We had been married less then a week and headed off the grid for our honeymoon. When I say off the grid, I mean OFF. So far off, we were encouraged to register with the U.S. consulate office, since our destination was considered a “security risk” and the government there was “questionable.” Nevertheless, we headed off to the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala.
Once we arrived at the border of Belize and Guatemala, we met our “fixer”, arranged by our hotel, who guided us through customs. There were three newlywed couples in our group, two from California and one from Canada. As the six of us stepped onto Guatemalan soil, we were silenced by the sights: armed police and locals loitering (also armed) near a small bazaar.
We then quickly loaded into a heavy tinted unmarked van and set off into the vast jungle. 60 miles doesn’t sound like that far by U.S. standards. But the roads were not much more then dirt paths along a clearing in the jungle. During the drive, we passed small villages with cinder block homes and huts. The artwork covering the walls of the villages were familiar to us being from Los Angeles, but nevertheless disheartened, gang graffiti. It was everywhere: buildings, trees, pretty much anything was fair game. The graffiti was mostly from Los Angeles-based gangs deported home to Guatemala. If it wasn’t gang graffiti posted everywhere, it was political posters with the usual paramilitary looking men and AK-47 assault rifles plastered on trees and abandoned vehicles. The U.S. consulate office warned us of roadside robberies, so we stayed moving. The living conditions were saddling. We saw countless families selling wears roadside and mothers washing clothes in almost every river we passed.
Once in Tikal, literally in the middle of nowhere we met our guild, Manuel. He was of Mayan decent and apparently not affected by the 80-90 heat with 90% humidity. He explained the rules very simply, “you’re in the middle of the jungle, you are not at the top of the food chain and we loose people to the jungle regularly; so stay with the group.” And with that, we were off on an adventure of a lifetime. Manuel explained he did not use the government-paved paths placed in the park for tourists, instead he preferred the same paths he believed Mayans had used for generations.
Reaching the first ruin, we met a large group of Guatemalans of Mayan decent who were visiting for religious study. They seemed interested in us; catching peeks and whispering to each other about the group of “tourists” in their country. Climbing the temple, we were reminded of the beauty of U.S. building codes for stairs, but awestruck by the amazing view of the Temple IV and Sun Temple. Look familiar? It should, as scenes from Star Wars IV: A New Hope was filmed there.
We were stunned by how mathematically precise the buildings were made facing the summer solstice and exact intersections of North/South/East/West. But most striking were the stairs. The stairs were incredibly tall and very difficult to climb. And tall by American standards (6’2” and 5’6”) doesn’t do it justice, since the average Mayan man was 5’2” and woman was 4’8”. We found walking up the temples easier by stepping sideways.
Temple IV is the tallest standing pre-Columbian structure still standing in the Americas. The long base of the temple runs exactly north/south. To get to the top you have to use a set of stairs/ladder that is set at a grueling sharp angle. The next set of images really show the magnitude of this temple and its surrounding trees. Sitting on the narrow stone edge, it was hard to listen for wildlife over our heart pounding chests — thankfully, no one had a serious fear of heights within our group.
Manuel then took us to one of the bloodiest places in Tikal, the sacrifice stone. A gruesome page of Mayan history, human sacrifice were common during Tikal’s heyday. Afterwards we explored the plaza of Tikal where shops and market would’ve been located or where the King would address his people from atop his temple. We then walked the remains of the royal palace marveling at the craftsmanship that allows a building built some 1700 years ago to still stand.
After nearly 6 hours on a hot humid day wandering the jungle, we loaded into the van and headed back to Belize. Back at the hotel, all six of us sipped the local Belize Rum Punch and marveled at knocking off our bucket list such an impressive archaeological site the first week of marriage. Life was good.
Cahal Pech Village Resort | San Ignacio, Belize
Eight years ago, our thatched cabana was in dire need of an upgrade and felt the resort accommodations were average. However, over the recent years I’ve read reviews and glanced at the hotel website and noticed vast improvements to the property. We specifically selected the Cahal Pech for their Tikal Tour after spending a week relaxing in the Ambergris Caye. After reading stellar reviews about their staff and tours, through the Frommer’s forum, we communicated with hotel staff via email to arrange for our cabana and Tikal Tour. Prompt responses, friendly staff, on-site restaurant, and a concern for our personal safety made us feel like we made the best choice for our trip.
Have you hiked through Tikal National Park? We love to connect with others, so feel free to leave us a comment and share your experiences! (Disclosure: Burbs2Abroad traveled to the above location as guests and was not compensated for this review. As always, our opinions are our own.)