Tikal and Yaxha- Wonders of the World?

As we left Antigua in the minivan headed for Guatemala City, I was worried that the bus station for the bus to Northern Guatemala would be in a sketchy seedy area. Unfortunately I was right. In general, going to Guatemala City is nerve wracking. It is known to be muy peligroso (very dangerous). Some but not all of the locals say that only certain areas or zones are bad. Don’t believe them. I’ve heard too many horrific stories from credible Guatemalans to keep my nerves on edge. The lives of others mean nothing to los ladrones y asesinatos (the robbers and murderers). As we pulled up to the bus station, the streets were dimly lit with unsavory looking human silhouettes milling about.

The waiting area of the dilapidated bus station was packed with Guatemalans and other Central Americans, their luggage, packages and bright yellow bags or boxes oozing the pungent greasy odor of fried Pollo Campero which filled the room dimly lit by humming florescent bulbs. Broken cracked floor tiles were worn and exhausted. The torn unholstered seats were stained and filthy. Our 9:00 p.m. overnight bus would be leaving shortly. It would take nine or ten hours for the 200 mile trip to get to the Isla of Flores, a lovely island community in the middle of El Lago (lake) Petén Itzá on our way to Tikal, the ancient Mayan archeological site about two hours further north than Flores. 

The modern yet dated bus had two levels. We sat in the lower level which we had reserved for its reclining seats which in reality only seemed to reline a few inches. As we left, I opened the curtains slightly to catch a glimpse of where we were going. Typical of Guatemala City, we were stuck in heavy traffic trying to get out of the city. It didn’t take long before I started feeling a little motion sickness from all the stopping and starting, the many turns and frequent lane changing. I closed my eyes and fortunately was able to get some sleep, although fitful, through the night as the bus laboriously made its way into the Petén Department (Guatemala is divided into departments rather than states) in Northern Guatemala.

At around 6:00 a.m., we arrived at the tiny bus station located just outside of Flores and somehow our designated taxi driver figured out who we were for the ride to our hotel which was less than 10 minutes away. The heavily dented taxi with worn paint which had lost its shine years ago looked unlikely to be able to take us anywhere. The trunk crunched rudely as the driver opened it to put in our luggage. The rusty doors loudly groaned when we opened them and inside the seats were ripped, the dashboard had a hole where the radio had been and of course, there were no seatbelts. While I had questioned the taxis’ ability to even make it to our hotel, I quickly remembered that Guatemalans seem to find ways to somehow make everything work and they fix it when it doesn’t. Nothing seems to go to waste, everything possible is reused or re-purposed. So off we went along the bumpy dusty road as the cobalt blue sky was beginning to lighten.

As we entered Flores, it was illuminated by the dawn’s lovely pinkish pastel light of the beautiful sunrise. I was quickly struck by how quaint and charming it was. Flores or La Isla de Flores is an island in the middle of Lago (lake) de Petén Itzá that is connected to the mainland by a short

Isla de Flores and. el Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Isla de Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

causeway. It is small enough to walk completely around in about 30 minutes although the lakefront promenade is submerged in the northern section from rising lake water. This area has turned out to be prime real estate for thousands of small black polliwogs swimming in every direction like sperm in search of a promising ovum. 

Pollywogs, Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Our relatively new hotel, the Isla de Flores Hotel, with its trendy whimsical paint job gave it a fresh tropical feel. Inside we found beautiful stone and dark hardwood floors along with thick ceiling beams framing the white washed walls decorated with colorful floral and leafy motifs adding to its

Hotel Isla de Flores, Isla de Flores, Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

charm. The friendly broken-English speaking and nice looking staff welcomed us. Our pleasant room was warmly decorated with a beautiful view of Flores and the lake, although the window was smaller than we would have wanted given our love for great views and lots of light in the room. The only downside to the room was its location on the third floor which was actually four flights up because they do not count the first floor– and there was no elevator. This made for a challenging return to our hotel room each afternoon or evening after a long day of walking.

Isla de Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

After a delicious traditional breakfast in the hotel’s inviting restaurant, we were met by a tour guide who led us on a rapid 10 minute winding walk through the dusty streets to the bus that would take us to Tikal. After about a two hour picturesque bus ride, we arrived at the huge dramatic gated entrance where we were met by our private tour guide, a slender middle-aged pleasant Guatemalan gentleman whose impressive knowledge helped make this ancient Mayan city come alive. We found ourselves deep in the heart of a tropical rainforest jungle and the day was already starting to get quite warm.

