In Tikal, Temples in the Mist
December 16, 2007
By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/travel/16Tikal.html


The ruins at Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala, some nearly 3,000 years old, were reopened for
Mayan rituals in the late 1990s.


Slideshow- "In Tikal, an Escape to Civilization"

IN Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in northern Guatemala, dawn is not seen — it is heard. First, a roar. Then a responding roar, then another and another — not from jaguars, but from howler monkeys, proclaiming their territory. A squeaking counterpoint begins: the raccoonlike coatimundi greeting one another as they forage for food. Finally the birds join in, toucans clicking their long bills and parrots shrieking, the prima donna first violins bringing the symphony to a climax.

I am listening from a narrow stone ledge, sitting with a clutch of windbreaker-clad tourists. We rode to this spot in the jungle by pickup truck, standing in the bed as it bumped along in the darkness, and then shuffled out and climbed seemingly endless flights of rickety wooden steps to the top of an ancient stone structure, Temple IV.

Now, in the dim light of early morning, a green sea of leaves stretches out before us, fog banks float about like dinghies, and only the resident leviathans, Temples I and III, dare to lift their stony heads above the horizon. Slowly, the city below the canopy begins to take shape, the hidden concert hall of moss-covered stone that has echoed this same jungle symphony every morning for more than a thousand years.

The very word “ruin” suggests a fallen city or temple, a one-time New York or Jerusalem whose inhabitants died out, taking the life of the place with them. But Tikal, surrounded by ever-creeping vegetation and screeching wildlife, and since 1996 once again used for rituals by the Mayan people, feels organic and strangely vivid. It is as if when the inhabitants of the city left, the jungle moved in, keeping it alive until the Mayans could return. Tikal has the feel of a living ruin, closer to its original vitality than perhaps any other deserted city of the past.

Among Mayan sites, Tikal has long been second banana to Chichén Itzá in Mexico, which was named one of the seven new wonders of the world in July, after a global Internet vote. (Tikal wasn’t even a finalist.) But that popularity seems based on factors other than the ruins themselves. The great advantage of Chichén Itzá is accessibility, in particular, its proximity to the resort towns of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is less lively than Tikal and smaller — its centerpiece a step pyramid that is half the height of some Tikal structures.

Visiting the jungle has its drawbacks, of course. To stay at Tikal longer than a few hours on a midday trip, you must spend a night in the confines of Tikal National Park, which is impossibly humid and filled with mosquitoes. (As it was when I visited in October.) It gets better: the power goes off at night, leaving you hiding under your mosquito net and sweating into your mattress. But for my park entry fee, no ruins can match Tikal’s. Some ancient sites — the Pyramids, the Colosseum — feel monumental. Others — Ephesus, Petra — feel like cities. Stand in the center of Tikal’s Great Plaza, and you will have a feeling of both.

Temple I draws the eye first. A symmetrical, nine-level step pyramid on the plaza’s east end, reaching 150 feet, it is Tikal’s iconic image, the photograph on every postcard. In A.D. 784, it became the burial place of the ruler Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. Turn to the south, and you see the Central Acropolis, a five-story palace where the nobles might have sat to watch plaza ceremonies or the famous Quidditch-like Mayan ball games. To the west rises Temple II, three levels and 125 feet, the burial place of Jasaw’s queen, Lady Twelve Macaw. The acropolis spreads out in a complex of altars and tombs and giant stone faces constructed over millenniums, like a one-stop-shop religion superstore. All those watchful eyes — king, queen, nobles, priests — made me feel like a wayward Mayan prince, duty bound to run home and make sure that I’d skinned the jaguar correctly and that my chiseled hieroglyphs were in order.

The plaza itself is about the size of a baseball diamond, large enough to give scope but small enough so the weight of the buildings presses in. This was the center of life in the city’s heyday, from the third century A.D. through the ninth. “Our downtown,” joked Manuel Lara, my guide of Mayan descent. “Our Times Square.”

