Another visitor comes and goes! I had such a blast journeying through the ancient ruins of Guatemala with my friend, Micah Bock. We averaged 15,000 steps a day, including 27,000 on our day at Tikal which started at 3:30 AM -- and that should be expected with Micah who famously travels with his backpack! Be ready to suit up with this guy!
We started our fearless journey together in Guatemala on Tuesday evening. Micah flew into Guatemala City’s international airport and we took a quick one-hour Uber drive over to Antigua, which has old ruins that go back nearly 500 years. In 1773, the Spanish abandoned this “old city” after a volcanic eruption and earthquake devastated the area for at least the third time since they were there. On Micah’s first night in this magical country, we slept in a home owned by the family of my friend Lissa that is part of the El Carmen ruins. The window of the room is facing the ruins offering visitors a spectacularly enchanting night’s sleep. What better way can one be welcomed to Guatemala for their first time?
The next day, we walked the Old City and even climbed up to Cerro de la Cruz, where there is a cross overlooking the city – I had told Micah ahead of time – from that vantage point, it’s almost like looking at a map. He repeated this after being there.
We browsed the ruins at the Hotel Casa de Santo Domingo, explored the local markets, and then took a 20-minute drive up to Hobbitenango, an eco-village that is designed like a hobbit village from Lord of the Rings. That’s where we had a fantastic lunch and plenty of amazing views – this is an Instagrammers’ dream come true. And we know Micah Bock loves the gram.
We then came back to where I live in Guatemala City, because I had some work to do – and that also gave Micah some time to catch up on work too, even though he was technically on vacation.
On Thursday, I showed Micah around the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin - where he too was amazed at its beauty and its dedication to free-market principles. We then explored the City's Plaza Mayor - the Plaza de la Constitución - and walked a bit around the center of Guatemala City. We stopped by my favorite cigar lounge, The Curanto Club, and tried to get Micah to smoke his first cigar. No luck. We then got some food nearby and experienced a wonderful evening at Trova Jazz. I believe Micah’s exact words to me on the way home was: "that was a truly magical evening."
Guatemala is magical! Even its musical entertainment. I have been living here (for the most part) since March and I keep using the word "magical" to describe this entire country. I am always glad to hear my visitors use this term too.
The next day, after I taught my class at UFM and did a Zoom webinar for a student conference, we took a short 45-minute flight to Flores Airport (FRS) near Peten. It’s a very tiny airport and when we walked out the shuttle driver from the Jungle Lodge was there to greet us and take us on a 1-hour ride to the lodge, which is situated at the entrance of Tikal National Park.
Once there, we checked in and then were asked to pay for our park entrance tickets. I had totally forgot we needed to each have $250 Quetzales on us (about the equivalent of $32 USD). Luckily, we had JUST ENOUGH (mostly thanks to Micah). You can’t pay for these park entrance tickets by credit card. They do not accept USD nor is there an ATM. Why? Because we’re in the jungle. So I implore you: please make sure to take PLENTY of Quetzales with you. I can’t imagine getting all the way there and not being able to go in because we failed to bring local cash.
After check-in, we were able to get a great dinner at their on-site restaurant and then head to our room, where we kept the windows open so we could hear the sounds of the jungle as we slept. We got a pretty decent amount of sleep considering we had to wake up at 3:30AM!
If we thought Antigua was old, we were just getting started. Some of the structures here at Tikal have been around since the 4th century BC and the place was occupied for over 1500 years!
We joined the 4:00am tour that leaves right from the lobby of the Jungle Lodge. We began our hike through Tikal in the dark. It had actually been raining for a few hours (since at least 1:50am, when I had woken up for a few minutes) through just past 4am, when the tour started. But only 30 minutes into the tour, the rain (which was being mostly blocked by the many trees in the jungle) had totally stopped.
It was around this time that we had reached the Grand Plaza of Tikal. But we had no idea because it was pitch black dark except for our flashlights. That’s when our guide Miguel told us to turn all of our flash lights off and then he turned and shined his flashlight to our right.
WHOA! It was shining right on the massive Jaguar Temple! It was so close to us but in the dark we had no idea we were standing right next to this massive ancient temple. The tour continued forward and about 15 minutes later, we were climbing to the top of the Temple IV pyramid, which is 70 meters (or 230 feet) high. From the top, you can see all of Tikal. The place is MASSIVE. Remember, this is the largest excavated archeological site in the Americas. While there are many of Mayan ethnic heritage still to this day in Guatemala and the surrounding region, the Mayan civilization had collapsed centuries before the Spanish landed on the shores of the Yucatan peninsula, when it became covered by the overgrown nature of the jungle. Therefore, Hernando Cortes and all of the other conquistadors who came close by totally missed it. It was not until the 1850s, a few decades after Guatemala became an independent nation, that these ruins were discovered by modern eyes. And it was more than 100 years later, in 1956, that a group of archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania excavated it and mapped the ruins. The excavations are not complete though. Once here you'll see that many temples and other structures are still completely covered by nature -- or what amounts to what look like green hills.
