For a far less known but equally exotic experience, the Mayan Ruins of Tical in Guatemala is steeped in myth and mystery and will have you spellbound.
Guatemala, the Mayan heartland of Central America, has borders with El Salvador and Honduras to the east, Mexico to the north and west, Belize on the north-east and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Its weather is so good it is called the land of eternal spring. It offers Central America in concentrated form its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history of repression well-docuemented.
Scholars believe the ancient Maya could be descended from the first people to cross the Bering Strait, 20,000 years before Christopher Columbus was born. If so, almost half of Guatemala's population is descended from the prehistoric pioneers, amazing considering the diseases introduced by Europeans in the 16th century and the bloody conquest they suffered.
Mayan architecture is a mix of amazing accomplishments and limitations. The Maya of Guatemala erected wonderful temples in the urban centres of El Mirador and Tikal without beasts of burden or the wheel. They had no knowledge of Roman arches or Gothic-style vaulting, but used a corbelled arch, a set of stones set at an angle sloping inward and topped with a capstone. The result is triangular rather than rounded and requires a super-strong foundation and substructure.
Tikal, in Guatemala's north, is one of the archaeological wonders of the world, grouped with luminaries such as Machu Picchu, Petra and the Great Wall of China.
It is set apart from Central America's other Mayan temple ruins as it is right in the heart of Parque Nacional Tikal jungle, with howler and spider monkeys, beautifully plumed parrots and toucans, tree frogs, foxes and other creatures freely wandering about.
Tikal's plazas have been cleared of trees and vines and temples uncovered, but there is no mistaking you are in the centre of a jungle. You can see, smell, hear and feel it all around you and while walking along winding, mossy paths from one temple to another, you are under a thick green canopy. Access to Tikal is by foot only.
In its heyday, Tikal was one of the largest cities in the western hemisphere. Merchants worked in crowded plazas selling ceramic vessels and ornaments exquisitely fashioned from jade. Noblemen proudly strolled paved causeways and on the city's outskirts, farmers employed irrigation to cultivate bean, corn and other crops. Palaces, bathhouses, reservoirs and ball courts completed the scene.
Tikal was an important religious, cultural and commercial centre until the empire collapsed around 900AD. Monuments remained standing but disappeared from view as foliage grew over them.
A government-financed expedition rediscovered the site in 1848. Archaeological excavations were not undertaken until 1955, when Tikal National Park was created. In 1979, UNESCO declared it a site of Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Tikal towers above the rainforest, the site dominated by five huge temples, steep-sided granite pyramids rising to 60m from the forest floor and surrounded by thousands of other structures, many half-strangled by giant roots and hidden beneath mounds of earth. The words 'overwhelming', 'surreal' and 'spellbinding' don't exaggerate the atmosphere.
There are a number of step pyramids which can be climbed. These reach more than 40 metres and from the top there is an excellent view across the jungle canopy. From the maze of courtyards of the Great Plaza, temples spread out into the jungle, including the Temple of the Grand Jaguar and the North Acropolis of King Moon Double Comb.
It's really worth staying at least one night to get the most from the experience. The Jaguar Inn is within the national park, just a few steps from the trails to the ruins. It is clean, comfortable and economical. The nine bungalows have private bathrooms, ceiling fans, hot water, cable television and porch hammocks. There are hammocks with mosquito netting and lockers for tents; tent spaces are available. The restaurant serves homemade food, cakes, fruit shakes, has a vegetarian menu and wonderful local coffee. Pizzeria Don Lupe is also a great place to eat.
Guatemala in Central America
World Expeditions has a 13-day Guatemala Adventure journey from Guatemala City, including two days in Tikal, most meals, guides, transfers, twin share accommodation and entrance fees for $2990 per person.
Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles with connections to Guatamala City via Dallas operated by American Airlines. Return economy airfares start at $3674 from Sydney, $3760 from Melbourne, $3763 from Brisbane, $4063 from Adelaide, $4495 from Darwin and $4569 from Perth, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking.
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