Tikal is, once again, a UNESCO site situated in what is now a national park. It was one of the largest Mayan sites and only 30% has been restored to date. The rest is still to be uncovered. It is estimated that it was established circa 741 AD. This is likely to be fairly accurate as dates have been found on door lintels and there has been a lot of pottery found on the site.

We had a special guide for our trip there. He was excellent. Very informative, but with a light touch. It was a good job – we were to be there all day!! He was useful in providing us with background information about Guatemala. The lowland area where we were produces grain and beans for the whole of Guatemala. Cattle were only introduced into the country in 1500 and a number of the indigenous people are still lactose intolerant. There are three main contributors to the economy, cattle farming for Mexico (although this is illegal), oil and tourism. I think the guide’s name was Vicente and he had a lovely term of phrase when talking of people who have died – he talked of ‘those who are one step ahead’. What a wonderful thought….

Anyway, back to Tikal. We left quite early as usual, the day already quite steamy. Tikal is located in thick jungle about a half an hour’s drive from Flores, which was originally a Mayan site in its own right. On the way we saw the people of the countryside waking up and at one point saw young boys playing in a large pond by the side of the road. They were having a great time. Having said this, we saw more schools in Guatemala than in Mexico and more young people seem to go to school. A bus passed, full to bursting with people sitting on the roof.

We have been lucky enough to have had a number of our archeological expeditions to sites to ourselves. Not this one. Several groups arrived when we did and set off down the jungle path with us. Most of them had guides. Apparently there have been deaths at.the site where people have left guides and not obeyed the warnings not to leave the designated areas. Looking at the thick jungle vegetation around us, there was little chance of me stepping out of line!

It was a broad cleared path, riddled with tree roots. However, the thick forest on either side provided welcome shade. It was probably a couple of kilometres of walking before we arrived at the first buildings. The whole area was vast. The centre of the royal city covers an area of 16 Km’s. This housed the royals. Others lived outside of this huge central area. Before we arrived at the site we had seen a model of the layout of Tikal to give us a bit of a feel for the place. It is vast

We also saw the model of the royal tomb found in Temple 1. The skeleton was of a male, 1.8 m tall, who was found with 32 lbs of jade buried with him. Mayan jade is less common than Chinese jade apparently, but quite sort after.

Our first view of an actual building was the top of Temple I which we could see through the trees. The temple soared high over the tree canopy.

The cleared path had grown even broader and gradually climbed as we followed the Mayan processional route. We eventually emerged into the first cleared area with a temple and 9 stelae with sacrificial stones in front of it at its base.

We learnt that Mayan plazas with their associated buildings were built on the compass points arrived at by the Mayan study of the stars. Monuments were positioned on each of the cardinal points and are likely to have been coloured to reflect their location. East red (the rising sun), west black (to reflect darkness), north blue or white and south yellow. The centre was green. This is where the king stood. He would wear jade.

We walked on. We then emerged in the main plaza. On one side was the Temple 1, where the tomb was found in its base, built by Jasaw Chan K’awill when he was king. The Temple rose high into the air and apparently goes down 7 metres underground. Along the broadest side of the plaza stood the buildings of the administration area banked up high, where kings were crowned and burial ceremonies took place. Facing Temple 1 on the opposite end of the plaza another tall temple, dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awill’s wife. On the 4th side of the square were the buildings believed to be the royal bedrooms.

The highest of the temples we saw at Tikal was 70 meters tall. Only the top of this was excavated. This was the temple of the Double Headed Serpent. We climbed a couple of temples, with the help of wooden stairways that had been built behind the temples to prevent the buildings being damaged. These made climbing much easier and gave us great views over the plaza and the vast rain forest canopy that makes up the site. Tikal was a truly incredible place.

There was so much to see we had a picnic lunch (watched by a coatimundi) on the site and continued our perambulation well into the afternoon.

One of the things that I found particularly fascinating was that it was the need to produce food that led the Mayan’s to become astronomers. They needed to plot the best times to plant, given the short growing season. Plant too early and humidity killed the seeds. Too late and torrential rains would ruin the crop. This gives a window of just 6 weeks in which to plant safely with a fair chance of success.

We were fairly exhausted by the time we arrived back at the hotel, but luckily rallied in time to do a bit of final shopping in Flores. Another lovely sunset……..

………. supper and then bed. We leave for Belize tomorrow, the final leg of our journey.

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