The Great Plaza at Tikal
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.
Temple II at Tikal
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.
Temple I: Closed to Climbers
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.
Fresco at Maya Site at Bonampak in Chiapas
I have just finished reading Peter D. Harrison’s The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. During the reign of the kalomtes, or divine kings of the Classic period of Maya history, wars were almost constant. They were of two kinds:
- “Star Wars” are wars whose timing is mandated by the positions of the planets, especially Venus. These do not usually involve massive destruction or conquest.
- “Axe Wars” are wars of conquest or revenge.
In all my postings on the Maya, I have neglected to note one important fact: the Maya were never an empire of diverse peoples, such as the Aztecs in Northern Mexico and the Inca in the Andes. Instead, there were powerful city/states that rose into prominence and just as often fell to other Maya city/states. Tikal in Guatemala was probably the largest; but at different times such cities as Palenque, Calakmul, Chichen Itza, and Cobá in Mexico; Copán in Honduras; Caracol in Belize; and El Mirador, Dos Pilas, and Quirigua in Guatemala were first among equals.
With so many hundreds of Maya cities spread across Southern Mexico and Central America, the number of possible wars numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. When I think on this, I realize that the Maya were probably pretty happy to get rid of their kings and concentrate on survival rather than fighting in astrologically dictated conflicts or axe wars against powerful entities like Calakmul.
Then, too, it was hard work building all those temples and pyramids when none of the people of the Americas had the use of the wheel. Stones had to be shaped and carried long distances by men. There was probably a massive sigh of relief throughout the Maya world when all this war and labor was mostly behind them.
Temple 1 at Tikal in the Petén Region of Guatemala
I had always wanted to visit Tikal. In the 1980s, when I visited Yucatán several times, I wanted to swing south through Belize to the ruinsat Tikal. Unfortunately, a murderous religious madman named Efraín Ríos Montt was in charge at the time; and the State Department was recommending that American tourists stay well away from the massacres and disappearances that were plaguing Guatemala at the time.
Tikal is huge, 575 square kilometers (222 square miles) in area. It almost defined the Classic Period of Mayan archeology, from approximately 200 AD to 800 AD at its height. The area in which it is located is a monkey jungle, pure and simple. With my hared of mosquitoes, I am thinking of spending three nights in nearby El Remate, where the hotels have electricity 24 hours a day, and not just sometimes. If there is air conditioning, or at the very least a functioning ceiling fan, one can escape being bitten to death and coming home with Zika or Malaria or Dengue, to name just a few baddies.
The Shores of Lago de Petén at El Remate
Although Guatemala is not a large country by North American standards, the road from Guatemala City to El Remate takes twelve hours or more on good roads. One has to go all the way to the Atlantic Coast before cutting north. There is a little matter of some high mountains preventing a direct route. If I took the mountain route, it would take at least twenty hours and several buses. I am actually thinking of flying from Guatemala City to Flores, which is within a few miles of El Remate. (I could stay in Flores, for that matter, but if I wanted to spend two days at the ruins, I want to be a bit closer to Tikal.)
There are sunrise and sunset tours at Tikal, but I don’t want to lose sleep just so I can gamble on a perfect sunrise or sunset. I’m willing to take pot luck.
Maps Can Be So Deceiving
There are three Mayan ruins that I hope to visit on my trip to Central America. You can see all three of them on the above map: Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén Department, Quiriguá in Guatemala’s Izabal Department; and Copán in Honduras’s Copán Department. As the crow flies, the distance separating the three cannot add up to more than three hundred miles. Ah, but tourists do not travel as the crow flies. They must take planes or roads; and in the jungles of Central America, airports are few and roads are not built for the convenience of tourists.
Probably the easiest thing to do is to make three separate trips from Antigua or Guatemala City: to Tikal and back, to Quiriguá and back, and to Copán and back. Take Copán and Quiriguá: They look so close to each other on the above map. But to go by public transport, I’d have to go by way of Chiquimula or Rio Hondo, and probably spend the night at one of those two towns. The buses are mostly for the convenience of the locals, and they just don’t go traipsing between Mayan ruins.
I could probably hire a driver, but there’s this international boundary between Honduras and Guatemala, which complicates things.