We woke at 3:00am, with Colin’s and Jess’s cell phone alarms going off simultaneously, thanks to the miracle of network time synhronization. Because we went to bed early enough and were tired enough to get to sleep right away, we got nearly a full night’s sleep, and it was not too difficult to wake up. We got dressed, grabbed our bags, and headed out to the front of the hotel to wait with the few other tour attendees.

They had told us to be outside at 3:20, in case, but the bus didn’t come until like 3:45. When it came, we got on, and then the bus drove around to pick up the other tour-goers from the other hotels. At one hotel, the people weren’t waiting outside. The driver called and honked and waited, but they never came.

We drove to Tikal, passing a tiny town called El Remate on the way. The guidebook says El Remate is a growing spot for tourists to stay while seeing Tikal.

We got to the park, got off the bus, and milled around, confused as to what to do. Several buses arrived at the same time, and there were at least 3 tours getting ready to visit Tikal. We all had to pay the park entry fee. Some people were in line to pay at the desk, and some were paying their tour guide. We were in line, but apparently we were to pay the tour guide. After a while, our guide announced that only one person had not yet paid. He asked the person to come forward, because he didn’t want to have to check everyone’s receipts (which wouldn’t have worked, because he didn’t give the 3 of us receipts). It was the most expensive of all of the parks we visited – more than $20/person. It was also the biggest park. Driving in, we went past miles and miles of jungle surrounding the archaeological site.

Once we were all paid and split into our proper groups, we got a brief talk about keeping quiet, not eating, and not smoking atop the pyramid. Then we were hurried out and along the trail. Birds and animals could have been heard, but a lot of young folks – telling stories about travelling in India, and how they were the smartest, because they had brought a laptop and so many movies, but then there wasn’t any power – drowned out the animal and bird noises. Some people thought that the howler monkeys were jaguars. They certainly sound vicious.

It was already on the light side by the time that we got up to the base of the pyramid. There were wooden stairs with easy hand rails, which were much easier to climb than the original (usually restored) stone stairs of most pyramids.  Xie stopped at the restroom and CM followed the crowd up the stairs. Most of the crowd was already up there, so the best seats were taken. There was scaffolding around the top of the pyramid from the current reconstruction efforts, and there was a tarp over one section that was making a lot of noise in the wind.

Folks were mostly being quiet and speaking in whispers or low voices when they did. Lots of people were taking photos, and a few had flashes going off, of course. There was one guy whose camera was on a tiny tripod that he was balancing on some of the scaffolding. His camera would give a dozen beeps each time that he took a photo. Finally a woman asked him to turn off the beeps.  When he said that he wasn’t sure if they would go off, the woman replied, “Oh, they will.”

It was a marvelous sight. We were above the canopy, and could see all of the dense tropical forest, as well as several other tall pyramids sticking out of the trees. There were a bunch of grackles, and we saw other birds, including a bunch of toucans in a nearby tree and a few parrots flying by. There were a bunch of clouds on the horizon, but the sun peeked out from behind them a couple of times, and gave some nice colors.

sunrise at Tikal

sunrise at Tikal

Finally one of the guides came up and gave some instructions on how to split the large group (~100 people) into smaller groups when we got back down to the base of the pyramid. We lucked out and got the great guide, who is mentioned in some of the travel guide books because of his reputation.

Once at the bottom, our guide gave us a talk about some of the interesting things about the site. The ruins had been long lost and totally covered by jungle overgrowth, until the late 19th century, when some chicleros (gum tree hunters, who extracted the sap, processed it and exported it to Wrigley) found the entrance to one of the temples while in the area. The chicleros climbed the gum trees and cut zig zags in the bark, and then collected the sap in canvas bags.

The guide stopped to point out birds numerous times, as he told the history of the site being partially uncovered and some of the temples restored. It was a great birding site, with more than 6 species of birds spotted in one single tree, during the story. It made it really hard to concentrate on the guide, with crazy new birds flying and walking around everywhere.

Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal

When the site was a Mayan city, more than 1000 years ago, the whole area had been completely logged and cleared of trees and brush. This in sharp contrast to how it is today. Now, while the trees and other plants are kept clear from the tops of most pyramids, and the main plaza is kept clear, the site is also a National Park and wildlife preserve, so the carefully balanced any clearing of plants with the desire to maintain the ecosystem. Only one tree has been cut in the last five years. It was hard to picture Palenque as a bustling stone city when walking araound through a beautiful jungle.

Our guide had studied archaeology as well as various aspects of biology, including birds and the epiphytes of the tropical canopy. This made for great stories they whole time, of animal and plant behavior, as well as the history of the ruins and the people who lived there.

The architecture is a little different than most Mayan sites, with one of the main differences being that the pyramids are much steeper that those of most other Mayan ruins. Because it was such a large and important site, a lot of trade went through there, and the influence of sites such as those around Mexico City can be seen in the architecture of some of the buildings. Another fascinating fact is that no slaves were used to build the entire city (being the largest Mayan city, with thousands of buildings). Only 15% of the buildings have been uncovered at all. The topology of the land is entirely flat, with no hills at all, so any hill that is seen is actually a grown over pyramid or other structure.

