59. Tikal, Guatemala - More Mayan Ruins

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June 23, 2007

I became fixated on the El Mirador ruins while we were traveling through Guatemala’s Peten Department, in the rugged northeastern corner of the country.

Located some 70 miles north of Tikal National Park,

El Mirador houses the largest Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. The 230-foot tall La Danta pyramid is the largest Maya structure in the world.

The current route to the site requires traversing 60 kilometres down a difficult road to the town of Carmelita, followed by a grueling two-day jungle hike with pack horses carrying in your supplies.

But this nasty terrain hasn’t dulled the interest in what some are calling the “Cradle of Mayan Civilization”. The number of visitors to the remote ruins has increased from 400 in 2001 to more than 3,200 in 2005, according to a January 2007 story in the LA Times.

The Global Heritage Fund, which has been leading an effort to establish El Mirador it and its environs as an Archaeological and Wildlife Reserve (similar to the successful Tikal model) predicts that the number of visitors could increase to 10,000 in 2010.

And these predictions were made before newly-elected Guatemalan President, Alvaro Colom, announced during his inauguration speech in January 2008 that El Mirador will indeed be made fully open to tourists.

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But none of this is to diminish the grandeur of Tikal which, based on the sheer size of the site and the number of buildings, may be the most impressive ruins we have seen yet.

The road for the first 20 kilometres after crossing the Belize/Guatemala border is dirt, but relatively well-maintained.

From there on, it is a pot-hole filled pavement road that had us wildly weaving to and fro to avoid the dangers. It was a good thing no one else was on the road

The drive was marked by only a few tiny villages, and three large carcasses – horses and maybe a cow – that were beside the highway and being eaten, ass first, by a flock of fat vultures.

It took about 90 minutes to reach the junction for Tikal National Park, and then another 15 or 20 minutes to reach the vehicle gate.

The official at the gate told us that if entered the park before 3 pm, we would have to pay for two days. So even though it was only $7 person, we opted to cool our heals for a couple of hours.

The signs along the road from vehicle gate to the ruins cautioned us to drive slowly in order to avoid hitting wild animals, including jaguars. Fortunately, nothing jumped out at us from the thick, but not impenetrable, jungle.

There are many accommodation options just outside the entrance to the ruins. We checked out the official campsite, Jungle Lodge and the Tikal Inn before settling on the Jaguar Inn, which allowed us to camp in their tiny parking lot and use their facilities.

Dinner in the van in the Jaguar Inn parking lot was not our finest hour, however. At the end of a heavy afternoon rainfall, the van was swarmed by hundreds and hundreds of moths, and they found every conceivable crack in our screens to get in.

The guided sunrise tours of the ruins depart at 4:30 am. For everyone else, the gates open at 6 am. We managed to wander in at 8:30 am.

Unlike the compact Palenque site in Chiapas, Mexico, the Tikal ruins are spread out over thousands of hectares, with the ancient remnants connected to each other by pastoral paths through the jungle.

And while there were a lot of visitors at this UNESCO World Heritage Site,
the crowds are diffused because of the size of the site.

After four hours of walking the paths and climbing to the top of the incredibly steep plunging pyramids, our weary legs were done. We believe the locals who told us we needed two days to do it justice.

The city of Flores – our next destination – is about 60 kilometres west of Tikal. Enroute, we passed a massive military base with watchtowers and barbed wire fences.

Our apprehension level, already high - given we were driving in a remote area of country we didn’t know and had read about violent incidents involving tourist on the US Embassy in Guatemala’s website – was heightened even further.

Flores is a little island in the middle of Lake Petzen Itza that is connected to its neighbor on the mainland, Santa Elena, by a short causeway. A road circles the entire island, which rises to a peak in the middle where the central plaza is.

As soon as we pulled into Flores, we felt more comfortable as it is full of travelers on their way to, or returning from, Tikal.

But not to say that everything went smoothly: there are no ATMs in Flores and only one in Santa Elena that we found that is on the Cirrus network.

Key Facts & Figures:

-campsite, Jaguar Inn parking lot: $7/night
-entrance fee, Tikal National Park: $7/person