Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tikal: Mayan ruins turned "Star Wars" Rebel base

On 2/17/18, after a weeklong visit to the American School of Guatemala, I day-tripped from Guatemala City to what some call the historical highlight of Guatemala: the ruins of a Mayan city now called Tikal, part of a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. (How long it remains the highlight remains to be seen. Mere weeks earlier, it was announced that archeologists using LiDAR discovered an immense stretch of ruins—a megalopolis—not far from Tikal.)

My hotel was about 10 minutes from the airport. My (domestic) flight was at 6:30 am. Oddly, the tour company set my pickup for 3:30 am. I asked for leniency but the latest they would agree to was 4 am. Sure enough, there was a slow-moving, 15-person line at check-in, but even so, I was done by 5 a.m. That left 90 minutes to fill…assuming the flight departed on time.

Which, surprise, it didn't. My flight number was 110 but turns out three flights were scheduled to leave GC for Flores (the airport closest to Tikal) at 6:30, out of the same gate but with different (unannounced) flight numbers. Based on factors not clear or explained to us, the airline staff divided up the passengers, and of course my plane was not only last to leave but, for reasons not clear or explained, at least 20 minutes late to leave. 

No matter. I was going to Tikal. My first jungle ruins. 

The flight was under an hour. The drive to Tikal was slightly longer. As often happens on package tours like this, the van made one stop at a shop and suggested we buy a raincoat (it was sunny but in Guatemala, the weather often changes on a quetzale); if it went unused during the tour, we could exchange it for something else on the way back. No one bought one. (It did rain, but only briefly, and not until we were returning to the airport. It also poured the two days before and rain was forecast for the day after. We lucked out.)

The shop tripled as a Tikal visitors' center…

a model of the expansive site

…and a mini-museum about gum production.

chewing gum in its natural, flavorless state; we got to try it

A small tortilla stand next door to the shop:

A charming bakery below a residence across the street:

Once you pass the entrance to Tikal National Park, it's still at 17-kilometer drive through jungle to get to the actual entrance to the ruins. You pass signs warning of various animals, including snakes. I wanted a photo of the snake sign but we were driving too fast. And it ended up being the only snake we saw all day.

Another (scale?) model within the park:

It was warm but not oppressive, and much of the tour was under shade of the canopy. We walked from 10:30 am till lunch at 2:45 p.m. (originally scheduled for 1 pm, but we asked more questions and took more photos than anticipated), with only brief, occasional stops to rest; my total steps for the day topped 15,000 (though that included airport, etc.). Foolishly, I did this on an empty stomach—for some reason I had the opposite of appetite for most of the day. Lunch was at one of several wall-less restaurants within the jungle near the entrance.

Animals spotted: howler and spider monkeys, an exotic-looking male turkey (see below), lots of birds (in trees), armies of marching ants, a couple of coatis (similar to raccoons), and, most jungly, a tarantula. 

Pen for scale, but it did not work because
I did not want to get closer.

Jaguars are present but rarely seen, partly because they're active primarily at dawn and dusk, partly because they typically avoid humans.

Crocodiles are also present.

Oh, some monkeys have a disturbing pastime: pooping on hapless tourists.

The tour guide was almost too knowledgeable. He spoke at length without coming up for air (or questions), but I forced some through and he was happy and able to answer. 

Facts I learned and liked:

  • the site dates back to around 800 BCE 
  • it features six large temples and many smaller structures
  • the site was abandoned around 950 CE
  • the site was buried by the jungle and rediscovered in 1848, though I read that locals never forgot it (but didn't go there because it was remote)
  • Temple 3 is the newest structure in Tikal, built around 810 CE; it's mostly covered by flora
  • life at Tikal revolved almost exclusively around worshipping the gods; we did not hear of any leisure activities
  • the Spanish never reached Tikal but other indigenous factions conquered Tikal (twice, I believe)
  • some structures are still buried by the jungle because excavation is a complex, expensive process
  • if not maintained, the jungle would reclaim the site within 10 years
  • within the next 20 years, the government may stop allowing visitors to climb the temples 

The geekiest fact:

A Rebel Base shown in Star Wars: A New Hope was shot at Tikal (on Temple 4, which is the biggest, and which we climbed via wooden stairs but could not photograph due to the jungle around it). In the scene, you can see (from closest to farther) Temples 3, 2, and 1.

My awkward, fourth-wall-breaking recreation:

I was a bit surprised that the gift shops at Tikal don't take advantage of that (or, if they did, I didn't notice in my passing glance). If they marketed this, even sold Rebel helmets so people could recreate the pose from the movie (as I awkwardly did, helmetless), I bet they'd make a killing. But then, this is Tikal. As beloved as Star Wars is, does a breathtaking ancient civilization need a sci-fi movie to boost its draw?

Selective glimpses

An "apartment" (really just a small room) in the royal residence complex:

A bed for a couple, with a smaller bed (the ledge above) for a baby; they were softened with leaves:

A throne; to approach the ruler sitting here, people would have to climb stairs, kneeling on each one, and to leave, they descended the stairs…while still facing the ruler:

A ballcourt for a sport that was (as with most else) really about appeasing the gods:

Temples and other haunting and breathtaking structures:

Walking these grounds gave me an old familiar feeling. Until just before lunch, I didn't crave food…but all day I was hungry for the impossible chance to see the past in the past. To be at Tikal 1,000 years ago, at its peak, pulsating with color (the temples were painted reds and perhaps other shades) and teeming with people. 

Those people would, I imagine, have lived most of their lives in fear, but today Tikal seems at peace. If ghosts are there, they were as hard to detect as the jaguars, perhaps captivated into silence by Tikal's beauty, as I often was.

Though something I saw just before leaving may have been a colorful message from the beyond…

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