Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Jungle Tour

The final leg of our group trip to the distant Guatemalan sites, included a trip to the infamous Tikal ruins. Nearly 8 hours after departing from Semuc Champey we arrived in Flores, on Lago de Petén Itzá. Since there are only a few hotels to stay at in Tikal, most visitors lodge in Flores. But if you are planning a trip there sometime in the future we suggest you stay in Tikal and skip Flores altogether, as it doesn't really have anything to offer except a bus terminal (in Santa Elena).

Archeologists say that the first inhabitants of Tikal arrived around 900 BC, probably attracted to the area due to it's position above the seasonal swamps and because of the availability of flint for making weapons and tools. Throughout the next 400 years the village grew, but the development of the temples didn't begin until 500 BC. Through the latter years of the Middle Preclassic (1000-400BC) Tikal remained a minor settlement, while 50km north the first city of the Petén forest, Nakbé, began to emerge.

Our fearless guide in training, Carlos

During the Late Preclassic era (after 250 BC) construction of the first significant ceremonial structures began. By the time of Christ, Tikal was already established as an important site with a large permanent population. Over the next 2 centuries the art and architecture that became popular during the Classic period dominated Tikal. Between 100 and 200 AD Yax Ehb' Xok (First Step Shark) established the first ruling dynasty of the city.

The view from the path leading up to Temple V

During the closing years of the Late Preclassic period (400BC - 250AD) Ilopango Volcano in El Salvador erupted, smothering a huge part of the Guatemalan and Honduran highlands in a think volcanic ash, disrupting the trade routes and alliances.
El Mirador, the Mayan "superpower" to the north, was abandoned, allowing the smaller sites of Tikal and Uaxactún to emerge as substantial centers of science, trade and religion.

On January 30th 378 AD Tikal finally overtook Uaxactún under the reign of Chak Tok Ich'aak (Jaguar Paw I), as a result of Tikal's strong alliance with Teotihuacán in Central Mexico. For much of the next 500 years Tikal dominated central Petén and became a magnificant and elaborate Mayan city-states.
The view from Temple V

By the beginning of the 9th Century, signs of crisis emerged across the entire Mayan region, most likely caused by a period of climate changed including a catastrophic drought. The population plummeted as people fled Tikal. Still a mystery as to exactly what caused Tikal's downfall, by 900 AD almost the entire lowland Mayan civilization collasped. By the end of the 10th century, Tikal was abandoned. Afterwards from time to time, the site was used by other groups who worshipped there and repositioned many of the stelae, however it was never occupied again.

The Great Plaza right before sunset

In 1965, Father Avendaño, lost in a maze of swamps, stumbled upon a "variety of old buildings", however the colonial powers were unimpressed and the ruins were left in the jungle for the next 150 years. In 1848 they were rediscovered by a government expedition led by Modesto Méndez. Until 1951 Tikal could only be reached on horseback and the ruins remained uncleared. Excavation started in 1956 and incolved teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology. Much of the major excavation work was completed by 1984, but thousands of minor buildings remain buried in the roots, shoots, and rubble of the jungle.

We got caught in a few rainstorms! Good thing we bought our ponchos!

During our walk through the jungle of Tikal we excperienced a true rainforest climate with rainstorms on and off throughout the day. We also viewed ocellated turkeys, toucans, motmots, spider and howler monkes and several species of parrots. Other animals living in the jungle include jaguars, peccary, brockets deer, weasels, pumas, ocelots, and armadillos.

Sunset from atop Temple V

Find more information about Tikal at the site's official website

*Histortical information on Tikal taken from The Rough Guide to Guatemala

No comments: