Leaving on a Midnight Bus to Tikal

Wednesday November 6, 2013

 

Tikal

With our whole group together including the crews of Serendipity, Skebenga, and Kajaya, we decided we needed to do something special. Monumental. What better way to achieve this than visiting Mayan ruins? Tikal is a set of structures and temples built by the Mayans during a period from 200 to 900 AD and remain one of the best preserved sites of Mayan ruins in the world. Not to mention the largest. They spread out over 6.2 square miles with about 5 main temples and thousands of other smaller structures.

Getting there is not the most difficult thing in the world, but not the easiest either. For most visitors it means a bus ride to the town of Flores from one of the major vendors, and then another shuttle bus to the site of the ruins. All of this plus seeing the ruins usually means turning it into an overnight trip since it’s preferable to be at least in Flores the night before, because one of the big draws of these ruins, as if you needed another, is watching the sun rise while sitting at the top of one of the temples, overlooking the vast canopy of trees below you. Most of our group didn’t want to turn this even into an overnight trip, but none of us wanted to miss out on the sunrise either. This left only one thing for us to do. We hired a private driver to haul our asses there in the middle of the night.

Upon hearing that, even for those that have already gotten to Flores at a reasonable time the previous day, you want to be to the entrance of the site no later than 4:30 am so that you can walk through the jungle and to the sunrise viewing temple with enough time to get to the top before the sun rises at 5:30. For us to get ourselves there in time for all this to work out, it meant that we needed to be leaving Rio Dulce no later than midnight. Leaving Ana Bianca to work out all the details, our group tried to catch a few hours of sleep after dinner before lugging ourselves to the marina restaurant just after 11 to be shuttled into town by the marina’s lancha. Already exhausted, the six of us crawled into the van, each couple claiming a row, and laid our heads down to try and catch a few more hours of sleep.

We soon found this proved useless as our driver was trying to stick to our tight schedule and would take the hairpin turns of the road out of town at breakneck speeds. As soon as you found yourself drifting off your neck would jerk sharply to the side, or one of the million speed bumps would send you airborne for a split second before you came crashing down again. Throughout the four hour drive we chatted among ourselves and sent questioning looks around when we found our driver also did not break for animals. Most of the stray dogs along the way were pretty good at getting out of the road before we could reach them, but we definitely know there was at least one that got a gentle tap, and a cat that we’re pretty sure didn’t make it.

Just outside the entrance to the National Park, we picked up our private tour guide, a necessity if you want to enter the park before the normal hours of 6 am (there’s an additional fee to enter for the sunrise). When we finally pulled into a parking spot before we started the trail into the ruins and hopped out of the van, ready to start our adventure. I don’t know why I had assumed our guide would come handy with a big spotlight or flashlights for everyone, but I was quite happy to find out that Matt had brought a headlamp along for us. Everyone else was smart enough to bring their own light source, so as our guide led us through the dirt path on the pitch black trails, I tried to follow as close as I could behind him, with Matt just behind me, his headlamp shinning just far enough to cover a few steps in front of my feet.

Although we couldn’t see anything that wasn’t right in front of us, we could tell we were surrounded by mamouth trees. When we reached somewhat of an opening, our guide shone his flashlight off to the side and illuminated the outline of one of the temples. It was amazing to see such a structure of that magnitude, buried in the jungle, just a few hundred feet away from us. We couldn’t wait to catch it on our way back when it would be fully lit with sun. As we passed, our guide told us that this was referred to as ‘Temple One’, since this was the first temple that was stumbled upon when this site was first rediscovered back in the 1840′s. Not too much farther up we passed Temple Two, while making our way to Temple Four, the tallest, where we would be watching the sun rise. When we arrived there I was just a little disappointed to find that we wouldn’t be climbing the original steps of the structure, as I had through, but instead made our way up a wooden staircase recently added on the side.

Any depression I had came to a dead halt as soon as we reached the top. I was standing on top of history, and a feeling of awe washed over me as I thought of the people who had stood where I stood, hundreds of years before me. The sky had lightened just enough that I could make out the vast canopy of trees below us as we inched our way onto the temple. Our guide told us that the best seats in the house were as far up as we could get ourselves, so the six of us marched up a small flight of steps before perching our butts down on the stone. There were already a few other groups of people there, barely visible through the dark, and we tried not to make much noise as we settled in. Our guide told us to stay quiet, and enjoy the show that was about to begin.

