Damn this jungle heat. It does things to a man — especially an American man of the grizzled variety, to judge by the elderly specimens that keep coming up to Tere to express gushing admiration for her in their broken Spanish. (“Not that old!”, protests Tere.) Manfully suppressing his jealousy, Mike just stares straight ahead in the direction of an aracari toucan in the middle distance.
Tikal is considered the most impressive of all the Mayan sites in Central America, not only for its historical remains but because it is also a haven for wildlife. The ruins lie within the 576 sq km Tikal National Park, declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. The site’s mapped district covers 16 sq km and comprises more than 3,000 individual structures, temples, and courtyard groups. For centuries, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Tikal was left undiscovered, lost to the sprawling lowland rainforests that grew over and around it.
Dating from 300 BCE but at its peak some 1,500 years ago, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya (but see below). It was one of the more important urban centres of its time, particularly during the classic and late classic periods (AD 200-900) when it dominated the Maya-controlled area of Central America politically, militarily and economically. Many of the structures were built to pay tribute to past rulers and hopefully please the deities.
For largely unknown reasons, a gradual decline in population ended in the abandonment of the site by the end of the 10th century, leaving Tikal to the jungle that subsequently swallowed it, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Today there are remains of royal palaces, residences of important Mayans, ball courts and five main protruding temples that rise over 60m.
As a Channel 4 documentary recently demonstrated, cutting-edge technology has now revealed many thousand more structures hidden underground, awaiting discovery. It’s now known that the site extends much further than previously believed, and the population may even have reached 1 million. In fact, Tikal appears to be just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis.
A bone-shaking two hours away, meanwhile, connected by a road that was supposed to have been asphalted except that the government funds earmarked for it were spent on paving the driveway of a local politician who’s since vanished, Yaxhá is the third largest Mesoamerican archaeological site in Guatemala. In its heyday, it served as the ceremonial centre of the pre-Colombian Maya era. Its name meaning “blue-green water”, it is estimated to have extended over 230 sq km, with a population of more than 40,000 at its peak.
Temple 216, located in the East Acropolis, towers above the site, with magnificent panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. That’s Mike up there with our colourful guide, “Rambo”, who claims in the bad old days to have participated in three Guatemalan coups d’état. Both the gents pictured are fine figures of men, but if you’re wondering which is which, Mike is the good-looking one.
And here is said panorama.
Also admiring the view from those precarious heights was this bat falcon.
Down below was our old friend coati mundi…
Along with a grey hawk…
… and overhead, howler monkeys, butting in (or possibly out) as usual.
Then another sunset, and another sundowner of wine and snacks — like the ones we used to enjoy in Botswana — by the edge of Lake Yaxhá. Sadly our sojourn is almost over as we head for our final destination: Belize.