Road Notes: Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Nearly 200 miles north of Guatemala City, in the rainforest, lie the remains of the ancient city Tikal, the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Maya civilization.

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Editor’s Note: Nearly 200 miles north of Guatemala City, in the rainforest, lie the remains of the ancient city Tikal, the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Maya civilization. GP contributor Will McGough headed south for a visit.

As we walked through the jungle, I told everyone to be quiet. The canopy was thick overhead, home to colorful big-beaked toucans, howler monkeys, and armies of chatty cicadas. These are the sounds that people pay to replicate with machines in their bedrooms when they go to sleep at night, and there we were getting them all for free.

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The remains of Tikal belong to the Mayans, Mesoamerica’s most influential civilization, which stretched from Central Mexico down through what is today Central America. Regardless of what you know about them as a people, you are certainly aware of them as timekeepers after all the drama their calendar brought about back in 2012. Established around 2,000 BC, the Mayan culture reached its peak about 2,500 years later, eventually collapsing during the 8th century. The cause is still not agreed upon. Some say it was because of the arrival of the Spanish. Others say it was drought.

Tikal’s ruins are said to have been first discovered back in 1848 when a couple of gum tree loggers stumbled upon some large stones hidden beneath the jungle floor in Northern Guatemala. Since then, the Guatemalan government has been unearthing the site little by little in a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, mapping out the former Mayan community and developing the infrastructure that allows the public to access it today.

By infrastructure, I’m talking a parking lot, some souvenir stands, and a dirt road that leads to a series of trails. Walking the dirt road, it’s cool to understand that back then, there was no road. As we came out of the jungle at the base of Temple IV, the sounds of nature were replaced by human voices. Looking up, I could see their outlines standing at the top of Tikal’s highest temple, about 1,500 feet above the ground.

Funny enough, it’s a view that was featured in Star Wars: A New Hope. From up there, you can see for miles, the tops of two or three other pyramids sticking out above the treetops. But the canopy hides most of them, and the jungle sprawls as far as the eye can see. It’s a hell of a view and, if you can stand the chatter and photo posing of others, a good place to sit and think about the Mayans. It was there at the top of Temple IV, noticing how thick the canopy was, that the big picture began to develop for me.

In the brochures and the photos taken by tourists posted online, we see big, grand structures that seem like they’ve been scrubbed clean with a toothbrush. Take Temple V, for example, whose façade graces the cover of almost every Tikal promotional pamphlet. To an unknowing observer, someone who has never been, it insinuates a place that’s been fully discovered. Yet when I went in person and stepped a few feet left or right of that perfect camera sightline, I realized that the other three sides are still underground. Still a mystery.

Tikal National Park covers about 200 square miles, and researchers estimate that it is comprised of more than 3,000 monuments.

People talk all the time about finding places that still feel authentic, and as far as Mayan ruins goes, it was somewhat surprising to find that Tikal, one of the world’s largest sites, fits that description. Part of that is because it is a pain in the ass to get to, and part of that is because Guatemala lacks the funds to unearth and discover it further. The experience here is nothing like the structure and touristy feel of, say, Tulum, where there are more rules and ropes than anything else. Here, you can climb the steep, calf-burning steps of the Acropolis, or have a picnic in the Great Plaza.

In total, Tikal National Park covers about 200 square miles, and researchers estimate that it is comprised of more than 3,000 monuments. Given that many of the “discovered” structures are still three-quarters underground, I can only assume that the academics are using the word “estimate” very intentionally. The uncertainty became even more apparent when I walked through Tikal and read the signs along the way: the information describing the temples is vague at best, noting that they were “used for worship” or “as a central gathering place.”

But what more can you expect? For a place that is still mostly covered in dirt, it’s hard to believe anyone could offer much more than an educated guess about its particulars. Especially considering historians still don’t agree on what took the Mayans down in the first place. Walking through the jungle from one temple to another, I couldn’t help but to think, or better yet, to assume, that there’s still history buried just under my feet, waiting to be discovered. And when it is, it will most likely raise more questions than answers.

That mysterious nature was something I came to appreciate, and laying there in the grass in the Great Plaza, in a spot that not long ago was hidden amongst the thick jungle, I felt very fortunate to be visiting Tikal at a time when so much of it was still left to my imagination.

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