Ever since I started reading about and visiting the Maya back in 1975, I had wanted to go to Tikal. There was a slight problem: Guatemala was in the middle of a Civil War between the Maya and the military that was to last until 1996. During that time, Guatemala was red-flagged by the U.S. Department of State as being dangerous for Americans to visit.
Finally, in January of this year, I spent two days visiting the ruins at Tikal. After all this time, I expected that the Petén region was a tropical hellhole and that I would be assailed by mosquitoes, high humidity, and torrid temperatures—none of which I actually had to face. The rainy season had ended in December, and my visit coincided with below-average temperatures and humidity. In fact, Tikal was downright pleasant.
When I was visiting Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, I had climbed all the major pyramids at Uxmal, Chichen Itza, El Tajin near Papantla, and Teotihuacan. In fact, I had lost my fear of heights by climbing pyramids. There was something about the structures at Tikal that was particularly forbidding: They rose quickly to precipitous heights. After losing a few tourists who pitched headfirst down the steep pyramid stairs, however, Guatemala and Mexico decided to close a number of the structures to climbing. The temple above can be climbed using a steel staircase with guard rails at the back. Compare that with Temple I, just a few hundred feet away.
Because Tikal was at the tail end of a particularly exhausting vacation, I did not climb any of the pyramids. My feet were aching, so I contented myself with taking pictures from the ground level.