The Ancient Mayan Ruin of Tikal

Oh the questions we ask ourselves back and forth about what to do when we don’t know what to do. Should we fly in the smallest plane on Earth or take a sketchy bus? Should we book one more night or should we only stay for one? Some questions should take priority such as should I bring more insect repellent or should we just buy it there? Two heads are better than one especially if one of them thinks ultra logically. Tam is super organized and if it wasn’t for her neatly systematized file with maps and other important stuff, then I would probably still have been in some jungle in Vanuatu. We choose not to buy more insect spray and to take the bus to save some cash. One of them ends up being the inferior choice but I guess that soon the little red dots will disappear.

Main area

Ballgame area

They used to play a kind of ball game on these steps, a game that resulted in the death of the loser.

We wait for a couple of hours in a bus station in the center of Guatemala City to catch our ride to Santa Elena, in the Peten province of the country. There are mostly local people waiting around and it seems that screaming children is something you find across all cultures. I notice that we are the only foreigners in the waiting room. I have observed the following chain of events, that usually occur, when another foreigner walks into a room where you have been the only one of for a while – and been wondering if you are at the right place because you don’t notice other foreign faces. You lock eyes, but just for a short split second. There is a lot that you can tell about the unspoken words in that short amount of time. I could read from the Aussie’s eyes that he felt relieved there are other foreigners there. What I wait for next is the conversation opener. This can range from basic questions like “Where are you guys from?” to more useful questions regarding your worries about if you are in the right place such as “ Are you guys also going to…..(insert destination here)? Sometimes nothing is said until the very end of your time together, whatever the pursuit was in the time spent together. Traveling is about meeting interesting people along the way, and most often you end up listening to their stories and then share yours. People, albeit some, are awesome. Our 8-hour bus ride is trumped by some of the other travellers’ 16-hour trips. The ride and trying to sleep is about as comfortable as it is to try and balance and plug in your South African plugs in an electricity socket from other countries- eventually you get it right, but its not perfect.


The heat in this place sticks to you like peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth when you have the droogies. It is like the earth is sweating underneath and around you. It is so hot here that not even the normal ants work in the day, only the leaf-cutters. I left some sugar out to test it and not one ant came out. I feel happy about the fact that even the locals have sweat beads building on their foreheads.


We are in the middle of a beautiful jungle and the calls of howler monkeys in the canopies actually sound like jaguars roaring and growling. There are jaguars here too and there are no fences. This place is wild, with leafcutter ants crawling all over the place and tropical birds calling out. I’m in my element when I notice all the insects being insecty. Wasps big enough to make you think it’s a bird flying by and lizards falling out of trees. Highly venomous snakes chilling in the shadows of the footpath and spider monkeys throwing forest fruit at you from above. The place is magical, and we haven’t even seen the ruins yet.




lizzy eye

Some of the critters

The first temple we saw towered high above the treetops and at first sight of the moss covered ruin, the magnificence vibrates through you in the same way howler monkeys’ calls resonate through the air.


in the sun


At the dawn of the Maya Classic era, Tikal was one of the most important cities in the Maya region. In the year 378, representatives of the mighty northern city of Teotihuacan replaced the ruling Tikal dynasty. This could have been military or politically motivated. Tikal was the dominant city in the region, controlling several other smaller city-states. Warfare was as common as beheadings, and sometime in the late sixth century, Calakmul defeated Tikal. Tikal bounced back, however, once again becoming a great power.

Like other ancient super civilizations, the Maya civilization eventually began to crumble and it is speculated it may have been due to famine, disease, warfare, climate change or any combination of those factors. So, pretty much the same as what is going on in the world today. Historians believe that by 950 A.D. the city was abandoned. That leaves a long time for some moss to grow and for the jungle to take over.

in the shadows

We do a sunset and a sunrise-guided tour through the ruins and go to different sections of the site each time. Alfredo, our guide, has a vast knowledge about the ruins. He expresses himself well and loves showing us the things we would never have found on our own. The walls of these ruins have seen centuries of change. Some temples are completely covered and swallowed by the jungle, hiding in the shadows completely covered with moss and tree roots. The foxes have claimed it as their dens and monkeys clamber and call from the steps of the beautiful dilapidating ruin. Alfredo thinks he has dengue fever and that makes us worry about the mosquito bites we have. There is nothing you can do about dengue fever. He shows us a fruit that the monkeys will only eat when they get ill. The orange coloured fruit looks potent and I give it a miss, opting for a couple of Gallo cervezas instead.

from temple 4

Temple One and Four viewed from Temple five with vast jungle all around

At the end of our sunrise tour we sit at Temple five for an hour to meditate. It is 5am and the living breathing jungle is slowly waking up, with mist still covering the mysterious sacred temples. Sounds of all kinds of insects and monkeys start filling the air and with eyes closed we wait for the sun to break through. I know there is still so much to see and experience in life but I can truthfully say that this is one of the most special experiences of my life. There are certain feelings and emotions that you experience in this life only by being in that moment, such as pulling into a glassy clean blue barrel in Indonesia while looking at the colorful reef underneath you or, like in this case, sitting on an ancient temple in the jungle in the mist waiting for the sun to start a new day in a place older than the Mayan calendar. Life is fascinating and the cycles of it is very visible here.

The Mayans must have been very patient people and mathematically, extremely precise. The sun will rise over a specific spot above one temple and through the year it moves to another carefully calculated spot. With most mornings covered in fog it is estimated that it must have taken them thirty to fifty years to build just one of these temples in order to get the sun to rise over that one precise spot. I can’t help but think of other possibilities. What if the weather was different back then and there was no mist in the mornings? It could have taken quicker to build. I like having friendly arguments such as these with Alfredo and he is very open to discussing them. The big question everyone asks: “ Why did the Mayan civilization really crumble?” I am glad I am not the one having to find the answers to that one. It’s a question deeper than the sinkhole in Guatemala City. It makes me realise that if one of the wisest civilizations of all time collapsed for whatever reason, it could happen to us pretty soon if you think about the state of our planet. Who knows what kind of animal will sit on your doorstep in the future, having claimed it as its own when the earth starts taking back what is hers.

stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven.

Tikal is magical. It is real and it is unreal at the same time. It draws you in as if under an enigmatic spell of an ancient Mayan priest. I close my eyes and touch one of the moss-covered walls and as I do so I can’t help but think how a human being from another period in time could probably have done the same at the same spot. I then do a handstand in the middle of the main plaza and wonder if some one did the same a thousand years ago… Probably not as this area used to be only for Rulers and dignitaries.


Archaeologists are uncovering new tombs and buildings here all the time and the only way to do it is to hack away at the lush jungle. My shoes still have mud from Tikal stuck to it. I tried washing it off to no avail. In the same way that the surreptitious jungle has taken over the ruin, the mud will stay on my shoes until I have used it enough to disappear. I don’t mind having it there though because each time I walk in a new place I carry a piece of mysterious ancient history with me.


I can guarantee you that the ancient Maya did not think a fox will be the eventual inhabitant of this temple. What animal is going to claim your house as its own when it all comes to an end?

templs 4

Even though it is still standing, the Sun now sets a few meters to the right of this timeworn temple. I wonder how the clever ancient architects of this wonder will feel about that.

temple 4

2 thoughts on “The Ancient Mayan Ruin of Tikal

  1. Exellent seun – ‘n reis terug in tyd na ‘n era waarvan veral ons Suid Afrikaners bitter min weet. Ek het saam jullu op die tempel gesit en stil raak….

  2. Wow Juan! So amazing- it looks really spectacular! Must have felt do weird being in such an ancient place with so much history!

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