The Wonderful Seclusion of a Mayan City

In Tikal, Guatemala, hike in thick jungle, and climb tall ruins

WHO needs a stair-climber when you can have Tikal? That thought occurred to me as I lumbered up the last of 49 high, limestone steps to the top of one of two main temples dominating the great plaza of Tikal, the grand Mayan ruins that poke out of the jungle in northern Guatemala.

Spanning more than 1,000 years of continuous Mayan development and covering 220 square miles of thick jungle with some of the Western Hemisphere's greatest indigenous architecture, Tikal and the national park that surrounds it offer something better than an archaeological museum, zoo or botanical garden - and much better than a gym with its bicycles and climbing machines.

Here you climb structures well over a millennium old to come face-to-face with the Mayan rain god, Chak; prowl chambers and palaces once accessible only to a secluded elite; scan treetops for spider monkeys; encounter columns of leaf-cutter ants; and get in a decent day's workout. It is all part of discovering one of the Americas' great cities of pre-Columbian civilization.

Part of what makes Tikal so wonderful is the way its seclusion forces visitors to experience it: After an hour's flight north from Guatemala City, there's a 40-minute bus ride from a small provincial airport, and finally a hike deep into tangled and towering greenery. Only then does the grandeur of a city that once sheltered more than 10,000 people begin to reveal itself. With jungle covering 80 percent of the estimated 4,000 buildings archaeologists say still exist in Tikal, the visitor understands why these breathtaking ruins remained virtually unknown until 1848.

With only one day off in a busy week in Guatemala City, I chose to make my discovery of Tikal a day trip. One Guatemalan I spoke with insisted that visitors need "at least a month" to experience Tikal. But the plentiful number of same-day-return packages out of the Guatemalan capital suggests many tourists opt for a day trip.

Visitors can stay as long as they want, of course: One possibility for those who have a little more time is a two- or three-day trip. The central attraction of that option, I was told by several visitors who had done it, is the opportunity to wake up early in one of a variety of lodgings and walk into the jungle when it is at its screechiest and most alive. Parrots, macaws, hundreds of other birds, deer, monkeys, and even jaguars - which figure so prominently in Tikal's Mayan art - are all possible players in the jungle's early-morning pageant.

After a sunrise flight in a 21-seat, twin-engine jet shared by tourists and Guatemalans going home or to work in the northern state of Peten, we landed at a small airport just outside the colonial city of Flores. Taking up all of an island on Lake Peten Itza, Flores is the site of the last Spanish conquest of the Mayas, in 1697. From there, five tourists - a Dutch-Belgian couple, two American Elderhostel participants (they had just finished building Habitat for Humanity houses in central Guatemala), and I - set off for Tikal in a small bus.

Our guide, Saul, a young man who spoke self-taught, near-perfect English, never stopped his monologue until we reached Tikal 40 minutes later. He told us first about Peten, about the mostly poor people who live there, and how the Guatemalan government had only recently taken a sincere interest in stopping the gradual destruction of one of the hemisphere's great rain forests.

"The jungle used to cover 95 percent of this big state, but now that's down to 45 percent," Saul told us. "In the last 25 years, we've lost more than half of the jungle." What he told us was apparent out of the bus window: Small tracts of dense, varied jungle were followed by huge swaths of barely productive land, where maybe a cow or two grazed and a tree or two survived.

SPRINKLED among the bamboo-sided, thatched-roof huts along the road were small evangelical churches, sometimes two or three to a settlement, testaments to the deep penetration of fundamentalist Protestant churches into much of Central America in the last two decades.

But once we entered the national park, civilization was largely left behind. How strange to soon realize that we had only left one civilization to encounter another: one of astonishing order, wealth, and accomplishment.

In the first five centuries of the Christian era, Tikal rose to become a great ceremonial and commercial center, trading with other Mayan settlements and other cultures as far away as the Toltecs in Teotihuacan, north of present-day Mexico City. The Mayas of Tikal had to trade to get the jade and quetzal feathers that were such important parts of their artistic (and barbaric) religious expression.

Evidence of Mayan accomplishment is seen in the civilization's pottery and art, its calendar, writing, astronomy, and mathematical calculations. But for visitors to Tikal, the most striking evidence of its greatness is its architecture.

The view from the top of the Temple of the Masks, looking across the great plaza to the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, is astounding. For 850 years, the people who lived here designed and redesigned, built and rebuilt buildings on this plaza.

To get a feeling for what overtook Tikal in the centuries after the civilization fell into ruin beginning in AD 900, climb the snarl of roots and wooden stairways that cling to the side of Temple IV, the tallest construction of the pre-Columbian Americas. To reach even higher, climb a 15-rung pipe ladder clamped precariously to the side of the temple's uppermost chamber. From there, one looks out on an expanse of green reaching out in all directions, interrupted only by the tops of Tikal's tallest structures.

This is the jungle that, once left to its own devices, laid an organic blanket over Tikal, keeping it a secret for almost 1,000 years. Tikal still keeps many secrets. But today the jungle reveals enough for us to know that here we are in the presence of a wonder.

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