Up at 3.45am, with just enough time to run a brush through my hair and throw on my jungle boots before heading over to the lobby of the Tikal Inn for some strong coffee – black, no sugar – I don’t mess around that early in the morning. There I met with Nixon who was doing double-duty, sunset the previous night, and sunrise this morning. We were not alone this time; we were accompanied by a gorgeous looking Swedish couple who had thrown in their dayjobs and travelled around South and Central America for the past 5 months – this was the last leg of their journey before flying north to Florida and then back to Sweden to pick up where they left off.
There wasn’t even a glimmer of daylight when we left the lodge and started walking along the trails towards Temple 4, but we didn’t need the assistance of flashlights because the full moon was so bright and our eyes acclimatised to the dimly lit pathways pretty quickly. It was only when we were under cover of the soaring trees that we needed to resort to our flashlights. We covered the distance to Temple 4 pretty quickly, swapping travel stories along the way, and ascended the steep stairs with plenty of time before the sun dared to show its face. Sitting on the uppermost steps of the temple, listening to the clamour of the nighttime animals from the jungle floor, we saw the first chink of light appear through the darkness, outlining the temples ahead.
Then, just as dawn was about to break, a thick swirling fog swept across the landscape and blanketed everything in sight. It was quite spectacular to behold, glowing an almost unearthly lavender in the early morning light.
From a barely visible tree top, a pair of toucans settled in to greet the new light with a melodic refrain. It was just magical.
As it got lighter, I climbed to the very top step of the temple to take a photo of my jungle boots because, hey, that’s how I roll. Wild and crazy chick, me! You can’t get any higher than this in Tikal without the aid of pharmaceuticals which could get you gaol time. Temple 4, also known as the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent and constructed around 741 AD, soars to a dizzying height of 70 meters.
And one more, with my boots over the jungle below:
I’ll stop now, before this turns into one of those terrible slide shows your neighbours force you to watch of their holidays in Benidorm. It was time to descend the stairs again, and on the way down, we met a praying mantis on its way up. It looked surprised to see us.
Now it was off to explore the ruins. We had a couple of hours – our “Amanecer” ticket to the park was good until 8am. We saw all kinds of stunning structures amidst the thickly forested surroundings, and looking back as we made our way along the trail, we realised exactly how imposing Temple 4 was.
Nixon was in full tour guide mode now, regaling us with tales of the early Mayans and their proficiency in the sciences and the arts. We followed him as he led the way deftly along the trails, blindsiding us with the most stunning views of this ancient Mayan city that had been reclaimed by the jungle.
Then we popped out into the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Nixon had brought us here because he knew this was a spot where we’d have a very good chance of spotting wildlife. There were parrots squawking, woodpeckers rat-tat-tapping out noisy rhythms on nearby trees, brightly coloured toucans flitting amongst the treetops and a feeding tree where spider monkeys congregated. I was in heaven.
To get on eye level with the monkeys, who were high up in the tree tops, we clambered up a grassy hill, which was actually an unrestored temple – there are many more like this in the area. From the top you can see the temple peeping out, but from ground level you wouldn’t even know there was a building there at all.
Now we headed towards Grand Plaza, home of the impressive Temple 1, otherwise known as The Temple of the Grand Jaguar. At about 45 meters in height, it towers proudly over the Grand Plaza. Standing in the very centre of the plaza, Nixon told us that while most people today assume the best vantage point is from the top of one of the surrounding structures, in reality, the best place to be is right in the centre of the plaza, as it is acoustically perfect, and symbolically represents the point where all directions converge.
Nixon left us to explore Temples 1 and 2 (The Temple of the Masks, a trifling 38 meters high), and the North and Central Acropolises (I want to use acropoli but acropolises is correct) surrounding the Grand Plaza as he went in search of transport, because by now we’d overshot our 8am exit time by well over an hour. When he returned, we hopped in the back of a park ranger’s truck and got driven back towards the exit, with Nixon pointing out further temples and wildlife along the way.
And we did all that before breakfast, which we shared with Nixon back at the Tikal Inn. Not bad, really, considering I don’t usually achieve that much in a week anywhere else. The romance of this ancient Mayan city of Tikal has crept into my heart and enchanted my soul so completely I don’t want to leave.