If you find yourself in the region of Central America closest to Mexico, you have a unique opportunity to see one of the most impressive ancient sites in the region, and stay within walking distance of them. In the heart of Tikal National Park is a reserve that protects more than 22,000 hectares of lush rainforest and in so doing protects not only the thousands of species there, but also the impressive Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Within the UNESCO-listed Tikal National Park lies one of the major sites of Mayan civilization, inhabited from the 6th century B.C.E. to the 10th century C.E. The ceremonial center contains impressive temples and palaces and expansive public squares. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside.
The ruins of Tikal reflect the cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter-gatherers to farmers within an elaborate religious, artistic and scientific culture which finally collapsed in the late 9th century. At its height in the 8th century C.E., the city supported a population of approximately 90,000 Mayans. There are over 3,000 separate structures including temples, residences, religious monuments and tombs. Excavations have yielded remains of cotton, tobacco, beans, pumpkins, peppers and many fruits of pre-Columbian origin. Large areas are still to be excavated.
My first look at the ruins of Tikal was at night, when the blackness of the rainforest met the beautiful night sky in a vision not to be missed. A short walk to the entrance from the Tikal Inn, the sole accommodation within the park, I proceeded with my camping headlamp for a 30 minute walk until I was in the center of one of the main Mayan squares. The moonlight allowed me to see the silhouettes of the huge temples around me, but the real show at night was the beautiful starry sky above, with Saturn and Venus as bright as the moon and clearly visible. The Plaedes star system [the “seven sisters”] a system often mentioned in Mayan mythology, was clearly visible. So the story goes, this is the star system from which the “creators” came.
The sounds of the rainforest added a particularly ghostly soundtrack to the experience, particularly the beastly growl of the howler monkeys. If you have never heard them, the sound is something one might imagine in a Stephen King story. Truly creepy.
In addition to the howler monkeys, fifty-three additional species of mammal can be found within the site, including the spider monkey, giant anteater, lesser anteater, dwarf anteater, three-toed sloth, nine-banded armadillo, squirrel, pocket gopher, raccoon, brown coati, kinkajou, tayra, paca, long-tailed weasel, hooded skunk, otter, puma, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, and the elusive jaguar. Reptiles and amphibians in the park include Morelet’s crocodile, the Central American river turtle, nine families of amphibian and six genera of turtles, as well as 38 species of non-poisonous and poisonous snakes including the coral snake.
My local guide was quick to show me all of the dwellings of the ubiquitous Tarantula. I was impressed that he knew the park so well and that he seemed to know every rock under which a Tarantula lived. In fact when the Coatis came out in packs at dusk to forage for food, many of the park rangers sat on rocks where they knew Tarantulas lived to protect them. I found that to be endearing.
As I watched the sun rise from the top of one of the highest temples, I was awe-struck at the enormity of the site. As much of the site is still buried under the vegetation of the rainforest, it reinforced my thought that, compared to those in Europe and Asia, we know very little about ancient civilizations in the Americas. There seems to be an historical bias connected with ancient civilizations in the Americas – that by nature they must be less “civilized” than those in other parts of the world, and that they could not, for example, have matched the technological prowess of an ancient Egypt or ancient Rome.
As time goes on, however, this bias is being debunked. We clearly have a lot more research to do.