I originally didn’t have any plans to travel anywhere for 2014, having backpacked for 5 months in 2013. As the end of the year approached however, a part of me was hungry, needing an adventure. Where should I go?
My friend Amit had been spending some time in Guatemala, particularly in a spiritual town called San Marcos, located in the region of Lake Atitlan. He wrote a very positive blog post about how magical San Marcos is. I was intrigued. Initial research quickly led to a decision, being inspired by:
- Ancient ruins – I love ancient architecture, and Guatemala has a popular site called Tikal, which contains ancient Mayan temples.
- Volcanoes – Having done a volcano hike in Bali, and being inspired by numerous volcanoes throughout Indonesia, I was looking forward to exploring one of Guatemala’s volcanoes.
- San Marcos – A small town known for yoga and meditation, seemed like it would be a good place for me to spend a few days and do a yoga retreat on my own. Spiritual rejuvenation.
- Lake Atitlan – The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. It’s also 5,125 ft. above sea level. That sounds epic to me!
I booked a ticket for a two-week vacation, leaving on Christmas Eve. Learning from my previous backpacking trip, I decided to create an itinerary that focused more on traveling slowly, rather than creating a checklist of all the “must see” things in Guatemala and then trying to compress seeing it all in two weeks. It was a difficult exercise to decide what l would skip and possibly miss out on; simultaneously, I felt gratitude for even being able to go at all.
Another concern I had was that I was going over the holiday season – Christmas and New Year’s. Would it be packed with tourists since this would be the high season? I was mostly nervous about not being able to book rooms in advance – online reservations weren’t possible – and ending up having to stay in undesirable hostels. I reminded myself that it would all be easier once I was there, and to give up control of wanting to plan it all out now. Sometimes the beauty of such style of travel is being serendipitous. Just live and let things fall into place.
I landed in Guatemala City on the Christmas Day, and from there I took a small plane from there to Flores. The plane was mostly filled with retired Americans on vacation.
Flores is a popular place to stay when visiting Tikal, as it’s a small and charming island located 1.5 hours from the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.
When I arrived at my hostel, I debated between booking a sunrise tour (that leaves at 3am) or a sunset tour (leaves at Noon). A part of me wanted to be optimistic about seeing sunrise, but speaking to others at the hostel who had gone described it being too foggy to see anything. So I booked the sunset tour, reminding myself not to overanalyze such things as I tend to do. Just live.
The next day I embarked for the sunset tour for Tikal. Here are some quick facts about Tikal:
- Tikal was the ancient Mayan capital which used to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in its time
- An area of 6.2 square miles contains about 3,000 structures, but most haven’t been excavated. Most attention is given to the six temple pyramids
- The tallest temple is about 230 feet high, completed around 700 AD.
- Up to 90,000 people may have lived in this area
Upon initially arriving in Tikal, I saw my first exotic creature of the jungle – a wild turkey. The turkey is beautiful, and I could have mistaken it for a peacock.
As our tour guide led us into the jungle, he told us we would possibly see other jungle creatures, specifically spider monkeys, howler monkeys, wild turkeys, maybe tarantulas, or a jaguar. It didn’t take long to spot spider monkeys and howler monkeys, easily attracting the attention of tourists as they swung around trees (or even walked around).
I didn’t learn much from the tour guide as I would have hoped – how were these temples built? When were they built? What function did they serve? His explanations around the various sites usually concluded in “Nobody really knows, it’s all a mystery of the Maya.” Thus I mostly focused on appreciating the aesthetics of the temples and other structures, and the sites of the jungle. In my head I made a note to google for a National Geographic documentary about Tikal to learn more about it.
Below is the Lost World Pyramid; part of a larger ceremonial complex.
View from the top of the steps.
The Great Plaza, containing two great pyramid-temples on the east and west side, an two acroplis’ on the north and south side.
Temple I, 154 ft. high. Tourists are not allowed to use the stairs to get to the top – I imagine it would be quite scary and difficult to do so, given how steep and narrow the stairs are.
Being in Tikal also took me back to an area I was about a year ago – Ankgor Wat. While a part of me didn’t want to compare Tikal to Angkor Wat, emotionally, I feel spiritually connected and mesmerized by Ankgor Wat, its roots being in Hinduism and Buddhism. Just on a visceral level however, Ankgor Wat is on a grand scale, needing 3 days to see it all; Tikal can be seen in about 4 hours.
I stood admiring Temple I, its long staircase to the top. The shape of it reminded me of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand (picture below) – another favorite temple of mine.
Towards the end of our tour, I watched the sunset behind the mountains in the distance, admiring the vast jungle, hiding many of the secrets of the Mayan civilization that used to live here.
Sunset photo from the top of Temple IV.