Since we had a rental car, we decided to drive to Tikal instead of arranging for a tour guide from Belize. It was a lot cheaper, and although we were discouraged from doing it (people promoting tours obviously would prefer you to take a tour, so they paint a discouraging picture of the dangers / problems of driving yourself), we decided to drive anyway. But what a mess. We needed papers signed by lawyer to take the car into Guatemala. Why a lawyer, we never learned; maybe it was just the rental car folks' way of doing things. The lawyer wasn't open until 9:00, and we were planning on having the papers by 7:00 so we could get an early start -- it's a pretty good drive to Tikal from San Ignacio. Grrr... In the meantime, we got the car switched to a Chevy Tracker 4x4. Dona and Sid visited the Cahal Pech, a Mayan site which is right in San Ignacio, while I worked on the car switch and getting the paperwork for entering Guatemala. Dona and Sid got a surprise at Cahal Pech -- there was a class of students from the University of Montana learning and helping with a dig there.
The Chevy Tracker 4x4 was a piece of junk compared to the Toyota we had before the switch, but the Toyota wasn't four wheel drive. Among the problems we had, you couldn't shut off the wipers once we started them, which we did when they sprayed the car with pesticide at the border crossing. The dashboard lights didn't work, so night driving was going to be fun... The brakes were squishy -- the struts were shot. It felt like a rebranded Korean or Chinese car.
At the border, we had the misfortune to get the Guatemalan president's brother-in-law as a car check out person. It would have made a great movie scene. The guy had the shakes, was totally buffaloed by the computer, and didn't have a clue about the forms he was supposed to fill out. He had difficulty seeing, typed in different vin numbers in different places on the forms, spelled my name wrong... We got ourselves checked across the border in about five minutes, but it took a full hour to get the car done. Fortunately a very helpful Guatemalan guy had attached himself to us and he knew what the official was supposed to do. Since we were dealing with the President's brother-in-law, one didn't want to get him pissed off. Our helper would wait until it wouldn't be too offensive, then diplomatically tell the guy what to write where. Then the official would move to the next entry and stare at it for a long time, try to find some instructions on the form somewhere or in his drawer, look around for help and we would repeat the process. Anyway, we finally left the border about 10:00.
We got to Tikal about noon. The ruins of Tikal are in a big park, and once you enter the park the speed limit is 45 km/hr. On entry you get passes for the people in the vehicle and a piece of paper for the vehicle, on which they write the time of entry. It's a long way from the entrance to the actual archeological site, and we did a lot more than 45 km/hr. When we got there they guy at the entrance wrote the finish time down, but didn't process it. I realized they could look at the times and tell we were speeding. So I forged the start time to be earlier... a lot earlier, since doing anything else would have been difficult for me with my minimal forgery skills.
As well as the archeological site, Tikal is a wonderful nature reserve. There were great trees all over, howler and spider monkeys, birds, snakes, and other cool critters.
|Xxx Bird||White Tailed Trogon||White Tailed Trogon|
As you walk from place to place in Tikal, you pass what looks like large mounds / hills in the jungle. Eventually you realize that they are un-excavated ruins. It's astounding -- they're all over the place. If they have been previously excavated but not maintained, in short order the jungle starts to reclaim them.
| Mayan Pyramid
Being Reclaimed by the Jungle
| Typical Tikal Surroundings
Photo by Dona
|Approaching Temple I from the Side||Temple I||Temple I|
| North Acropolis
Photo by Dona
|Part of Central Acropolis|
The Mayans performed human sacrifice on occasion. The person being sacrified was laid on a stone and held by priests while their abdomen was cut open and a priest reached through the diaphragm, grabbed the heart and tore it out, still beating.
|Stela and Sacrifice Stone|
|Stelae at the foot of the North Acropolis||Stela|
Since Tikal is a large park in the middle of the jungle, it is home to a lot of animals. We enjoyed watching the leaf-cutter ants trying to reduce the jungle to farmland, as well as searching for larger critters like monkeys and birds. There was a coatimundi wandering around the main plaza while we were there.
| Leaf Cutter Ants
Photo by Dona
| Spider Monkey
Photo by Dona
| Spider Monkey
Photo by Dona
The pyramids were re-built many times, in the sense that a new pyramid would be constructed on top of an old one. This meant that the new one was necessarily larger, and therefore grander, than the previous one. Kinda like onion rings... As the archeologists excavate them, they sometimes remove the outer layer to expose things from the inner layers. Like the image below.
If you feel energetic despite all the jungle heat and humidity, you can climb up to the top, or near the top, of some of the large pyramids. The view from up there is outstanding, as you are above the jungle canopy and can see for miles. What do you see? More Myan pyramids sticking up! It is mind boggling to think that this civilization existed way before Europeans even knew the Americas existed. As you look into the distance, in addition to the exposed pyramids, you are sure to see some humps that look like hills sticking out of the jungle. At least some of those are un-excavated ruins. I can't travel through Central America without seeing every hump in the jungle as a potential Myan site.
|Temples I, II, III and V from Temple IV|
|Temples I and II from Temple IV||Temple III from Temple IV|
|Sid, Dona and Gary|
On our way back to the car for a rest and some refreshment, we ran into some cool, colorful birds.
|Ocellated Turkey||Ocellated Turkey|
|Grey Necked WoodRail||Grey Necked WoodRail|
And then there was the tree that aspired to be a fine artist.
Sid climbed up to the main opening at the top of the stairs on Temple IV. He's in all of the photos below, so you can get a sense of the scale of these huge pyramids. The stairs up the pyramids look like normal stairs, until you try to climb them. The rise on each stair is two or three times what a "normal" stair is. "Walking up the stairs" is more like climbing a mountain.
|Temple IV||Temple IV||Temple IV Sid|
We didn't get to spend as much time in Tikal as we would have liked, due to our fiasco with the Guatemalan president's brother at the border, and we didn't want to be driving across the Peten in the dark. On the way out of Tikal, the guard asked for the car paper but I gave him my Tikal entry ticket instead. He said something like "You don't have it?" and I said no and he waved us on through. My forgery would have had us traveling really slow, but I had figured we could say we stopped to watch some monkeys and birds. But we didn't have to do that...
We stopped at Lago Peten Itza on the way out for an ice cream cone, and bought another hammock. We would have enjoyed eating there but wanted to drive as far as possible before it got dark.
Then we spent the next day wandering around the Pine Ridge district of Belize.