5.4 Flores / Tikal


It was a bit tumultuous to get from Lanquin to my next destination, Flores, however after six hours of the bus driver rubbing up against my leg (admittedly I was squashed up against the gear stick), being mechanically dragged across a lagoon, and another back-of-a-pick-up ride, I arrived in one piece at my hotel.

The next morning was a 4am start to get to the Ancient Mayan ruins of the city Tikal. Despite an excellent tour around the temples, buildings, and plazas I fear my knowledge of the Mayans has gone only from negligible to nominal. What I did learn, I’ll write down, more so that I don’t forget. Feel free to skip over, I’ll put some of my thoughts down at the end. Also, lots of pictures were taken, if they aren’t up yet, blame the internet (there was a 10 hour power cut in Flores today).

What was so interesting about it was working out how this clearly powerful city, with majestic monuments, plazas, and precisely thought out architecture, descended into wasteland to be eaten up by the rainforest.

Due to overpopulation and other excesses, the natural ecosystem could no longer support the Mayan people. They cut down the surrounding forest to make ever greater buildings, with less trees rainfall ceased (these areas were huge), this meant crops couldn’t be grown, food ran out. In a desperate attempt to appease the Gods (Mayans saw that big natural disasters occurred periodically, and so thought this was the same) they undertook evermore human sacrifices. People became delirious through lack of food and water. Some fled, setting up tribes across the continent. Those that remained, didn’t survive, leaving the city deserted.

Over the following 1000 years or so, nature came back, and covered the cities in dense forest. It was only from the 17th Century that explorers began noticing big lumps in the rainforest, started digging away, and unearthed whole kingdoms. For some perspective, 80% of Tikal remains under thick greenery (there are some photos to better show this).

Fun Fact #1 – the Mayan Tree of Life (Yaxche) was symbolic of how they viewed life on Earth. The film Avatar had a similar concept, which I’m told is accurate.

Fun Fact #2 – the stones used to build the temples in Tikal were quite porous (compared to granite used in other regions.) The sound given off by clapping your hands near these temples bounces off them and, by coincidence, gives off a noise that sounds just like the call of the Guatemalan national bird, the quetzal. No one can explain this.

Fun Fact #3 – the Mayans aimed to please their Gods. They felt the best way to do this was to get as close as possible to them, hence the large pyramidal temples

Fun Fact #4 – unlike the Egyptians, Mayan temples are solid. They start off small, and then with each passing Baktun, to symbolise rebirth, they would be built around, so they grew bigger in layers over generations. That they are solid means they have stood the test of time. Until the 1970s when  modern skyscrapers were built in Guatemala City, Temple IV (the one we climbed) was largest structure in the country despite being built over 1200 years previous.

Fun Fact #5 – as stated, many temples in Tikal remain unearthed.

Fun Fact #6 – to signal nobility, and to wear the Mayan headwear, regal babies had their heads clamped so that they were tall and thin. They also had a colourful object permanently in front of their nose, so that they became crossed eyed. This was to ensure they remain focussed only on the thing that they we’re looking at, and wouldn’t be distracted.

Fun Fact #7 – the Aztecs were descendants of the Mayans. Our guide described them as “gangsters”, going from town to town pillaging.

Fun Fact #8 – the slaves who built the temples were very short as they had to carry the weight of the stones on their backs. Those steps are very small, whereas the noble steps up were much bigger and grander.

Fun Fact #9 – the Mayans had a ball court game which varied in each city. It was played as part of big ceremonies, with one of the teams being sacrificed at the end.

Fun Fact #10 – they developed sophisticated reservoir system in Tikal. Once the rock was quarried, the basin would be sealed to catch rainfall. If one reservoir became to full, the excess overflowed into the subsequent one

Fun Fact #11 – the tallest temple is Temple IV. At 70m you can see out over the rainforest. Other temples pop their heads out of the green ocean. Apparently a scene from Star Wars was shot here..

Fun Fact #12 – the Mayan calendar had 18 months of 20 days. The additional 5 were seen as days of repentance and so they would often try to please them on those days by doing only good. And sometimes sacrificing.

Fun Fact #13 – one set of temples were built to act as a calendar. On the four solstices throughout the year, sunlight would pass through one temple, and hit another. This acted as a guide for when to plant crops etc.

The day served as a great introduction to the Mayan world through visiting their equivalent of New York City. I think I will visit some more as a comparison.

After the tour was done, we wandered some more around the site before returning back to modern habitation, with its markedly more dull and rudimentary architecture. In the morning, left Flores and headed to Belize, thus concluding the Guatemalan leg of my trip.

Looking onto the green ocean

Classic temple

Temple IV poking through the trees

Bus ratcheted across lagoon

Pick up truck to hotel

Yaxche ‘Tree of Life’

Central plaza left

Central plaza right

Unearthed temple

View from Temple IV

Reservoir explanation

Explaining temples acting as calendar