Tikal is a huge archeological site, the remains of what was once an epic Mayan city. Granted, it’s not as famous as the ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico — but I have visited Chichen Itza and was in a way disappointed by it.
Not because the site was very crowded, which obviously can detract from the experience, but — strange as it may sound — because it was so well preserved.
The ruins of Chichen Itza felt almost brand new.
And in some ways it is great for civilization that we can remember and preserve something in this way. Chichen Itza can stand for another thousand years, and hopefully by then people will say, “Wow, how did they build this 2000 years ago?”
Whereas Tikal is in a very different state.
Tikal is decaying. They have preserved one or two of the temples, but the rest is work in progress. Yet it was this sense of age that I loved — this feeling of a place that was ephemeral. Imagine if the city you live in was abandoned for 800 years. Almost everything would decay, things would fall down and nature would hopefully take over.
That is what happened in Tikal. It’s the remains of a civilization deep inside fairly untouched jungle.
Tikal is not like Macchu Pichu, a “who discovered this?” kind of story. Everyone — and I mean local people, especially the descendants of the Mayan people — knew that Tikal existed. But it was never on the radar of international visitors because it didn’t have the same interest or wealth as other big ruins. And also, because it’s inaccessible. Tikal is in the east of Guatemala, close to the border with Belize. There’s not much there.
Many of the temples in Tikal were hidden, but over time, archeologists have managed to excavate some of them. Now, when you walk through the site, you can see temples which until recently were beneath the ground.
I had the opportunity to walk upon a temple that was nearly completely buried. I was walking on the grass, on the top of the steps, but everything else was inside the earth beneath me.
Tikal creates the magic of being an explorer, being in a place and asking yourself, “What am I going to find?”
If you get the opportunity to visit Tikal, my biggest recommendation is this — before you go into the park, spend a night in the reserve next to the park entrance.
What happens is that most people visit Tikal on a day-trip from the nearest town, which is called Flores. It’s a nice town, it has some facilities and hotels, and throughout the day, there are many buses going back and forward taking people to Tikal. It’s about a one-hour drive.
But at Tikal, next to the archeological site and the entrance—by the way, you need a permit to enter the site — there are a series of small hotels. They are very nice hotels because they are in the jungle. I was at the pool the afternoon before visiting the ruins, and monkeys were swinging past, I saw a scarlet macaw — there’s really incredible nature and wildlife in the grounds.
The next day, I entered Tikal with my guide before the park actually opened. Officially it opens at sunrise, but we were in the park at five o’clock in the morning, when it was absolutely pitch black. There were maybe another 30 people in the archeological site, no more.
Because there were so few people, and because the place is huge — there are around 10 big temples, and many different places to explore — it felt like I was alone there.
I learned about the history of Tikal. We climbed a temple to watch the sunrise over the jungle. We climbed another temple to see the exact site where one of the Star Wars movies was filmed. (Tikal is the base of the rebels in one of the films.) We went around for three or four hours exploring Tikal, in the pleasantly cool weather of early morning.
Only as I was leaving did I start seeing a lot of other people.
As I came out, there was a queue — and the guide said it would be about an hour’s queue for those visitors to have their tickets checked and get into the park, because all the buses had come from Flores at the same time.
During that time, I went back to the hotel and relaxed by the pool. The middle of the day in Guatemala in the jungle is incredibly hot and humid, so I didn’t want to be in the sun. I took the time to relax and eat a big lunch.
Then, at four in the afternoon, the guide came for me again. People had left Tikal — they had all gone back to Flores.
So, we climbed different temples. We saw more of the site. We followed some monkeys to a place I had not yet seen. All this, and especially walking on temples that were still buried, made me feel like an explorer, as if I were coming across this place 500 years ago.
The experience was the complete opposite to what I had had at Chichen Itza.
I then went back and spent a second night at the hotel. I visited the ruins again on the following morning at sunrise. We didn’t go anywhere new — we’d covered most of the site on the two previous visits — but it was worth it just to be amongst the wildlife and the temples, amongst the stories and mysteries that exist there.
Tikal is big enough that you need two visits anyway. And I felt very thankful to be able to go there three times, to have that deep insight into the Mayan world and the opportunity to walk and explore in my own time.
My belief is that Guatemala will start trending as a destination. It has some incredible attractions, and a great variety of things to do. And Tikal is a cultural connection to Guatemala’s past and the Mayan world.
It’s easy to get lost in the “seven wonders of the world” and all the places that everybody’s heard of — Macchu Pichu, the Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza—yet there were places like Tikal, that can still give that impression of being an excited traveller-explorer, venturing into the unknown.