But back to our journey. As we sat atop the Temple IV pyramid it was still dark, but just a small amount of twilight was starting to produce some light around 5:00 AM. We just sat there as we watched the light slowly bring Tikal alive, while listening to the sounds of howler monkeys -- and maybe jaguars? It was all so surreal. And the small group of us on this tour remained mostly quiet. Our phones had no service – a good thing! Occasionally we pulled them out to take photos and videos. But mostly we just sat there and observed the beauty before us, totally alive in the present moment of our lives. Mostly it was green, a lot of trees, with temples starting to appear one by one as the light grew brighter.
This moment at Tikal was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had -- and I feel like I've been blessed to have had quite a few in this life. Around 6:10am we came down off that pyramid and explored the jungle with our guide. During this time, we explored various temples and other structures that are part of Tikal as well as seeing much natural beauty as well as spider monkeys in their natural habitat swinging from the trees above us. We were told there are jaguars and pumas roaming the grounds of Tikal, but you’re not likely to see one. We are also told that even if you do they won’t pose danger – our guide has been doing this for decades and he’s only seen a puma once and a jaguar a few dozen times.
Our official tour ended at 8:00am and this gave us a chance to get a “tipico” Guatemalan breakfast at the Jungle Lodge – which was included in our hotel package. We then explored the rest of Tikal on our own for the next few hours. We climbed to the top of every pyramid we were permitted to and we explored the courtyards and ruins of all the others.
Tikal is simply huge and I might have been heard saying, "this is the Disney World of ancient ruins!" (Sorry that's the Florida boy in me) Except this place is 100% authentic. We ended our time at a pyramid called “Perdido Mundo,” or in English, "The Lost World," which seemed fitting. From that spot (141 steps to the top on a modern wooden staircase) you can also see all of Tikal. We then went back to the lodge, got lunch, took showers, and hopped on the shuttle to the very small airport in Flores. (Side note: they charge something like a $20 Quetzal "tax" on your ticket which you have to pay at the airport. We only had $35 Quetzales between the two of us, but luckily an employee at the airport was kind enough to exchange $1 USD for $5 Quetzales -- once again, we had JUST enough as we didn't have time to go across the street from the airport to find an ATM and be able to make our flight on time). After a 45-minute flight, we were back in Guatemala City by 4:30pm!
We ended Micah's last night here by going to the NEWEST city in Guatemala - Ciudad Cayala! "It looks like the U.S.," I believe Micah said to me. It really does. It's very modern. People either love it or hate it. I have found many Guatemalans seem proud of it because it seems so modern for a country that some deem as poor, old, or even backwards. You wouldn't have that view about Guatemala after visiting Cayala. Others don't like it so much because it doesn't seem like "authentic" Guatemala. But for me, I think they can exist together. The old Antigua, the ancient Tikal, the new Guatemala represented in various Zones of its capital city, including Zone 10 where I live and Zone 16 where Cayala is situated. They are all Guatemala.
While we were at Tikal, we were told of an even more stunning ruin that is harder to get to, requires a guide, includes opportunities to camp at, and is even larger than Tikal. Larger than Tikal? How could this be possible? Just as Micah and I had "checked off" one more site on our bucket list of traveling to wonders of the ancient world, it seems Mirador has now caught our attention as a place we'll have to explore one day.
So goes the life of a traveler... but for now Tikal will always be an experience we shall never forget. In fact, at this point, seeing the sunrise at Tikal was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. And then exploring the rest of Tikal by foot, you feel so small next to those huge pyramids. And then thinking about the thousands of years of human history that came before you, you feel the time we each have on this earth is also very small in comparison to the vast scope of history. How are we using that time? This is what I love so much about traveling to new places. It gives you new thoughts and perspectives you had not had before. It inspires you to be more fully human, more fully alive.
Through the entire experience at Tikal, you're reminded that great civilizations have come and gone and we will each come and go as well. But for the time being, we stand on their foundations and we have the opportunity to dream as big as they did. May we always remember the past, guide our vision toward the possibilities of the future, while finding the ability to live in the present and just take it all in. Cheers to Guatemala – all of it!