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The Secrets in the Jungle

We had been warned that being stuck in Guatemala City’s traffic meant you were a sitting duck for anyone looking for easy pickings. With cars packed nose to end and no space on the side to open your door, there’s no filtering even for for the smallest of bikes. We decided to follow advice and leave Antigua at 4am to beat most of the commuter traffic in Guatemala City. Even leaving so early we still hit a steady stream of cars around 5am and just as dawn emerged, we made it out of the City, unscathed and sleepy. We were on our way to Tikal, in the northernmost reaches of the Guatemalan jungles and this essentially meant traversing the entirety of the country which, as it turns out holds mostly single track potholed roads and very occasional dual road highways, humming with trucks and minibuses. After a very long day, we eventually pulled into Tikal and set up camp amongst some wildlife (namely a HUGE spider singlehandedly decimating the fly population of Tikal).


Strange bedfellows in the campsite at Tikal

Camping overnight at Tikal meant we could visit the park during the day and also the dawn of the next. There were very little tourists on the site and so as we walked through the tree shaded pathways we felt like explorers discovering the Mayans for ourselves. In the dense jungle, you could catch an occasional piece of stonework or carving or see a temple emerging from its camouflage of vegetation, shrugging its green shroud to warm its ancient facade in the sun. We saw many Ceiba trees which are considered sacred and even without this reverence, they are impressive, straight trunked white oddities in the mass of vines and loamy undergrowth surrounding them. We went past one called “tarantula” thanks to its furry boughs resembling its namesake’s limbs. We carried on walking and almost immediately we were in the midst of wonderfully restored and conserved temples. Part of the joy of this site is that visitors are still invited to climb the structures (within reason)


Sacred Ceiba tree (Tarantula)


Temple in Tikal (Complejo Q)


Tikal temple (complejo R)

The restoration of the temples takes many years to complete as most initially appear as mountains covered in trees and vegetation. To remove the trees and allow the roots to dry sufficiently to remove them painlessly and with as little damage to the structure as possible takes at least two years after removing the vegetation layer. Some of the temples have been restored further by recreating and repairing the steps and external features to make them more similar to their original state. The roots of the trees which forced themselves into the stonework have rendered the stone friable and prone to weakness but all restoration was done with sensitivity and care. We climbed to the top of one of the smaller temples and marvelled at the height of the steps (huge) especially considering how small the Mayan people were. Apparently this stemmed from the Great Jaguar (one of the most eminent of their leaders) being a towering 5’9″ and building the temples and structures in his reign to complement his proportions. Alex, being a less impressive 5’8″ still struggled to climb some of the steps. Perhaps the Gran Jaguar was fitter or had longer legs.  The number of “floors” on the temples is significant. The Gran jaguar has all the realms represented in nine floors which includes all the realms of the dead whereas the temple he built for his wife had only three- the Gods, the people and the dead (in general- without the complexity of the extra realms).


The acropolis in Tikal


The Grand Jaguar temple (features on coins)


Temple V


Along with the temples, Tikal also has acropolises – where the ordinary people lived and worked and games halls (Peloton) and astronomical observation points and pyramids. The site is also heaving with wildlife thanks to the scarcity of tourists. We saw many birds including beautiful occelated turkeys who have plumage which ripples with light and depth of colour.


At dawn, we trekked our way back through the jungle, past frogs and spiders (which glow in the dark!) and climbed all the way up to Temple IV which offers a view of the whole of Tikal and the jungle from its pinnacle. As we waited for the dawn we marvelled at how the first explorers (from the late 1800s) must have discovered that the mountains were not mountains but were all man made structures instead. a smudge of light formed on the horizon and the topmost stonework was picked out by the first rays of light in the sea of dark jungle below us. Eventually, dawn broke fully and the jungle erupted in birdsong. This quasi spiritual moment was only tarnished slightly by irritating tourists having an involved conversation about hiking in Iceland.


Pavo Ocelado (occelated turkey) just chilling in the secret temples


Dawn from Temple IV (would have been more special if it weren’t for the tourists yapping away with some Icelandic tourists about hiking)



Tiffany and Alex try to work out the way out with a scale-less map!


We made friends with some American travelers who also shirked the arranged tour group visit but it meatn that we had to find our own way out of the jungle. After some careful contemplation of the unscaled cartoon map, the girls managed to lead the way out.  Funnily enough, we’d all been so busy talking that we hadn’t noticed it was almost sunset and after a swift cold beer, we made our way to Lake Peten and had a swim in its green, cool waters during one of the many rains of the season.


The lake is perhaps less majestic than Lake Atitlan but for all its lack of majesty, it has a serenity and laid back ambience matched by the friendliness and humour of the locals we chatted to. It’s a region well worth the visit as it boasts many Mayan ruins but also other attractions such as the ubiquitous zip-line through the jungle. Additionally, it has the plus of being warm even in the rainy season and we can attest that the roads have been fixed even since our arrival to the lake!


Simon emerges from the jungle to set up near Lake Peten


The pier in Lake Peten – glorious swimming!


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