slightly excited for another opportunity to test my courage. When we got to the base of Temple IV, I realized that I didn't need to be afraid this time. They had constructed a wooden staircase to take you up the temple to the lookout point to help preserve the temple. Let me tell you, it is far easier to climb up and down a wooden staircase with rails than it is to climb a slippery crumbly temple with only a piece of rope to grab for support! The view from the top was quite unique because of all the mist. We sat and watched the mist slowly move past the jungle and I was very happy we didn't waste our time trying to watch the sunrise that morning, because Roxy was right - we wouldn't have seen anything.
We ended the Tikal tour in the main plaza where we had some free time to roam the ground on our own and were to meet at the Tikal Inn to begin the second half of our Ruins adventure, Yaxha. We wandered around the plaza area for while taking photos but it started getting really hot as the sun was blaring down on us and there was nowhere to hide from it so we wandered over to the Inn in hopes of obtaining some shade and liquados.
To be continued...