In Guatemala’s north lies the greatest treasure of one of the most magnificent cultures of all time. Tikal National Park is a collection of awe-inspiring pyramids built by the Mayans and preserved with modern technologies. It was an early April morning when I arrived by bus at the entrance of the park. Nestled in the Sleeping Crocodile mountain range and preceded by a 70,000-year-old lake, the Mayans could not have picked a better location for natural beauty.
Exiting the tour bus, my group was immediately met with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide. As it turns out, beauty wasn’t a factor in the building of these great pyramids. Tikal was founded on a limestone quarry, which made the construction of these monoliths a great deal easier. A great quality of limestone is that it absorbs the shockwaves from earthquakes. Those Mayans really knew what they were doing. But aside from convenience, it’s almost as if Tikal was a gift from the gods. The astronomical positioning of the park and of each individual temple lines up perfectly with Mayan cosmology, making it ideal for religious ceremonies. And finally, surrounded by high mountains and dense forests, Tikal was perfectly situated against attacks from Aztecs roaming south.
All of this we learned while walking through a rainforest with trees wider than I could wrap my arms around. The park is set up in a circle so you begin and end the tour in the same place. It took roughly half an hour of walking before we broke through the trees and saw the pyramids for the first time. The term “awe” is so overused that it doesn’t carry enough reverence for the feeling these ancient structures inspired. Gargantuan, timeless, steeped in history and blood — the ruins are a testament to the incredible civilization that built them.
Then came a dilemma that many respectful travelers face: to climb or not to climb? Many of the pyramids were sectioned off because the wear from thousands of people treading up and down have made them unsafe. It physically hurts to see damage done to something so fantastic, but it is in our nature to be destructive — I couldn’t help but climb those we could mount to the top. To look out upon the whole of the park, the other buildings, the tiny tourists, the great expanse of forest and sky, it was easy to believe the gods of the Mayans lived there.
Another fun fact our tour guide threw out: the number of holes in the human body (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and two orifices) is equal the number of gods in the underworld, nine.
Our group circled the park and got back onto the bus. The round trip took the entire day. There were so many sights to see, stories to hear and so much history to absorb that it felt like we had been immersed in the culture for a week. Having also been to the Mexican ruins at Chichen Itza — a site listed as one of seven wonders of the new world — I have to wonder what the people who made that list were thinking. My visit to Tikal National Park eclipsed all my previous experiences. It was truly a sight to behold.