Camping in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in midst of Guatemala’s rainforest

Ever since we planned to come to Central America, we knew we wanted to see the ancient temples and remains of the Mayas and learn more about this fascinating culture. Knowing that Tikal was one of the biggest agglomerations back in 200 to 900 AD, we took a long 5-hour bus ride from Rio Dulce to the city of Flores, then a local bus for 2 hours to the National Park of Tikal and, shortly before nightfall, pitched our tents on the camp ground only a few hundred meters from the famous large Maya temples for the night before we set out to explored the park the next morning.

During our bus ride from Rio Dulce and Flores we were stopped multiple times by police men checking everybody’s passports. We had left our passports on the boat and luckily, after some convincing, were allowed to pass the controls with our National IDs instead. Lesson learned! Next time we travel inland we will take our passports with us. There was also no toilet, AC or enough seats for everyone. Some kids sat on the floor for hours. Luckily the driver stopped once at a public bathroom after 2,5 hours before we were all shoved back into the bus. To flush the toilet at the bus stations, you had to pour a jug of water (they usually provide cut open Clorox containers) into the toilet to flush it. It was definitely an interesting experience.

The local mini bus from Flores to Tikal stopped many times along the way to collect not only people but also supplies and packages that had to be transported from town to local families living in the National Park. Even though we were not sure what was happening since we couldn’t always understand our fast speaking bus driver, we sat back and observed, quite fascinated, how much could be tied to the roof of the minivan, including our backpacks. At every stop many people, mostly children and teenagers peaked inside the open door with a basket full of plantains, fruits, drinks, or pastries to sell. The bus, full with locals, then stopped at the entrance to the National Park for us to buy entrance tickets to Tikal. Since we brought our tents and camping gear, we decided to save the money for hotel rooms and rather spend the night in the midst of Guatemala’s rainforest.

Shortly before sunset we arrived at the camp ground, a large grassy area with concrete platforms covered by palm leaf roofs placed in a large circle around a soccer field. Just one other camp site seemed to be occupied. We later learned that he was a Dutch backpacker who rented a hammock and mosquito net, but did not even have a sleeping bag. Seeing his minimalistic setup, we were actually looking forward to sleeping in our comfortable tents, protected against humidity, insects, and other animals living in the jungle.

Once the camp was set-up, we followed Manuel the camp ground manager along a footpath leading us through abandoned houses to a restaurant that served us local food, mainly rice, beans, plantains, and other vegetables and drinks. When we walked back to camp through the dark, we watched fireflies light up around our tents and listened to the many noises coming from the rainforest around us. Excited for the next day and exhausted by the long trip, we went to bed early to get some good sleep before our alarm woke us at 4 in the morning. José, our guide, met us in front of the park entrance in pitch darkness and pouring rain. It had rained all night but we did not want to miss the sun rising above the tree tops while standing on a two thousand year old temple.

Despite the heavy downpour, we put on rain ponchos and started making our way through the dark forest on muddy footpaths while José happily chattered about the history, geography, nature and other interesting facts about the Mayans who lived on the very same ground we were walking on, 2000 years later.

Huge shadows of temples and Maya buildings emerged to the left and right of us in the beam of our flashlights while we tried to understand José’s voice over the pounding rain. We strolled around for more than one hour before we reached a little thatched roof to take a break. While we munched on granola bars and sipped water, José held his flashlight next to his head and continued telling us more about this place and the Mayas who lived here. Even though we were still tired in these early morning hours, we loved the whole atmosphere and eagerly asked questions to learn more. Shortly before sunrise, we climbed up one of the tallest temples, which is facing east and waited for the sun to rise and jungle to awaken. We sat down on the stairs covering our bodies and soaked feet with the rain ponchos. All morning we did not hear anything else than rain drops falling on our hoods and tree leaves, but with daylight the inhabitants of the jungle slowly woke up and we listened carefully. Monkeys, insects, various birds like toucans, eagles, vultures and smaller species started singing to each other.

The daylight also uncovered the heavy fog that was hanging above the tree tops in the valley in front of us. When we started seeing the silhouettes of trees we looked down on, we could also identify the other large temples on the hilltops. What looked like overgrown hilltops to us first, we learned later, were actually all foundations and parts of buildings and temples.

The ancient Mayan metropolis of Tikal supposedly consisted of over 60.000 buildings and over 600.000 people living here between 200 and 900 AD. The park is huge and many buildings and temples have been excavated and preserved. Experts guess, however, that more than 99% of the Maya ruins and artifacts in Tikal are still overgrown by jungle and not yet excavated. The immensity of this place overwhelmed us.

During our tour with José, we learned a lot about this ancient culture and how progressive and developed the society of Tikal was. One of our favorite architectural achievements was that when you clap your hands in front of the pyramids’ staircases, you will hear an echo that sounds like the national bird, the Quetzal.

The park of Tikal, being the largest national park of Central America, is home to various wildlife like jaguars, howler and spider monkeys, snakes, crocodiles and tropical birds, like toucans and parrots. José showed us traces of a jaguar that climbed up a tree to hunt a monkey only a couple of weeks before we visited.

We spent another 3 hours walking around with José after the sun rose. Hungrily we grabbed breakfast at the park’s entrance and went back inside to spent another 4 hours roaming around by ourselves. We climbed all major temples, walked many kilometers through rainforest to get from one archeological site to the other. Even the rain stopped and it turned out to be a beautiful day.

At one point we took a wrong turn on one of the trails and ended up at a current excavation site. The workers were taking a break and having lunch next to the Maya building wrapped in scaffolding. The stones were freshly cleaned and much brighter in color compared to the other temples. Under every little hill and elevation underneath the lush green vegetation there probably is another over 1200 year old house, temple, city wall, sculpture, altar, grave or sacrificial place that was built by the Mayas and still to be discovered. We even found some old ceramic pieces on the ground, slightly curved and probably part of a shattered pot. On the other hand, we loved to see how nature took this place back, which once was a metropolis with tens of thousand inhabitants and buildings.

After 8 hours of exploring the park, we were ready to leave and took the mini bus back to Flores. Flores is the capital of the Petén region and very popular among backpackers. Many hostels, hotels and restaurants are located in the old town on a small island in the large Lago Petén Itzá. Thousands of years ago Mayas also settled at this location. The modern, colorful small town of Flores evolved throughout the centuries and can thus be regarded as the second oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas.

We got a room at the famous Los Amigos Hostel, strolled around town and enjoyed the hostel flair, including many games of poole and good food before returning to our boat, Porky, waiting for us in the Rio Dulce.

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