The fates were not 100% on our side this day as we realized, as the sky began to light itself more and more, that a waved of clouds had rolled in since our walk from the parking lot, and our sunrise was going to be slow and gray instead of instant and blinding. It was still an interesting sight, watching the sky slowly get lighter and illuminating the outlines of Temples One, Two and Three off in the distance. I had resigned myself to accepting what I could of the day when the ‘show’ our guide had been talking about started. All through the jungles of Tikal are groups of howler monkeys, and they like to make their presence known just as the jungle is waking up for the day. Apparently their also littered throughout the Rio, but in all our time there I’d never seen or heard them.

This being my first encounter, it turned out not to be in any what what I had been expecting. Usually when one thinks of monkeys and the sounds they make, they imagine the ‘Oooh, oooh, oooh’ sound. Howler monkeys, not even close to this. I don’t even know how to describe their sounds, except to say that it felt like we were on the set of a horror movie. Off in the distance through the trees, a noise would puncture the silence of almost a low moaning noise. Except, it’s not even really a moaning sound. It’s more like a long forced breath that grows and resonates as it fills the emptiness. It truly is very creepy, and I have to wonder what the Mayans thought of it when the first settled this land. If it were me, I would have assumed there were demons living in the jungle and hightailed it in the opposite direction.

 

Howler monkeys at Tikal from Jessica Johnson on Vimeo.

sunrise at Tikal

Our cloudy and foggy sunrise.

Sunrise over temple 2, Tikal

Temples One, Two, and Three showing in the background.

Elmari watching the sun rise

Elmari watching the sky get lighter.

After the monkeys had finished their show and the sun had risen behind the clouds, we wondered how long we had to wait before it was acceptable to break these special moments of silence. The moments that, just thirty minutes earlier, Matt had been perturbed by when camera shutters and beeping options had shattered the silence, and then managed himself to produce a noisy ‘click click click click click’ with a panoramic shot of the scene not even ten minutes after loudly groaning for everyone else to ‘Jesus Christ people, be quiet!’. The reason we were all so anxious to veer off the quiet whispers and camera clicks now was that most of us hadn’t eaten in twelve hours and we were ready to break out our lunch. After people started finally moving around more we felt comfortable searching through our bags and not holding back as plastic crinkled and paper wrappers crumpled, all of us delving into the submarine sandwiches we had brought. And just to add to the enjoyment of dining atop an eleven hundred year old structure, Matt and I added two distinctive ‘Psssssts!!’ as our aluminum cans of Pepsi pierced open.

Alfredo eating his sub

Alfredo was really, really excited about his sandwich.

sunrise at Tikal

group shot at Tikal

Group shot at the top of Temple Four.

sunbeam through the clouds at Tikal

This shot makes me think of aliens sending a spotlight through the clouds, haha.

 

We stayed on the steps for awhile after we finished our meals, taking in the scene before us, before bouncing back down the stairs, a feat much easier than climbing them in the first place. From there our guide led us around the grounds, stopping at the larger structures and giving us an explanation of what they were used for. We saw the temple that was used as their sundial/calendar, where if looking at it from the center, the sun would allaign with the left side on the summer solstice, and the right side at the winter solstice. I wondered how anyone could make out the sun at these low points with the dense jungle growing just behind it, until we were told that back when this land was utilized by the Mayans, they had cleared out all the trees and it was nothing but wide open spaces throughout the grounds.

sun calendar at Tikal

After a little more walking and touring we were led back to the grounds that housed Temples One and Two. Here we were given a brief speech from our guide about the history of these two structures, and then told to wander free for awhile. I was hoping that we’d be able to climb these colossal structures, but they were off limits and we could only view from the ground. There were some slightly smaller areas off to the side though that we did have free reign of, and for the next 30 minutes we climbed dozens of stone steps, poked our heads into dark spaces we weren’t allowed to enter, and admired Mayan carvings that remained in portions of the stone. By now the sun was high in the sky and had broken free of the clouds. Sitting perched on the highest point I could find, I looked down through blue skies as members from other tour groups wandered into our patch of history, climbing the steps and poking their heads into the dark spaces were weren’t allowed to enter. Our cue to leave.

Walking back through the dirt paths, now fully illuminated, we craned our necks to look up at the giant cedar and mahogany trees towering above us, sights that we weren’t able to appreciate on our way in. Before we could pile ourselves back into the van for the long ride home we made one last stop at the concession stand and souviner shop at the entrance to the grounds. While the rest of our group busied themselves by ordering espressos and buying hand woven hammocks, Matt and I had the energy for neither. Awake now for over 24 hours straight, we sprawled ourselves out on the cement ground, so close to sleep, with only enough energy to push ourselves up once more for the three hundred foot walk to the van when it was time to leave.

11.6.13 (9)

Mayan stone carvings at Tikal

Temple Two, Tikal

Temple 1, Tikal

Back of Temple 1, Tikal

structure at Tikal

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