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Builders of monuments, creators of calendars and discoverers of chocolate, the Maya easily hold their own as one of the most fascinating civilizations to have left their mark on the world. Mayan sites are some of the primary attractions which bring travelers to the American isthmus.   Today we’ll begin a tour of the some of the more famous Mayan sites with a visit to the towering monuments protruding from the jungle in Guatemala – Tikal. But first a little context…

Pedro Szekely's photo of Tikal

Great Plaza at Tikal. Photo by Pedro Szekely.

Mayan Basics

The Maya developed city-states starting from around 1800 BCE, in the area which is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Mayan history is generally divided into three periods: Pre-classic 1800 BCE – 250 CE, Classic from 250-900 CE and Post-classic from 900 CE until the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors.

Corn (maíz) was the basis of their subsistence, as it remains for the people living in this area today. The landscape was also characterized by large deposits of limestone, which the Maya used to carve monuments and decorate their temples. They had a pantheon of gods for whom they would sacrifice humans and make other (often bloody) offerings. Their hieroglyphic writing allowed them to record their history. They are also notable for their scientific advancements, such as the first known use of “zero” and the development of a strikingly accurate calendar systems.

For reasons that remain unknown, Mayan civilization began to decline around 900 and most sites were eventually abandoned. This does not mean that people died out. There are plenty of Mayan peoples populating their traditional lands today. But most of their great cities had been abandoned before the Spanish arrived. Experts debate about the cause of this decline, but that’s a subject for another post. Let’s get to Tikal.

kangotraveler's photo of ruins at Tikal.

Mayan ruins at Tikal. Photo by kangotraveler.

Visiting the Park

Located in the northern, El Petén, region of Guatemala, Tikal is easily accessed from either Flores or Santa Elena.

I found Tikal to be a fabulously well-managed park. Guides were knowledgeable, there were no flocks of vendors and wooden staircases have been constructed which allow you to climb the temples without actually climbing on the temples.

Katrina's photo of stairs going up a temple,

You’ll get plenty of exercise the day you visit Tikal! Photo by Katrina.

The entrance fee is upwards (charged in Quetzals which varies in value) of $20 USD, but totally worth it.

If you’re staying in nearby El Remate, Santa Elena or Flores, get your hiney out of bed early to be at the park when it opens at 6 AM. When I visited, the only lodging available in the park was camping or a spendy lodge. If I had it to do over, I would cough up the cash and stay in the park. There’s a lot to see here. Tikal claims to be the biggest excavated site on the continent. And the local wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn.

Tikal

Travelers are often advised to make their way immediately to the top of Temple IV, on the far side of the park in order to sit atop the temple and watch the pyramids emerge as the morning mist clears. This is, no doubt, a spectacular way to start the day, but I got distracted on the way there by all the exciting sounds of the jungle. That’s the thing about Tikal, the ruins are spectacular, but even if there were no ruins here, it would be worth the price of admission just to see the jungle. By the end of the day, I had seen so many monkeys, I wasn’t even bothering to look anymore. And birdwatchers will surely check more than one species of toucan off of their list.

Mike Murga's photo of temples protruding above the canopy

Only in Tikal…Photo by Mike Murga.

More than any other Mayan site I’ve visited, the builders of Tikal seemed obsessed with size, specifically height. The temples soar, reaching above the forest canopy towards the heavens. As the guide explained, their quickly-narrowing design gives the optical illusion of even more height. Climbing the stair-ladders (steeper than your average set of stairs) up one temple after another, I understood the guides comment. “Going up is physically challenging, coming down psychologically.”

Tikal is believed to have been home to around 100,000 people at its peak in the mid sixth century. It had conquered neighboring cities and was the dominant power in the region. The relics left behind, plazas, temples and artifacts filling two museums, make a fascinating introduction to the Mayan world for any traveler.

4Neus' photo of Tikal

A view that’s hard to beat. Photo by 4Neus.

As I sit on a stone, gazing at the ruins spread out below me, I can feel myself slipping into one of my favorite fantasies.  What if I had been the first modern person to discover this? What if I was a kid and I found this place, and it could be my fort?  I allow myself to indulge in the fantasy for a few more minutes before I hop down from the rock and set off to explore.

Whether you’re being towered by Great Pyramids, beholding the beautifully sculptures in bas relief at Angkor or imagining the druids at Stonehenge, ruins are one of the pleasures of travel. If these “old rocks” turn you on, here are few tips to get the most out of your visit to an ancient ruin:

It’s all about the Environment

Culture is sometimes defined as the way in which people adapt to their environment.  So begin your visit to a historical site by surveying your surroundings.  If you can, perch yourself on a high place and look down on the site.  This will give you an overall idea of the lay of the land.  You can look down on the ancient buildings and see how their placement relates to one another.  Historic sites often reveal a surprising degree of urban planning.

Kangotraveler's photo of the Mayan ruins at Tikal

Ruins at Tikal. Photo by kangotraveler.