In the 1996 accords that ended the Guatemalan civil war, the Mayan people were given the right to worship in their ancient sites as they wished. Fire pits were built in the Great Plaza and elsewhere at Tikal for their use in rituals.

Pilgrims come for major festivals and at other times, too, more casually and often on Sundays, when the entry fee is waived for Guatemalans. “They are taking back their privilege,” Mr. Lara explained. Outside the Great Plaza, Tikal, the largest of the ruined Mayan cities, is a winding series of jungle paths to various temple complexes. There are six stand-alone temples altogether, numbered in the order in which they were discovered. All are variations on the step pyramid theme, some thicker and broad-based, others soaring and majestic.

Temple IV is the tallest at around 200 feet, about the size of the smallest of Egypt’s three main pyramids. Temple I, median width for the six, has a base of 10,000 square feet. Each has a tiny room for rituals at the very top, the only indoor space on these massive structures, covered by a “roof comb” decorated with stone carvings.

Some parts of the city date back to 800 B.C., and at the city’s apex it was a dominant city state, the home of about 70,000 people spread over 25 square miles. Only six of those square miles can be visited now, all on foot. Walking the old Mayan footpaths feels right, even though, between the humidity and the frequent jungle rain, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be dripping at day’s end.

Tikal was opened to the public in 1955, when several of its major buildings were still under soil. Although excavation continues to this day, some buildings have been left partly or fully covered by jungle. The look is a product of a different philosophy toward ruins than the one that ruled when Chichén Itzá was fully cleared in the 1930s, Mr. Lara explained. The intention is to give visitors a sense of how the site looked when it was found: scores of unnaturally symmetrical mounds, blanketed by grass and dirt like small children hiding under the covers. Leaving the soil in place also protects against erosion from wind and rain, particularly dangerous for Tikal’s limestone structures.

The latest area to be unearthed is the Plaza of the Seven Temples, just southwest of the Great Plaza, with seven small but identical buildings on a right angle and three ball courts. Cement and chalky blocks shone white there the day I walked through. Over future years, the jungle will provide the same living grime it has given the rest of the city, but for the time being the most appealing temple was one not fully excavated, with a tree growing on its roof, the roots reaching down to obscure the facade.

The half-buried, organic appearance of Tikal goes a long way to explaining its mysterious air of somehow still being alive. Paradoxically, the clean-everything-up, museum approach to archaeology can make a site feel deader and more sterile than one that sports a healthy coat of moss.

Temple V is the most recently excavated major temple, a 150-foot behemoth that gives you no warning when you come upon it in the jungle. Kate Croucher, 28, of Aspen, Colo., was sitting on a wooden platform at its top when I was there, catching her breath after climbing its daunting, ladder-like steps. Over the trees, we could see Temples I and II squaring off in the Grand Plaza and the acropolis beyond. A cool breeze floated off the treetops, a welcome relief from the soupy jungle below. “I saw the Pyramids,” she said, comparing Tikal to Egypt. “I’d say this is on par with those.” Then she reconsidered, thinking of the Mayans. “This is better, because you can go on top of them, and see what they saw,” she said.

The living quality that I felt from the ruins also seemed to be sensed by others I met. “The jungle and the ruins are some kind of symbiosis,” said Ian Thomas Belanger, a tourist from Quebec. “It feels like the elements are trying to get over what man did.”

On the first day of my visit, I saw the Great Plaza fill with a different sort of life. I was there near Columbus Day, and without planning it in advance, I stumbled onto a modern Mayan festival, an anti-Columbus Day held annually to show the world that despite all the Europeans had wrought, the Mayan people are still there.

“Father Sun, Mother Moon, Father Wind, Mother Earth,” the head shaman cried in Quiche, starting the prayer, as Mr. Lara explained to me, translating the words. The shaman bowed to the ground, his necklace of jade and shells rattling, and the hundreds of gathered Mayans did likewise. His voice fell, the public prayer becoming a private one, and a chorus of chattering voices rose to join him. Guatemala has 22 dialects, and these people were speaking in all of them, asking their ancient gods for help, for health, for money and friendship. A small boy in front of me kissed the scrubby grass beneath his hands.

