In the 1980s, I visited Chichen Itza when on vacation in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In the 1990s, I read Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright. In August of 2019, I visited an extensive exhibit on Mayan Civilization at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Thus my curiosity was sparked when the opportunity came to visit Tikal in Guatemala.
It’s early on the first morning in Tikal, some of us up before breakfast with the promise of a dawn chorus like no other if we join the enthusiast who’s been here on four previous visits. Who wouldn’t want to hear the rainforest come alive? Tropical birds. Chattering monkeys. The wind in the canopy of trees.
The National Park was first created in 1955 and is now a Biosphere Reserve. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 after extensive restoration. Tikal is the Heart of the Mayan World where this civilization flourished two thousand years ago.
First promise realized the night before when we all heard the howler monkeys. Now we share our common experience of the roar that woke us. We were warned it was used in the filming of Jurassic Park. It is an unearthly sound that travels far yet feels close by. And yet the enthusiast failed to mention that their sound is amplified by the bones in their necks and the loudness is negatively correlated to the size of their testicles. They roar like that to guard their territory. They’re elusive, so hard to spot.
Later a guide leads the whole group around the site where temples were uncovered revealing an ancient time of peace and prosperity, where arts and sciences flourished. The Maya were skilled at mathematics and astronomy. We are curious about the mounds still covered in earth. Where did they get the stone? How did they cut and assemble these giants? They were short people, still are, but industrious. Some of the stones on display show preserved texts in relief. Scribes wrote on every available surface. And yet these glyphs remained cryptic until scholars finally deciphered them in the last century. We see texts preserved on stelae, stone slabs. Spanish flames destroyed Mayan books. How often have devils burned what they claimed was the work of the devil?
We are curious about the pendulum hangings on trees, woven nests of fibres and vines. We aren’t familiar with the birds that build them. When these birds fly overhead, they make a piercing song. In flight their tail wings show yellow markings. They could be yellow tailed jays. We learn their proper name is Oropendola which suits them given their basket-like nests and large, pointed bills.
Still confused by birds, we follow what we think is a peacock. It has a long tail that drags on the crowd when it struts. Its blue/green coloured feathers are iridescent. On the grounds of the Great Jaguar Temple the bird joins others strutting through the Great Plaza, dismissive of the throngs of curious tourists. These birds behave as if they own the place. We learn they are Occellated Turkeys.
We take many group photos standing at the buttress roots of the giant kapok tree. I ask someone to take my picture while I stretch one arm and hug its smooth bark. This is the tree of Mayan myth and, every time we pass under one, we look up in awe. It was known as the Tree of Life, a sacred tree that connects the middle world inhabited by humans to the heavenly, upper realm where the souls of the dead and gods travel.
The muscles in my legs start burning when we climb the wooden steps built beside ancient temples, yet I am determined to reach the sky. At the top I am rewarded by a view over the canopy of trees where the giant kapok rises above the others, an island in a sea of trees.
Here there is sunshine and wind. I watch a macaw fly overhead. I listen to a group of chattering parrots. Spider monkeys swing through the tall branches below me.
The next day we visit another site, Yaxha, where a different guide leads us. At one temple, where it is permitted to climb the irregular steps, a few of us rise to the challenge. Cautious on the climb down, I ask for a spotter and someone does go ahead of me. The enthusiast informs us that Chichen Itza is closed. “Why?” I ask. “Too many people fell to their death.”