As far as wildernesses are concerned the jungles of northern Guatemala are about as impenetrable as they come. For hundreds of kilometres the maze of limestone ranges, lakes, canyons, caves and jungle meant that the area remained unexplored for a long time after the Spanish started colonising. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that reports started coming in from missionaries about cities being discovered in the dense jungle.
Of these cities the biggest three discovered to date are El Mirador, Tikal and Yaxha with El Mirador estimated to have had a population of up to 250,000 at its peak. Depending on your appetite for adventure all of these cities are able to be visited but some are definitely easier to reach than others. The hardest but most rewarding to reach is El Mirador which takes a 120km trek through punishing heat and jungle. There is still no road before you ask if there is an easier way. If it’s the wet season or you don’t have time to reach El Mirador it’s actually really easy to visit the other two.
Flores in northern Guatemala is a beautiful colonial town situated on an island in the middle of Lake Petén Itza. The scenery is enough to warrant a holiday but luckily it’s also the town that everyone uses as a base to explore Tikal and Yaxhá. Being a backpacker it’s also worth mentioning that the Hostel Los Amigos is one of the best I’ve ever stayed at and organises tours to both of the cities every morning. During two passes through town I managed to visit both of the cities and found both had reasons for a look.
The City of Tikal
By far the most famous Mayan City in Guatemala is Tikal, which was occupied from around 900BC-900AD. The first expedition was sent to explore the reports of a hidden city in the mid 1800’s and what the Spanish heard back from them was better than they could have dreamed of. The explorers had found a city covering 16 square kilometres hidden beneath the dense jungle. Even before the more modern restoration it was clear to them that the city had been a fully functioning metropolis with temples, plazas, markets, water systems, causeways and artwork.
To see the city as it is today required a monumental excavation and restoration effort by archaeologists. During the time the city was abandoned the jungle slowly reclaimed the area and grew to cover the temples, public spaces and roads. The action of trees and heavy rain of the wet season loosened the plaster and rocks of the buildings causing them to slowly collapse. Sporadically from the 1950’s to 1984 the site was excavated by the University on Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan government and even today it’s estimated that only 15% of the city has been uncovered.
Moving forward to today it’s possible to visit three times per day depending on how early you feel like waking up. There are two dawn tours leaving Flores at 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning and one sunset tour which leaves at around midday.
The morning tours leaving from the hostel are without a doubt the best way to see the park. Being the most popular site in Guatemala the place becomes overrun later in the day and the crowds can start to seem like Chichén Itzá at times. Arriving right on dawn it’s just your tour group with a few others who split up and start exploring the park alone. Walking through the forest in the dark listening to the sounds of the jungle is a pretty awesome experience. Juguars, Pumas and a few different species on moneys live right in the park so the early morning is a good time to try and spot them before the crowds arrive.
There is more than enough time to see everything in the city and while walking around the tour guide explains everything in depth from the history of the Maya to the filming locations of the Star Wars film. The most striking thing about the city is how perfectly planned all of the six temples are to act as a calendar of the seasons by using the sun. The highest of these, Temple IV, reaches around 72 meters in height and was one of the tallest man made structures of the Americas for over a thousand years.
The view from the top of Temple IV was the highlight of the visit. After a short climb, made so much harder by the heat and humidity, you walk out onto the top platform of the temple to look out over the endless expanse of jungle. Poking out above this jungle are two of the other pyramids, a view which has hardly changed since they city was first discovered.
The City of Yaxhá
The story of Yaxhá is similar to that of Tikal and it’s sometimes referred to as the forgotten brother of Tikal. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting though with over 500 structures being identified around the centre and a number of pyramids, plazas and houses to explore.
The major drawcard for Yaxhá over Tikal is that it’s much quieter and with a little less clearing of the jungle it seems a lot more unexplored even though… Well it is… It’s also situated next to a lake, full of alligators, which makes for some pretty yet dangerous photo op’s.
Just to mix things up I decided to do the sunset tour of this city and with a good sleep in compared to the other tour I think the information retention was better this time as well. Arriving mid afternoon we were greeted with the sound of howler monkeys and a massive storm looming over the city which really just added to Indiana Jones vibe. We ticked off all the tour boxes before climbing the main pyramid of the city to watch the sunset. As you can see from the pictures it was stunning and with the sounds of the wildlife around us it is a really unique part of the planet.
The whole story of the Mayan civilisation acts as a bit of a cautionary tale for modern civilisation. Archeologists now believe that deforestation played a major role in the downfall of the Maya. This lead to internal conflicts over the remaining resources and a proverbial death spiral.
Most of the Mayan cities were built on poor limestone soil which was covered in the jungle. The jungle was removed for the construction of the cities and the timber was also used to make lime for mortar by burning the limestone. The amount of jungle that was removed for the cities, firewood and farming lead to a collapse of the local climate and most of the topsoil which the jungle held onto washed away. What the Maya were left with was a lot of people and no way to feed them or defend their cities.
It all seems a bit too relevant right now and it was a bit shocking to find out even civilisations so long ago experienced the same problems we do today.