Jesus Antonio told me to look down and walk slowly right behind him. We were on Central Acropolis in Tikal and my guide was getting ready to show me his biggest surprise yet. Now, look up. I raised my head and was immediately in awe.
We’ve been walking through Tikal National Park and we’ve seen Complex Q and Group G. I was already impressed, but nothing prepared me to the sight of the Great Plaza from the top of Central Acropolis. Temple 1, also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar, was on my right, Temple 2, or the Moon Temple, on my left. Right in front of me were structures I’ve only seen in books and magazines. Antonio showed us a dated postcard of Temple 1 to show how it looked before most of the excavations began–how amazing would it have been to follow the reports about a few protruding bricks, and then digging and discovering that they were at least 60 meters deep (that’s 200 feet up if you work from the bottom) and as old as the 4th century. And imagine that only a fraction have been excavated after decades of archaeological work!
Everything was covered by brush and trees then, except for the tops of the towers because vertical structures did not support the local plant growth. Tikal is so different from Mexico’s Teotihuacan, where there is no tree in sight to shade you from the sun. From Tikal’s Temple 4 and Temple 5, we sat on the platforms and saw the tops of the other buildings, as if floating among green clouds.
I climbed around Temple 1 and 2 to take photos of well-preserved stairs and view the excavated masks. The entire site had been estimated at 23 square miles. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Mayan civilization protected 100,000 to 200,000 people. It gave me goose bumps when I was there, and it’s giving me goose bumps as I write this now.
The Lost World, Mundo Perdido, was equally stunning, with its three-stairway pyramid now off-limits to traffic.
We saw coatimundis roaming around digging for food as we walked through the causeway in the forest. Howler and spider monkeys played with each other on tops of tall trees. A couple of toucan birds sat above us as we ate a La Lancha-prepared lunch of chicken sandwich, fruits and chips and salsa outside the visitors’ center with a cold bottle of Gallo beer I requested before we left the hotel.
I remembered that it’s Thanksgiving Day back in New York City. I know I have so much to thank for–being at Tikal, being in Guatemala, being able to travel on my own.