The only thing more magical than hiking through a jungle in the dark, following a path that must be made of white gravel because it glows faintly in the full moon, is hiking through a jungle in the dark past big black hills — blacker than the sky behind them, blacker than the trees that catch the moonlight — hills you know just have to be pyramids. This is Tikal, Guatemala. And getting up at 2:30 a.m. to make the sunrise tour suddenly feels worth it.
As I walk, I wonder about the guide, somewhere ahead of me in the darkness, urging us on through the night, not winded at all, like I am. This magnificence has probably grown commonplace to him — dull, almost. Does he ever wonder how these never-ending waves of travelers can keep marveling at something he sees every day?
A towering ceiba tree reaches pale arms into the sky, and the guide stops us for a moment. The ceiba, he tells us, symbolizes the connection between the underworld, the terrestrial world and the skies. Certainly I can feel that now as the ceiba disappears into the darkness above and the darkness below.
Our guide leads us onward through misty patches and bits of visible ruins. Finally, we reach Templo IV and slowly climb the long wooden stairs to the top, where other groups have already arrived, all sitting in clumps, talking softly so as not to disturb the reverence that swathes this island temple in its own sea of foliage.
It’s barely getting light, the black turning to misty blues and butter yellow as we watch the sun burn off the fog. It rises over an endless jungle, where the only signs of civilization are the tips of Mayan pyramids that have ruled here for over a thousand years.
The birds begin to chirp. Just a few, scattered here and there. Then we hear it: a low rumble, starting at a distance and coming closer and closer. An invisible menace stampeding toward us over the giant leaves of the canopy. It takes me long moments to understand: rain. The patter grows louder, turning into its own sort of music as we pull out cheap plastic ponchos and umbrellas. Still we sit, rooted to the spot by respect — worship almost — for the power of nature. The rain hits hard, drenching us immediately. Just as quickly, it rolls on past. When the roar of the rain turns to a drip-drop chorus, the birds take up the melody, fully awake now — a cacophony of life.
Our guide watches with us, speaking only to call us to silence, for meditation, when some of the young backpackers grow restless. Raindrops and dewdrops in the trees catch the morning sun like strings of Christmas lights. I want to stay forever.
Finally we have to go; there are ruins to see, stories to hear, pyramids to climb. Our guide, apparently not immune to the wonders of his job, excitedly shows us a groundcover plant whose leaves close up when he touches them.”Sleeping,” he says as we poke gently at the plants and jerk our fingers back when they move, animal-like.
He takes us off the trail to smell aromatic flora and look for ant hills, under which dwell the clever leaf-cutter ants, one of the few animals to “process” their food. After they cut their jigsaw pieces of leaf, they leave them to ferment with their own saliva. A fungus grows and they feed the colony from that. I see evidence of their handiwork, now that I know what to look for, but I can’t find any of the actual creatures.
Undaunted, our guide quickly pulls our attention away and points out what some people call the tree of love, because it embraces other trees. Its alternate name? The killing tree, because its embrace eventually chokes the life from its jungle companion. But before we can ponder the symbolism of that, our guide finds us a tarantula and delightedly hands it around. I take it. After all, I’ve just been cave swimming and rope ladder climbing down a waterfall, and Guatemala’s making me brave.
I love the serenity of Tikal: the lack of insistent hawkers, the verdure everywhere you look, the gorgeous steep temples, the foliage that can hide other tourists well enough to give you a temporary sense of solitude.
However, Tikal has not always been so quiet. An estimated 4,000 structures remain, only 20% excavated. Anthropologists believe that the commoners lived in open-sided buildings of wood and palm thatching, which have long since dissolved into history. How huge and bustling this city must have been at its heyday, and all without natural water. The Mayans dug their own wells out of rock and lined them with lime, collecting enough of the 70-some inches of yearly rainfall to last them through the dry season.
It’s hard to believe — while standing beneath the giant trees, or surrounded by leaves half as big as me — that this wasn’t always jungle. The wild beauty crept in only after the Mayans abandoned Tikal 1,000 years ago. I imagine the jungle lurking on the outskirts, like an animal, waiting to take back its home.
At Tikal, they also staged the famous basketball-like games involving ritual sacrifice. One theory is that as a finale, they killed the captain of the winning team because he had proven himself worthy of the honor of fighting against the evil gods in the Underworld.
I stand in one of Tikal’s now-grassy ballcourts, surrounded by steeply slanted stone walls, and I can imagine it all: the carved stone hoops mounted on the walls, the ricocheting ball, the crowds roaring with religious fervor, the muscled and bare-chested warriors locked in a life-and-death struggle. I close my eyes and see those same brave players, dead now, trapped amid the roots of the ceiba tree, trying to break free to fight the unstoppable gods of the Underworld, and I come to the realization that, honor or no honor, this is one game I would try to lose.
After the guide sets us free to explore on our own, I scale Templo V, all 187 feet of it, via a modern wooden staircase so steep it’s more like a ladder. They built it to keep tourists from injuring themselves on the sharply angled pyramid steps. I sit at the summit, dizzy with the height, while across the jungle rises Templo IV, where I so recently watched the jungle wake up. I think back to the day before, and how I’d debated about the sunrise tour. 2:30 a.m? Were people crazy? No. People aren’t crazy. But the world is amazing.
By Melinda Brasher
About the Author
Melinda Brasher spends her time traveling, writing fiction, and teaching English as a second language in places like Poland, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Arizona. Her talents include navigating by old-fashioned map, combining up to three languages in a single incomprehensible sentence, and dealing cards really, really fast. Check out her blog at MelindaBrasher.com.
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