Tikal, Tiredness, and Distractions

After another eight-hour shuttle ride I arrived in Flores, the island city base for visiting the great Mayan ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala. Flores itself is quiet, but lovely surrounded by water, docks, and sunshine. I was utterly exhausted when I arrived in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, this is not unusual for visitors in Flores as many are arriving from long bus rides (me today) and getting up extremely early in the morning for Tikal tours (me tomorrow). The social scene here was subdued as so many people were in some phase of recovery (me the whole time).
Tired as I was, I set to work planning a tour for the next day of the famous Tikal, the granddaddy of Mayan ruins. There is great debate on when and how to visit Tikal. Sunrise is generally preferred by purists and masochists as the sunrise is beautiful, it is cooler in temperature, and wildlife is more active. But it also involves a 3am departure time from Flores–ouch. Both sunrise and sunset also have an added cost (100Q/$14USD) on top of the already expensive park entry fee (150Q/$20US). Guides and transport also come into play. After weighing the options, I decided to depart the hostel at reasonable a quite 4:30am, arrive at the park just as it opens officially at 6am, and complete the tour with a guide.

The next morning we did just that. After arriving at the park, getting everyone else caffeinated and me eating coconut cookies for breakfast, we headed in. It was beautiful in the early morning and we did see and hear wildlife: toucans, howler monkeys, a bizarre relative of opossum with a long snout, and the craziest looking turkeys you would ever see.

Hello pretty bird.
Rodents of Unusual Size.
Greeting the sun.

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The site and views were indeed beautiful, Mayan ruins in the jungle and all that, but I will admit I was a little disappointed. I preferred both Palenque and Tulum over Tikal as they felt more unique and spoke to me. To be fair, Tikal carries the burden of high expectations from a lot of hype, and perhaps I was just too tired to get something truly grand out of it. I was already wooed by the Mayans in Mexico and am also afraid Angkor Wat permanently did a number on my sense of scale (“show me another two dozen each gorgeously detailed and with tons of personality, then I’ll be impressed!”). Also, while our guide was nice, he didn’t actually give me much historical perspective beyond the very basic. I really should have done more homework beforehand.

The thing about Tikal is that it actually *is* big, over 6 square miles and 3000 structures, but 80-90% is uncleared, unmapped, and unexcavated. I find this utterly amazing. See those rolling hills? Yeah, not actually natural hills, but more archaeology to be done. UPenn has been the leader of the serious excavation since 1956 and it looks like they have a lot of work ahead of them. Sim, I know you’re busy, but could you tell your people to get on this please? Kthnx.
Lots to do… better get moving Penn!
On top of pyramid IV, the tallest structure, a man approached me and asked me to be his model. He told me where to stand and to move this way and that, peering through his viewfinder to get the positioning just perfect, then handed me his camera and asked to switch places. I got curious. What exactly was he doing? (Cousin Mark, if you are reading I bet you have guessed already!) He happily enlightened me: reenacting a shot of the landing of the Millennium Falcon at the rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope. Right, I remember now! This totally made my day. With his coaching, I got the camera angle right and took a shot of him he was satisfied with. In return, he took my picture too and knew exactly what he was doing directing me. Not bad, eh?
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