The shamans — there were four or five altogether — piled candles, eggs, incense, sage, tobacco, leaves and rum in a large stone pit and lighted it. Flames leapt 20 feet in the air, and the people danced in the clove-scented smoke, circling to the plunky beat of the marimba.

Before leaving Tikal, I sampled a much newer activity. Canopy Tours Tikal (www.canopytikal.com) opened a few years ago and offers zip-line and suspended-bridge tours of the jungle canopy. Advertised with breathless enthusiasm (“Tarzan-style. More jungle, longer, faster!”), the zip-line nonetheless lived up to its billing, with nine zips nearly the length of football fields ($15). The suspended bridges (also $15), though, were unexciting, save for a fusillade of nuts and twigs from a pair of spider monkeys, which didn’t appreciate the intrusion into their treetops.

After the canopy tour, it was time to make a decision. A second sunset and sunrise in the shadow of Tikal’s majesty, and a second sweaty, mosquito-filled night? Or on to Flores, where my flight would leave the next day? Flores, a cobblestone colonial town on an island in Lake Petén Itzá, won out, and I dined that night in a restaurant full of tourists.

It was sad to leave the living ruins, but all travelers must also face considerations that come under the modern definition of “living.” And that night, for me, living meant a rare steak soaked in pepper cream sauce, a glass of Chilean merlot, and air-conditioning running full-blast, all night long.

An Escape to Civilization

GETTING THERE

Tikal National Park (www.visitguatemala.com) is usually visited as part of larger trips to Guatemala and Belize. It is accessible as a day trip from the lake-island city of Flores for those who want to stay in greater comfort, or as an overnight destination for those who wish to see sunrise and sunset in the jungle. Daily admission is 150 queztales (about $19.50 at 7.7 queztales to the dollar, which is widely accepted).

An online search for nonstop round-trip flights from New York to Guatemala City for a week’s stay in early January ran from $313 to $583 on a number of airlines, including Delta, Continental, United and TACA International. TACA (www.taca.com) runs several flights daily from Guatemala City to Flores, starting at about $200 round trip. More information about connections is available at http://www.tikalinformation.com/ .

WHEN TO GO

The climate at Tikal is hot and humid year-round, but the driest, most comfortable weather is usually from December through February.

WHERE TO STAY

Unless you stay in the park, you will not be able to see sunrise and sunset in Tikal, but if you stay in the jungle, the prices are high and the amenities are minimal.

The Hotel Villa Maya (502-2334-1818; www.villasdeguatemala.com; rates start at $85) is something of a reasonable compromise. A popular eco-lodge a few miles east of Flores, it allows you to experience the jungle as you would at Tikal with all of the creature comforts, but you still won’t have full access to the park.

Of the three hotels in the park, Jungle Lodge (502-2476-8775; www.junglelodgetikal.com; starting at $102, including breakfast) is probably the best, but take a battery-powered fan if you don’t like sleeping in heat, as the electricity shuts off around 9 p.m. Your hotel can arrange a guided tour of the ruins, which will run from $15 a person for a group tour to $80 for a private guide. Try to visit the ruins at least twice at different times of day for the full effect.

WHERE TO EAT

The quality of food around Tikal is generally lower than most tourists expect. La Luna in Flores (Calle 30 de Junio; 502-7926-3346; entrees from $6 or $7) is the notable exception. Make a reservation in high season, and try the steak.

In the park, unreliable refrigeration keeps food in the hotels inconsistent at best. El Comedor Tikal, one of the very few restaurants at the park, just across from the entrance, serves no-frills grilled chicken for about $5.

ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL wrote about the Incan ruins at Choquequirao in Peru for the Travel section in June.

Slideshow- "In Tikal, an Escape to Civilization"

Map of Tikal, Guatemala