Check out the surroundings.  Are there low hills or mounds near by which may be other structures that have yet to be excavated? What landmarks punctuate the horizon? Are there mountains, rock formations, bodies of water that would have been incorporated into the world view of the people who once lived here? Would they have waited for the rising or setting sun to align with these landmarks to know that it was the start of a particular season? Reach into your pocket and pull out a compass.  Are the buildings aligned to one of the cardinal points (often they are)? If so, what does that mean?

Early societies tended to be agriculture based, so it’s worth taking note of the plant land animal life around you.  In many cases, the same staple crops that supported the people who built these ancient cities are still being grown locally today.  In other places, you will find elaborate ruins surrounded by barren land – a living (or rather “dying”) testament to the long human history of overtaxing the environment.

LE FOTO DI MAXI's photo of the ruins at Petra.

Do you call it a “ruin” when it still looks this good? Photo by LE FOTO DI MAXI.

Look Up, and Down

Ancient peoples did not enjoy the benefits of electricity.  So if you have the opportunity to visit a historical site in the evening, you will be looking up at the same stars that the residents of these ancient developments admired a thousand or more years before.  (Unless of course, there was a stellar event- such as the supernova which was visible in 1054 and may be recorded in some native American petroglyphs). Are there any features of the night sky that are particularly prominent? Would that have been incorporated into the spirituality or world view of the people who once lived here? Discovering archeo-astronomy is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my travels.

Looking down can be even better.  You see what was thrown away, or left behind.  I’ve found pottery shards, awls, stone scrapers.  It’s thrilling to find these things, to hold a stone tool in your hand and know that it sat in the maker’s hand in exactly they same way.  Pick them up, study them, enjoy them, but don’t take them with you.  In situ, they are fascinating and meaningful.  Back in your house they will only collect dust.

Connecting the Ruins to the Modern World

Goal! Long before there were stadiums full of football fans, the Maya had already covered the country with ball courts.Hanging out and absorbing a little bit of the modern culture is another way to increase your understanding of the ruins of an ancient culture. Buildings crumble, empires fall, but many of the places that are home to fabulous ruins have been continuously occupied for centuries.  Agricultural practices, home building (as opposed to monument building) techniques, clothing and cuisine may remain surprisingly similar.  So spend a day at the ruins, but also spend a day at the market.  And check out the facial features of the locals.  They may look an awful lot like the sculpted figures at the ruins.

Practical Matters

Planning ahead can help you make the most of your visit to the ruins.  Pleasant temperatures, good light for photos and visible (and audible) animal life will be best in the early morning and the late afternoon.  But that can make for an awfully long day.  Find out ahead of time if your ticket will allow you to leave and re-enter.  Is your lodging close enough to sneak home for a siesta and come back? Is food available at the site? If you arrive late in afternoon, can you use the same ticket the following day?

Sometimes it’s worth having a guide or booking a day tour (which will also take care of the transportation problem).  Talk to fellow travelers who have gone ahead of you and follow the tips for arranging a day tour.

Finally, take your time.  Ruins can also be great places to enjoy nature.  Some of the most beautiful birds I saw in Central America (not to mention giant iguanas and howler monkeys) were at Mayan ruins.

Disney got it wrong.  And since today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day , I thought we should set things straight about the real pirates of the Caribbean.

First of all, let me pay respects to the thing they got oh so right – Johnny Depp.  I mean really, who else when asked to create the main character for a series of Big Budget Pirate Movies would say, “Hmm, how about I make him an effeminate lush,”? He is awesome! Long live Captain Jack.

But what of the Imperial Governors from whom the pirates plunder?  What with their bright red coats and all that pomp and circumstance, don’t they seem a bit…British?  So, friends at Disney- here’s a history lesson for you: The British were the Pirates. Consider the following famous swashbucklers:

 

WikiThreads' photo of Captain Morgan.

Long before he shivered the timbers of rum bottles everywhere, Captian Morgan raided Spanish settlements across the Caribbean. Photo by WikiThreads.

Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh pirate who harassed Spanish settlements in the Caribbean in the 1600s with the approval of British authorities, even managing to become Governor of Jamaica. Today he sells us rum.

Blackbeard, a Brit named Edward Teach who terrorized the West Indies and American coast in the early 1700’s.  He was said to have regularly tied lit fuses under his hat in order to create a frightening sight for his enemies.  Indeed!

Calico Jack, the British pirate named Jack Rackham is believed to be the first to fly the “Jolly Roger” (skull and cross-bones) flag. After plundering the Bahamas for a spell he was eventually hanged in Jamaica.

Evidence of a Pirate Past

Evidence of a pirate past can still be seen in the fortifications which dot the Caribbean today.  Many aren’t terribly large or imposing, but they are strategically placed.

sunhorseflower's photo of anti-pirate fortifications in Guatemala.

Castle of San Filipe, built in 1652 to protect villages on Guatemala’s largest lake from looting pirates. Photo by sunhorseflower.

