Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou
DAY ONE | It’s just after dawn, and I’m in the back seat of a car that’s puttering along the east shore of Lago Petén Itzá, a massive lake in Petén, a tropical state in the northeastern corner of Guatemala, about 30 miles from the Mexican border. I’m munching on chile-lime peanuts as my guide, Eric García, gives me the rundown on Tikal National Park, the famed archaeological site that’s also a part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
“This is one of nine sites in the world that UNESCO made a natural and cultural preserve,” he says of the park. “NASA came here five years ago and took satellite pictures, and they discovered 2,000 archaeological sites in Petén alone.”
García has reason to be proud. He comes from a small nearby village called Caoba (the Spanish name for the mahogany tree). Like many Guatemalans, he is of Mayan descent (his grandfather doesn’t speak Spanish), and he occasionally supplements his narrative by pulling a small Mayan flute from his bag and playing a few notes.
“Tikal is the center of the Mayan world, like Mecca or the Vatican,” he says. “Mayans would come to Tikal from smaller villages to celebrate ceremonies.”
Just inside the park gate, García stops and points to the top of a ceiba tree, where black-brown birds with bright yellow tails are flitting and bickering around a bunch of teardrop-shaped nests.
“They’re called Montezuma oropendola,” he says, “for the gold tails and the way their nests hang.”
After a half-hour drive down a tree-lined road, we begin our hike through the jungle, the thunderous calls of howler monkeys roaring overhead. We pause to watch a female spider monkey and her baby scamper across a bough, then make our way toward El Templo del Gran Jaguar, also known as Temple I. As we near the temple, we hear a frenzy of scratching—it’s an anteater, halfway up a tree, tearing away the bark to get at a nest of termites. “That’s a rare sight to see,” García tells me.
We skirt the edges of the stepped, 154-foot pyramid and emerge into the Great Plaza, a broad clearing with stone ruins—dating back more than a thousand years—rising on all four sides.
Directly across from Temple I stands El Templo de las Máscaras, or Temple II, which I climb, eager to see the carved namesake masks at the top. The summit also affords stunning views of the surrounding ruins: the Central Acropolis, a crumbled palace complex where the city’s elite lived, and the North Acropolis, a collection of burial chambers, the walls of which bear more stone masks representing Mayan gods.
Down a trail, surrounded by dense vegetation, are Temples III and IV—the latter the tallest in the park, at 213 feet. “We have a big conflict between ecologists and archaeologists,” García explains as we make our way through the brush. “Ecologists say, ‘Don’t touch anything,’ and archaeologists say, ‘We want to discover more.’ Of the 4,000 buildings that have been found here, only 15 percent have been restored.”
I climb to the top of Temple IV and look out across miles of jungle canopy. George Lucas showed the Millennium Falcon cruising over this location in Star Wars, and the view is so spectacular that I can (mostly) quell my fear of the vertiginous height. I can also understand why some people think aliens built these temples; there’s an otherworldly vibe up here.
As we hike back through the jungle, the skies open up in a torrential downpour. By the time we get to El Mesón, a restaurant near the park entrance, I’m drenched. We take a seat at a picnic table beneath a thatch roof, where we receive a delicious and hearty homestyle lunch of spicy grilled chicken and fluffy, buttery rice, with a dessert of cinnamon-laced stewed banana.
Fortunately, I came prepared for the precipitation—it’s called a “rainforest” for a reason—and have a change of clothes in the car. I’m ready to get back into town and take a nap, but as we pass through the gate, García points out Canopy Tours Tikal. “Do you want to do the zipline?” he asks. I remember my dizziness atop Temple IV and say no. Then I think again. The rain has stopped. I’m on vacation. Why not? Minutes later I am screaming and flying, Superman-style, through the treetops. Fear of heights: conquered. Need for a nap: also conquered.
We drive for an hour or so to Flores, the capital of Petén, which occupies a small island in Lago Petén Itzá. We cross the bridge into town and García drops me off at the red-and-white, chalet-style Ramada Tikal, which opened last year on the sleepy waterfront. At check-in I’m given a glass of watermelon juice, which soothes my throat, still scratchy from jungle-sweat dehydration and zipline banshee wails. Just beyond the lobby I pass an indoor pool and head up to my room, which has a balcony overlooking the lake.
The view is great, but the sight of the bed is even better. I feel my need for a nap returning.
It’s dark when I wake up, and I make my way down the road that rings the edge of the island to Raices Grill. I take a seat on the deck, which juts out over the lake, and order a plate of camarones al ajo, huge shrimp stuffed with garlic and served over grilled pineapple. Even at night it’s tropically steamy here, and I fight back the heat with a few rounds of the national lager, Gallo, whiling away the evening by tossing crumbs of tortilla to the fish swarming around the boards.