Entrance to Tikal, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

After about a 20 minute walk along a rocky dirt path, we came upon our first structures that were immediately impressive. One of the structures was a pyramid-like temple that I carefully and slowly climbed up the very narrow steps to the top. In the distance, I was able to see the tops of other pyramids rising high above the canopy of this immense dense jungle.

Temple, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Pyramid Above The Canopy, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Tikal contains the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that was actually the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mayan civilization. The Mayans settled here in around 800 BC and it became an important religious, cultural and commercial city. It was constructed over a period of at least 800 years and it is filled with hundreds of temples, pyramids and other structures. 

Mayan Buildings, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Interestingly, only about 20 percent of Tikal is visible. The remainder is still hidden under the thick tropical plants and trees of the hot steamy jungle. As we walked along, we frequently saw huge mounds of what were obviously temples, pyramids and other types of buildings and structures covered with thick lush vegetation, strangling vines and enormous trees with their roots grabbling hold of these ancient structures like the tentacles of a giant octopus crushing its prey. Using special equipment, scientists have been able to actually “see” and determine what is underneath the dense overgrowth. Tikal had been partially restored by the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan government although it is extremely expensive to continue the excavation. Nonetheless, what is visible is extensive and absolutely amazing!

Tropical plants and trees cover ancient Mayan structure, probably a temple. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Tikal’s impressive architecture was built mostly from limestone. Some of the pyramids are over 200 feet high and it’s hard to even imagine how these possibly could have been constructed given how old they are. Most of Tikal’s huge temples were constructed during the eighth century A.D. It grew to a population estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 people. However, Tikal fell into decline at the end of the ninth century and was virtually abandoned. There are no clear answers as to the cause of the Mayan empire’s collapse, but theories include war, famine, overpopulation and resource depletion. Once the city was abandoned, it was taken over and devoured by the quickly growing tropical jungle which covered its structures unchecked for years.

Mayan pyramid. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Tikal was discovered in 1848 during an expedition sent out by the Guatemalan government. Swiss, German and British archaeologists followed shortly after its discovery to start to clear the debris and begin studying this site. The museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History restored Tikal’s structures to its current condition during the 1950s and 1960s. UNESCO designated the ruins as a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Mayan structures. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

We happen to be fans of Atlas Obscura and thanks to them, we were able to find (which wasn’t easy) and explore the remains of a camp used by the University of Pennsylvania archeologists between 1956 and 1969 during the exploration of Tikal. The 13 year project resulted in a topographical map of the 16 square kilometer site. According to Atlas Obscura, the camp included a settlement for archeologists and single workers, a separate area for married workers and included a sawmill, a school and a dispensary. Old rusted cars, machinery and other artifacts are still in this small ghost town some 50 years later that looks straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

University of Pennsylvania Archeological Camp, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We continued to walk through the main plazas, touring and crawling around many buildings and homes where people lived, climbing huge pyramids and temples and viewing ball courts for spectator sports.

Tikal Plaza, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Some of the largest pyramids fortunately had multi-tiered staircases that had been built next to them which allowed us to see the breathtaking views of the area from the observation decks at the top. The weather continued to get hot and humid. As we walked through the dark shadows of the jungle with the occasional streaks of sunlight beaming through like spotlights, we heard the loud screeches, squawks, calls and songs of hundreds of tropical birds including lots of anxious parrots. We also spotted an unusual yet quasi-cute animal known as a coatimundi that looked like a cross between a cat and a fox.

Coatimundi, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Lattice Tailed Trogon, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Exploring Yaxha

The following day, we visited Yaxha, another Mesoamerican archaeological site in Northern Guatemala about 90 minutes from Tikal but smaller in size. Yaxha was a ceremonial center and the third largest city in the region as part of the Mayan Civilization. Yaxha’s existence was first reported in 1904. The area was mapped and excavations began in the 1970s.

