Our goal was to sit at the top of the highest Mayan temple pyramid in the Americas and watch the sun set on New Year’s Eve.
And so we drove from Flores, Guatemala, to Tikal National Park, Guatemala’s first national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979.
The park is protected at the road entrance by armed guards. Tourists pay 150 Quetzal, or about $27 CAD, to enter, whereas Guatemalan citizens pay 50 Quetzal. Tour guides and transportation would be extra. Once we paid our fees, the guard raised a heavy barrier to allow our car through.
Tikal is one of the largest sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Located in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, it covers an area of 60 square kilometres, most of which has yet to be mapped, cleared, or excavated. Even in the well-mapped 16-square-kilometre area we were about to explore, most of the buildings were still buried in jungle growth.
To explore Tikal, you’ll need to have your hiking legs in shape. Distances between structures can take anywhere from 15-55 minutes to walk, and there are a lot of structures to explore. For our shorter visit, we intended to focus our exploration on the Great Plaza, the North Acropolis, and then watch the sunset on top of Temple IV, which was built during the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawiil in the 8th Century. Even with this small agenda, we walked for nearly three hours.
During our walk, I was particularly happy to see so much fauna, species that I had only previously seen in zoos. I was truly surprised when a couple of wild turkeys crossed my path, more specifically Ocellated Turkeys, which I thought were only found in the Yucatan Peninsula. I later learned they could also be found in parts of Belize and, of course, northern Guatemala. These wild turkeys spend most of their time on the ground, but roost at night in the upper branches to avoid jaguars and other nocturnal predators.
While climbing the stairs of the North Acropolis, I was approached by a friendly White-nosed Coati, also called a coatimundi, or tejon by the locals. He was looking for a food handout, which I didn’t provide him, even though he posed nicely for me. Later, we saw a part of the rainforest that was just teeming with coatis, all busy in their daily activities of nesting and searching for food, much like their raccoon cousins.
I didn’t see any howler monkeys though, which is just as well, since they like to defecate on the heads of people to show their presence. Seriously. Not joking.
Daylight was beginning to fade, so we made our way to Temple IV, where we made our 70-metre vertical climb to the top via a set of wooden stairs built by park employees to accommodate visitors. Much of Temple IV is still being excavated, and an armed guard prevents people from crossing the barriers from the tourist area to the archeological areas.
It seems we weren’t the only visitors intent on watching the sun set from this location on New Year’s Eve, but in retrospect, it wasn’t really busy at all. There were just a handful of people sitting on the steps in quiet contemplation. A few couples cuddled romantically.
I could not stand on the top steps of Temple IV without feeling a sense of its history. Yik’in Chan Kawiil was probably the most successful of the known 33 rulers of Tikal during its history, and it is quite possible that he is buried within the stones of Temple IV. I may have been standing on the tomb of one of the Mayan civilization’s greatest rulers.
The view from the top of the temple is incredible. As far as the eye can see is Guatemalan rainforest, with just the odd temple poking up above the canopy.
We ended the year in peaceful awe of the Mayan culture, the Guatemalan people, and the beauty of this Central American landscape.