Our first stop down the trail was at a lime oven, where they cooked the mined lime for three or four days with a wood fire, to create cement. They used particular trees, such as the copal and tropical cedar, as the smoke from these trees was heavy with the sap, which created a stronger cement. The cement was mixed with ashes and stones to create a concrete, which was used as mortar to hold the large limestone blocks together. The guide talked about the Jarod Diamond book, _Collapse_, and about how one theory of the decline of the Mayan civilization is that they destroyed too much of their forests, cutting trees to cook lime, and damaged the ecosystem to the point that they could not get enough food to eat.

At our next stop, he pointed out some of the trees (tropical cedar, mahogany), and then said that there were howler monkeys in the close vicinity. He said that he could see the fresh scat, which we looked for, but couldn’t spot. He started looking in the trees and clapping. Then he started this crazy grunting, several times in quick succession, followed by a loud wheezing roar, that actually sounded quite a bit like the howlers. It was pretty funny to watch and listen to him, and we were trying not to laugh out loud. We heard one woman saying “yeah, right…”, under her breath to someone near her, and it did kind of feel like he was mimicking the howlers, since he couldn’t find them. But then, all of the sudden, one of the males woke up, right in the tree above him, and gave the same series of grunts and a roar right back. Every time that he did his grunts and roar, one of the monkeys would answer him. Now we were laughing out loud, because it was so hilarious to hear and see. He explained that he could speak their language. He had to stop and drink some water after all of that roaring, as his voice was a little hoarse.

We had another birding stop. Actually, it was a stop so that folks could climb one of the pyramids, but when he saw that both Xie and CM were hanging out, looking at birds through the binoculars and trying to identify them, he came over to talk to us. He asked us if we were ornithologists, or biologists. We told him that it was a hobby, and he seemed to like that. He could spot birds like crazy. He’d show us one, and while we were still trying to get a good look at it, and find it in the book, he’d have spotted another, and would tell us about that one. He knew the birds by their calls, and also knew all about their habits. He said that the next day he was taking out a group of professional birders with lenses this big (holding his arms all the way wide) on their cameras. He showed us how he shot bird photos by aiming a small digital camera through one side of his binoculars (which were very nice).

He talked with another young guy (20s), who had just gotten back from an emergency bathroom run. The guy talked about how he had eaten spicy tacos, from a street vendor the night before, but that it was well worth the trouble today, because they had been so tasty. The guy showed that he was no longer wearing socks, and said that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom, so he had sacrificed one of his socks. Our guide made a joke about the tacos being pica (spicy) when you ate them, and re-pica the next day.

When the group had gathered again, he announced that he was going to show us the laughing falcon. We walked for a few minutes, and then started to hear it. Its call was like the laughter of a mad scientist or something. He pointed to a tree, where two of the pretty gray falcons were sitting. The laughing falcon is unusual in that its diet is entirely snakes.

Next stop was to see some tarantulas. The guy on the bus the morning before, who sold us the tour tickets, had explained many times that we were not to pick up the tarantulas to put them on our arms, while pantomiming picking up the spider and putting it on his arm. We joked about how we were going to pick up the spider and put it on our arms, just as he had shown us how to. The guide picked a stick of grass, poked it down a spider hole, and started twisting it around, while moving it up and down. He said that he was fishing for the spider. It took him a while, and he tried at two different holes. One’s legs poked out for a second, but then it went back in. Finally he teased it out enough so that he could grab it and toss it away from the hole. He blocked it from crawling back down its hole, and then picked it up by its abdomen.

He proceded to put it on various people’s hands, so that they could get a photograph of themselves holding the fierce, deadly tarantula.

Jess with tarantula

He joked about how a woman died in 2004 of a tarantula bite to the hand. After too many photos, he said that the spider was getting tired of all of the flashes, and put it back down next to its hole. It immediately scurried down, out of sight.

The group headed down another trail towards the next exciting sight. We were a little behind the main group, so we hurried to catch up. They seemed to be all looking at something in a tree, with great interest. Probably a bird, we figured. As we got closer, we could hear them talking about the monkeys. There was a family – father, mother and baby – of spider monkeys. Xie and CM were excited to see spider monkeys, as we had seen them in the zoo in Brasilia, but not in the wild. Well, even more exciting, these monkeys were “making the family bigger”, as our guide said. They were copulating right then, way up in the tree above us. You couldn’t see much, except that they were close together, and moving. But if you looked through binoculars, well, things got very explicit. The male (the guide called him the “macho” – that was his english word for male) would stop every now and then, look down at the crowd of us below him, decide that we weren’t a threat, and then get back to business.

spider monkeys humping

Then we climbed Temple V, one of the ones that shows the architectural influence of Mayans from other areas. The top offered a similar view to Temple IV in the morning, but from a different perspective. Jess spotted howler monkeys playing around in a tree. We relaxed for a few minutes, enjoying the view, and headed back down the wooden stairs, which where very steep, but not quite as steep as the original stone stairs, and also featured hand rails. Still, you had to descend backwards, like going down a ladder.

looking up

looking down

A little bit after that, we reached the Grand Plaza, where the most famous Temple I was, featured on the license plates from Guatemala and just about every travel poster or tour book from the area.