Temple, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

As we walked through this amazing site of ancient ruins, we were able to see ancient causeways actually linking a number of areas and groups of buildings. There were numerous pyramids and temples as well as ball courts for recreation and competition. We also saw were stone monuments, some of which had sculpted faces or designs. Yaxha was the capital of an extensive territory that dominated the northeastern part of Petén, although it had very strong links with the city of Tikal.

Stone Monument, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Like Tikal, not all of Yaxha has been excavated so as we walked along, we saw more huge mounds of jungle overgrowth that were obviously covering buildings, temples and pyramids as evidenced by their unique shapes. However, the buildings that we were able to see were very impressive. As we made our way through the hot jungle, we saw spider monkeys rustling and swinging high up in the canopy of the rainforest. As we continued on our journey along the heavily shadowed peat covered path, we began to hear the deafening and ominous growls of large black howler monkeys that seemed to be hovering directly over our heads.

Howler Monkey, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The enormous eerie sounds were more reminiscent of angry bears or agitated lions. In fact, we were told that some sound engineers who worked on the Jurassic Park movies apparently came to Yaxha to record these thunderous roars, some of which supposedly were used as the dinosaurs growl sound effects in the movies. Whether this was true or not, it certainly seemed plausable. 

As our wide-eyed expedition continued, we saw many types of tropical birds of many colors that disclosed their existence by their amplified chorus of squawks, screeches, chirps and songs. On the ground we viewed wild turkeys unperturbed as they walked around the area.

Wild Turkeys, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Towards the end of the day, we carefully climbed one of the tallest pyramids. At the top, we sat in silence as we watched the sun lower itself ever so gently through the jungle’s thick steamy mist hovering over Yaxha Lake. The water shimmered like a pool of liquid silver and reflected the lovely pink and orange hues of the spectacular sunset. We could hear the leaves rustling loudly like a musty wind chime in the gentle breeze, along with a symphony of thousands of birds, monkeys and other tropical animals which populated the trees and canopy as we sat high above them. Mesmerized by the sight, we could practically here the sizzle of the sun as it touched the earth and continued below the horizon to bring a new dawn to a distant land. 

Sunset over Lago Yaxha, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We spent the following day in and around Flores. We took a small motor boat across the lake to the ARCAS wildlife rescue center just across the lake from Flores. They had a variety of different types of animals including baby jaguars, ocelots, leopards, playful spider moneys and many different types of tropical birds. Most of the animals had  been confiscated from illegal traffickers. The animals there are kept for rehabilitation where they are assessed for their ability to survive in the wild. Those animals that are capable of surviving are released whereas the others that are determined to be unable to survive in the wild are cared for and protected.

Ocelot, ARCAS Center, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Just west of Flores, we visited a tiny island that had just a few buildings along with a tall radio tower. The trees were filled with iguanas sitting majestically sunning themselves on the yellowish-green sunburnt palm fronds. Apparently the island does not have an official name but it hosts a radio station known as Radio Petén that has been broadcasting since 1968 still using its antiquated radio equipment. We also visited the small museum next-door which consisted of a single room containing some Mayan artifacts, old radio and music equipment, telephones, a few guns and a variety of other knickknacks.

Radio Petén Station, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We then climbed up to a mirador or lookout point with a breathtaking view of the island. Our boat ride continued around the lake until we eventually found our way back at which time we walked completely around the island

Lake, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

to Flores. One evening, we ran into some Hasidic Jews at the local Chabad who invited us to celebrate Hanukkah with them which we actually did. I declined the jelly donuts – a bit greasy looking and not my favorite.

Lago Petén Itzá, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

That evening, we headed to the tiny airport in Flores to take our small jet back to Guatemala City which took roughly an hour. My seat was directly behind the cockpit so I could see through the windshield the entire time as if I was sitting directly in the cockpit. Off in the distance, I could see the red lava spewing out of the smoldering Volcán Fuego (volcano of fire) and saw the lights of Guatemala City as we approached.

Our Plane to Guatemala City, Tag Airlines. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I watched carefully as the pilots targeted the plane in the middle of parallel lights marking the runway and felt the small bump as we landed on the pothole filled runway.

View of Cockpit From My Seat, Tag Airlines, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

It is hard to believe that Tikal and the surrounding areas have not actually been named on any list of world wonders given what exists there. But it truly was incredible to experience it as it clearly was one of the highlights of being here in Guatemala.