On our very first full day in Guatemala, we stayed in El Remate on the east side of Lago Petén Itzá to be closer to Tikal National Park than Flores. We flew into Mundo Maya International Airport that morning, took a minibus to where we were staying, grabbed a quick lunch, and then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Tikal. On the way there our driver, David, told us about all the wildlife he’d seen in the area. He mentioned coatis, turkeys, parrots, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and even a jaguar. He stopped the bus and showed us a spot high up in the trees where there were these nests he said belonged to birds. I speak a decent amount of Spanish so I was thrilled to get the chance to practice with David and then had fun translating the conversation back to Ian.
Needless to say, after hearing David talk about all those animals, pulling into the parking lot I was a bit anxious with anticipation! I was already so excited: this was the first big thing we were seeing in Guatemala! And we were finally in Guatemala after months of planning the trip! I’d heard and read so much about Tikal in particular and couldn’t wait to see the ruins in person. We got there a little bit after noon and our driver told us he would be waiting until we were ready to go, so we were in no rush and were going to explore the park at our own pace until it closed at sunset. It might be an unpopular (more like unheard of) choice for most who visit Tikal, but we chose not to hire a guide. I don’t really know why, I guess because I had my Lonely Planet guidebook and felt like the information in there was enough, but it ended up being a great time for both of us as we got to wander around in our own way. I’ve heard great things about the guides, though! I would probably hire a guide if I went back.
We skipped the museum, choosing rather to simply take in the sights around us without all the background info. So we made for the main trail leading toward the ruins and followed the path into the jungle! The zipper on Ian’s backpack broke after only a quarter of a mile of walking on the trail leading toward the ruins. And it was actually my fault. I guess my superhuman strength was too much for that puny little zipper. So while I was sitting there, still in great spirits, trying to fix it on the side of the path, Ian started snapping away at the camera and took beautiful photographs of that Ceiba tree that everyone who visits Tikal seems to get a picture in front of its massive buttress roots.
Once the zipper problem was remedied, we ended up trying to follow the suggested route in my Lonely Planet guidebook and got lost a couple of times, but were mostly in a direction that seemed generally correct. Walking through the dense jungle was pretty magical. I thought the plant-life was so beautiful considering the fact that it wasn’t even the rainy season yet! I couldn’t imagine how verdant and teeming with life everything must be when the rain begins to patter upon the rubbery leaves of the rain forest.
The ruins were so much cooler than I had imagined they would be! I didn’t realize you could climb up and on so many of them. (Not sure if we were supposed to at some of the temples, but it was obvious that people did it all the time, so we just went for it.) Plus, the park wasn’t really even crowded. As we trekked around in the park, Ian/Tarzan managed to keep himself entertained by swinging on some vines that were hanging over the trail.
After a lovely yet sweaty hike along the path, we first headed to the secluded Templo VI where the first Mayan temple I had ever seen emerged from beneath vegetation. The Mayan message written in stone was impossible for us to discern, but we both pretended like we knew what was going on. We headed next to Plaza de los Siete Templos where we explored the many vistas by climbing up and around a pretty cool temple on the south end of the plaza. A family of spider monkeys swung their way from branch to branch off in the distance. Standing atop the temple provided us with a great vantage point, allowing me to catch a glimpse of a mama and her little baby hanging on to her for dear life.
Next, we stumbled upon the Grupo G ruins. I thought it was a cute little area in comparison to all the giant temples in the park. There was some renovation or construction going on in this area, but I have to say that I liked the community feel of this little group of ruins. The tunnel was a nice touch, albeit disingenuous and artificial in design. You could tell it was modern construction. I still thought it was cool, though. Plus we got to see a spider monkey up close as he was picking through the fruit on the low hanging branches of the trees looking for a late lunch.
After some more walking, we now accidentally found ourselves at El Mundo Perdido, known mostly for being the oldest part of the city. Quite fitting for its name, “the lost world,” as we were feeling pretty lost and had no idea where we were. I still don’t know whether the pyramid we climbed up was called la Gran Pirámide or if it was the unnamed talud-tablero one to the west. Pretty sure it was the talud-tablero one (I just googled it). But, basically, we climbed up a temple that had the most amazing views and probably provided me with my favorite moment of the day! From my stance at the top of the steps, right across the way there was a ridiculously tall Ceiba tree reaching its branches into the sky. It was an incredible point of view, being able to see the treetops from such an angle. In that moment, I had such a love-hate relationship with the really loud and vibrant squawking bird that was at my eye level some 50 meters away. It really was making a loud and obnoxious sound.
And, of course, next we climbed the long, steep steps up Templo IV as well. That’s the one that people watch the sunset and sunrise from. Oh, and a scene from Star Wars also happens to have been filmed from there. But, at that point, Ian and I were both feeling pretty exhausted after just our few hours in the park. We hadn’t drinken water in hours and, throats parched, we were dying of thirst. Ian in particular was feeling a bit moody so he left me up there all alone as he abruptly went back down from atop the temple. So I just sat there, enjoying the view and trying to let the buckets of Guatemalan sweat dripping off me dry a little bit, before following him down the stairs and heading to the final location we had left to see.
Last but not least, we made our way into the Gran Plaza. It took us forever to do it, but we found it! Definitely had a little bit of luck there. And we didn’t really plan it this way, but I’m glad we saved it for last because everything we would have seen after that would have seemed a bit less awe-inspiring than the towering Templo I, Templo del Gran Jaguar. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, it was built sometime around the year 734, which is quite a long time ago. Templo I stands above all other structures in the Gran Plaza (I, II, and III are the tallest in the park) and I felt pretty small in its presence. Ian and I hung out in Gran Plaza, snapped a few pictures, and sat around, gazing at it all, feeling tired and thirsty (mostly thirsty!!!) for a bit before we decided it was time to head back.
So we started walking back but eventually my unquenched thirst led me to break out into a run. I ran along that same trail I had entered into the jungle, through the parking lot, and straight to the store that sold snacks and drinks. I kindly but very quickly asked the nice man working there for the largest bottles of water he had. I grabbed two of them and tossed one to Ian, who had been taking his time to get there, casually strolling back slowly on the trail. I cracked open that bottle and started chugging. I don’t think I’ve ever drunken water that’s tasted quite that well. Certainly not since then, at least.
With water finally trickling down my throat and eyes closed with both serenity and exhaustion, the drive back to town was pretty nice. We had one night in El Remate before heading out early the next day for more adventures in Lanquin and eventually Antigua. My first full day in Guatemala leaves me with happy feelings just reflecting back on it.