The guide said that you used to be able to climb the steps of Temple I, until last year a woman fell down the steps and died.

The guide stopped in the shade under a tree and reviewed the morning’s tour. “I took you up to the top of Temple IV, where you got to see a good sunrise. Not everybody gets to see a good sunrise.  Maybe 30% of the days we get a good sunbreak. Then I gave you a lecture on the history, plants and birds of the area. Then I woke the monkeys for you. We saw some birds, and then I got the tarantula out for you. And we saw the spider monkeys. Some nature shows, they come in with cameras, and sit, waiting for days and days to see what you saw, but you were lucky. The weather has been good. Last week it rained on people. What more can you ask for. The tip is not included.” He was an awesome guide, and we had already decided to tip him, before he asked for it. Before parting, he went over the bus schedule to get back to Santa Helena / Flores, and gave us some suggestions on how to spend the rest of our visit to Tikal.

We stopped by a stand to get a coke for Colin (who hates coke, but hadn’t had any caffeine yet) and some emergency snacks before spending another hour and a half wandering around the Grand Plaza, looking at the ruins and some birds before heading back. We also saw a sad-looking five legged spider (medium sized).

5-legged spider

We looked at a bunch of ruins, including the living quarters, which were easily accessible, and people like Henry and Matthew R. had carved their names into the walls. We disparaged them, and agreed to kick their asses when we saw them again.

Jess + Xie in ruins

We saw Montezuma Oropendola’s again at this site and some of the nests were close enough to the top of ruins to get a good look.

We headed out to the parking lot, not sure about our bus, because there had been a discrepency in the schedules, as told by the tour guide and the guy who sold us the tickets. We stopped by the artificial pond, originally designed and built by the Mayans to hold drinking water for the city, and restored by some archaeologists, and looked for birds. When it was getting closer to potential bus time, we headed over to the tourist information bus where the bus was supposed to meet us. Jess talked to the information people, who confirmed that the bus was coming to get us. We waited around in the hot, hot sun (actually in the tiny bit of shade provided by the information building). A group of birders came by, all with super fancy cameras and action telescopes mounted on tripods. They were looking at the birds in the nearby trees, the same birds that we were looking at with our dorky regular binoculars, regular cameras and unfancy bird book. We were actually pretty disappointed with the bird book that we had, for several reasons, one of them being that several times we’d seen distinctive birds that just were not in the book. This was happening right now, with a turquoise blue, bright, bright bird. It was unlike all of the bluish birds in the book. We never managed to figure out what it was.

The bus came, and we rode the bumpy, hot, dusty hour and a half ride back into town. We were able to nap some of the way. CM felt bad for one of the women napping in front of us, because her head was leaning on the window, and bounced very hard, every time we went over a bump, which was about 40 times per minute.

When we got back into town, we got some lunch on the water. We watched some people swimming, and really felt like getting into the water. Unfortunately, none of us were dressed for swimming. We ate while a couple of young german guys drank beer and talked. Their conversation went from Spanish to German to English (when another traveler joined them). Lunch was pretty decent, but Jess really wanted pizza, so we decided that we’d get pizza for dinner.

We walked around Flores, looking in the little tourist shops for t-shirts, and for traditional Guatemalan shirts that were not too extravagant. The Guatemalan weaving style is wonderful, with all of its bright color combinations, but it is very popular amoung a certain college age hippy crowd in Seattle, which unfortunately prejudiced us against buying clothes like that for ourselves. We got a nice, but small, table cloth at one store and a nice, low key shirt for Xie at another store.

We went back to our room to drop stuff off, grabbed our journals and headed out to find a bar to get drinks and catch up on writing the journals. We chose a bar on the second story, with a nice view of the lake. Jess was writing her travel journal in Spanish, and was a little frustrated at having to keep looking up words, after having lived in Mexico for nearly two years. We countered with that, after speaking English for their whole lifetimes, most writers have a dictinary and thesaurus handy whenever they are writing. CM tried the Brahva beer, and then a Beats, which turned out to be another variety of Brahva, but with less flavor.

We left the bar and walked around, looking at the restaurants that advertised pizza (there were far more than you’d typically expect in a Guatemalan town). Perhaps that was a food that sold well to the tourists.  We chose a restaurant that had Italian themes, but with Picasso prints decorating the walls. The pizza was ok, but not really that great or anything.

Again tired, we headed back to the our room. We had to get up early, although no where near as early as this morning. Our bus to Belize city was to leave at seven something in the morning.

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