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Wondrous Tikal from Sunrise to Sunset

Abeja & 3 men
Abeja and her new American
friends Matt, Kyle and Rick

How many "Save the Rainforest" bumper stickers have you seen? Despite all that I’ve heard about how diverse and wild the rainforest is, I was not prepared for the wonders of El Petén, Guatemala's northernmost state. Monica and I got up early to take a boat down the Río Usumacinta (also called the Río San Pedro) from La Palma, Tabasco in Mexico to El Naranjo, Petén in Guatemala. Four hours on a motor boat through lush jungle brought us to heart of the Petén and of Mayan territories. Thatched roof homes house traditional Mayans. Women wearing bright huipils grind the masa on stones to make tortillas on a comal (a flat piece of metal) over the fire.

After clearing customs in a little restaurant in El Naranjo beside the Usumacinta, we climbed on the bus for a four-hour ride to Flores. I’d heard from travelers and guidebooks that the ride was horrible, the roads pitted and dangerous. But roadwork was going on as we passed, and parts of the road were evenly paved. This was good for our ride, but perhaps not so good for the rainforest, as it will aid in the migration of farmers and ranchers into this remote area. Much of the deforestation that is occurring in the rainforest is due to land being cleared for ranchers and farmers.

Spidermonkey in tree
A spidermonkey swinging
in the Tikal jungle trees
The next day, I left the hotel at 5:00 AM (an early start today!) for Tikal, one of the greatest ancient Mayan cities. The sound of dozens of different birds and the howl of the monkeys surrounded me, all alone atop the Temple of the Inscriptions, deep in the jungle, as the sky turned bright orange. I sat and ate my breakfast, imagining that I was thrown back in time and the forest was full of other Mayans like myself, worshipping the sunrise.

Since I’d started my day in such magical solitude, I tried avoiding the center of the ruins where the other tourists were sure to be. So, with a map in my guidebook and the sun for direction, I set off down the small, unofficial paths through the jungle towards the next set of ruins. For the next four hours I visited three other sets of ruins in Tikal, and only saw two other people, but at least six spider monkeys, several toucans and toucanettes, a beautiful woodpecker, and a peccary. I sat still for a while, deep in the jungle, hoping to see the glorious quetzal--the official bird of Guatemala, a spirit animal of the Mayan people, and a now endangered species due to habitat destruction. I was not visited by a quetzal, but I did see and hear more birds than I can count. I used to think bird watching was so boring, but I’d never been to the jungle before.

Petén Turkey
Petén Turkey and all its glory
Eventually I made my way to the main ruins, which are awesome. Unlike other Mayan sights I’ve visited, much of Tikal is not completely cleared and restored. You can still see how the jungle is taking it over. From the top of the pyramid, you can look out over the dense jungle and see other ruins peaking out, with Temple 4 overlooking it all. I had to see the view from there!

In the great central plaza, turkeys and anteaters roamed. The Petén turkey, also called the ocellated turkey, is a large and beautifully colored bird that reminds me of a peacock. Did you know that turkeys are originally from New England and the Middle-Atlantic states of the US and the Yucatan peninsula? They arrived in Europe on boats that went to the West Indies and then to Genoa on ships returning from the Ottoman Empire, and so they were called "Turkey-birds." In Turkey they’re called "hindi" (Indian) birds since they arrived from the West Indies!

The Jungles of Rain

The jungles of rain
surround remains
of ancient civilizations.
Cleared and restored
for busloads of tourists
to admire carvings and temples
of quetzal and jaguar--
the gods and kings
of ancient Mayas.
They rush from temple to temple
reading their guidebooks
knowing the stories.
The quetzal and the jaguar look on silently,
in the jungles of rain,
fearing extinction.

Abeja, at Tikal, 1/27/99

But it was not until I reached Temple 4, as sunset was coming, that I got the full splendor of Tikal. Several of us sat on the steps of this huge temple, speechless, looking out over all of Tikal and the jungle. Then, a grey fox approached us, clearly as caught up in the magic of the place as we were, and paid us no mind. After several minutes, he left, only to be replaced by an anteater, equally disinterested in the silly humans staring in amazement.

I had to rush to climb down and be out of the park before dark. I think that Jamila and Klaus will tell you more about the ruins and the history of Tikal when they visit. But as you read their descriptions, remember the magical environment surrounding this ancient civilization.


Monica - No Turning Back: The Journey to Guatemala
Monica - Lost in the Lost World
Monica - Searching for the Disappeared: An introduction to G.A.M.

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