Incessant loud beeping from a mobile phone at 4.30am is just about my idea of hell, I’m not a morning person. I’m grouchy, dopey and virtually useless first thing in the morning. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when Katrina woke me by holding the noise to my ears!
Nor am I a particularly good person for travelling. I love going to places and I love different modes of transport but I have an incredibly short attention span so just over an hour on a hot minibus at this hour equally isn’t my idea of a good time. I just feel sorry for Katrina having to put up with me during this trip!
There was a good reason for being up this early however. One of the biggest attractions in Central America are the Mayans, or rather their ancient cities such as Tikal (where we were visiting), Chichen Itza and Copan of which we know comparatively little about. With this being the alleged year of impending doom according to many people predicting the apocalypse, there has been greater coverage in the media of the Mayans too.
By the time we’d arrived at the site the sun was baking down on the Guatemalan rain forest and it was only just after 6 in the morning. Getting used to the heat here is taking me some time – northern boys weren’t made warm weather!
When you arrive at Tikal, there is just a car park, a restaurant and a few stalls selling souvenirs. Apart from that, you can’t see anything else apart for the green of the forest, and before heading in we were introduced to Boris, our guide. I’m not entirely sure we’d booked a guide but Boris was pretty insistent we follow him so we did along with a handful of other tourists from Israel.
Looking back on this I sure am glad we were with him – Tikal is surrounded by dense forest which is navigable via a few pathways with relatively few signs. It’s definitely a good thing in terms of a getting what feels like a more real experience however we were told of a tourist getting lost for 8 days in here some years ago.
As we walked Boris explained a little about the background to Tikal such as it potentially being home to over 100,000 people in its heyday 1,000 years ago or so as well as the fact all the forest which now surrounds it would not have been seen for miles around with the land used for agriculture. The best guess as to what happened at Tikal are that the people migrated further south into Guatemala due to drought or to flee stronger surrounding kingdoms.
By this time we had come to a ‘small’ pyramid in the jungle which we climbed to the top of, and already we could feel the strain. Curiously, the average Mayan person was only about 5ft 3in and the kings were maybe 5ft 9in – incredible given the steps to the top of these structures are at least 1ft in height each! Add in the fact the king would be draped in gold and jaguar skin (very bling) and I’m not sure they tried to fit into their surroundings.
A further walk through the jungle brought us to an incredibly large structure simply known as Temple IV and immediately we were eager to clamber up the rickety wooden steps to the top of it. Despite being so early in the morning the climb in the heat had both of us sweating and a little short of breath and the view took a little bit more of that away. Looking out from the temple across the expanse of jungle below all you can make out are a couple of other temples peaking over the tree canopy, the odd Macaw flying from tree to tree in the distance and a curious roar of which we did not know the source.
I could have stayed at the top of that temple all day and just watched the day go by but there is a great deal more of Tikal to see before the sun becomes unbearably hot and at the same time taking advantage being one of the few people on the site.
Back on the ground I asked Boris what the noise was, to me it sounded like a lion or a dinosaur both of which would take you by surprise in the middle of Guatemala! He simply said it was a howler monkey and we could go find them and within a few minutes of the ever increasing roars there they were, high in the trees, defending their territory against another group of spider monkeys.
I’d heard of howler monkeys before but never realised just how appropriate their name was. They actually used the noise of these creatures to create the sound effects for dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. And while we’re on the subject of movie trivia, Tikal was also the location of a small scene in Star Wars Episode IV.
Moving on through the forest from the monkeys we were coming to the main centre of Tikal where many temples are located and were left to explore on our own after some final information from Boris. Clambering over these kinds of things really does make you feel pretty good about yourself but you can only imagine how the explorers felt re-discovering these ruins amongst the rainforest.
A couple of hours of clambering and doing our own little exploration we’d grown tired and sat to reflect on what we had seen. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other ancient cities like Pompeii, Angkor Wat and Borobodur however I still find new ones just as impressive, although by this time I needed a huge drink of water – Lara Croft movies make these things look so much more glamourous!
BUT. The early morning was worth it.