Above: A fort from the Spanish Colonial Era protects the port of San Antonio de las Bodegas on the shore of Lake Izabal, Guatemala.  The lake is connected to Caribbean Sea by the Rio Dulce and San Antonio was a favorite target for English pirates.  At night, a chain would be stretched from the opposite shore to the Castillo to block unwanted ships from coming up river.

born1945's photo of Morrow Castle.

Morro Castle at the entrance of Havana Harbor, cerca 1950. Photo by born1945.

 

Havana: Perhaps no city had more to protect than Havana.  Due to its geographic placement, Cuba was the perfect place for the Spanish to launch their conquest of the New World from.  An administrative hub, gold and silver laden ships would stop in Havana before carting their conquered treasures back to Europe.  The place was a pirate’s dream.

 

ego2005's photo of a canon protecting Havana's harbor.

Protecting Havana from Pirates. Photo by ego2005.

 

Enjoy talking like a pirate and remember (can’t take credit for this- saw it on a tee-shirt):

To err is human, but to Arrrr! is Pirate!

My father recently asked me which of my trips was the best.  I whined that it was an unfair question and refused to answer.  My favorite trip is the last one.  And the next one.  But there are a handful of experiences that rise to the top in my memories, that stick out as highlights.  One of them is my visit to Angkor Wat.  The temples at Angkor are spectacular.  And if you’ve been there, you know. If it’s not already on your bucket list, it should be.

marek.krzystkiewicz' photo of monk at Angkor Wat.

Strolling through the temples at Angkor. Photo by marek.krzystkiewicz.

History

Angkor Wat is the main temple in this “City of Temples” and was the center of an empire that nearly covered the SE Asian mainland.  Initial construction took place under the rule of Suryavarman II, a dedicated Hindu, during the first part of the 12th century.  After Suryavarman’s death, the city was sacked by the nearby kingdom of Cham.  It was rebuilt by Jayavaman VII, who established his new capital at Angkor Thom y Bayon.  Religion began to shift from Hinduism towards Buddhism, and the site is plentiful with images from both.

Angkor Wat photo

The largest religious monument in the world,  Angkor Wat itself is a model of the Hindu universe.  It is Mount Meru, home of the gods, the five tours representing the five peaks of the mountain, the moat representing the ocean.

The Thing About Angkor Wat…

I love ruins.  I love imaging what life was like in another era.  I daydream about what it would be like to be the first modern person who stumbled upon these ancient cities; or being a child and having this place as my secret fort.  Angkor Wat fit these fantasies perfectly.

Like other ruins, the temples at Angkor are gigantic and awe-inspiring. They are also just plain aesthetically beautiful.

Midway through my week-long visit, a vendor targeted me for the person who would provide his all-important “first sale of the day”.  He practically forced me to buy a copy of Michael Freeman’s and Claude Jacques’ book Ancient Angkor at a very low price.  It’s a lovely book full of detailed explanations and striking photos.  After I had visited all of the major structures at least once, I returned to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon to study the bas reliefs using the descriptions in the book.  The fantastically well executed reliefs depict images of daily life and historic battles, as well as scenes from Hindu mythology.

Even the more mundane structures were stunning.  On a hot, sticky afternoon I headed for what I had decided would be my last temple of the day.  Glancing at the guidebook, I was disappointed to learn that the building I was approaching was made of brick.  I had become a huge fan of the pink-tan-gray sandstone that made up the other structures.  When I reached the temple I found myself standing in front of the most beautiful brick-work I’d ever seen.  And inside, something I had never seen- bas-reliefs carved into brick.

Even the forces of decline and decay at Angkor are aesthetically pleasing.  The ruins and the jungle seem to be in constant tension, with the roots of fig trees intertwining gracefully with the enduring stone buildings.

Keith Parker's photo of tree-enveloped ruin.

Man-made and natural structures, hand in hand. Photo by Keith Parker.

I’m not the only one who was struck by the beauty of this place. Among other travelers, I saw something that one rarely sees these days – film. Real film. I asked a woman about it and she said, “Oh, I have a digital camera too. But for the temples I want real film.”

Anandajoti Bhikkhu's photo of a relief at Angkor Wat.

Relief of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Photo by Anandajoti Bhikkhu.

A creation story in Hindu mythology tells of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Gods and demons pulled back and forth on a giant serpent (cosmic tug-o-war) who was wrapped around a mountain. The tugging turned the mountain, thus churning the Cosmic Sea. The churning caused Amrita, the nectar of immortal life to be released from the Sea. This story is depicted in bas-reliefs around Angkor Wat, as well as in the causeway that leads across the moat to the temple.

Ticket and Transport Options

Tickets:  There are three ticket options for visiting Angkor, a one day pass, a three day pass and a week pass.  Most travelers I met had purchased the three day pass and been satisfied. (I can’t imagine why anyone would come for only one day.)  I bought the seven day pass, planning to take a one day break from viewing temples in the middle of the week.  However, my plans fell through and I ended up going to the temples every day.  I was not sorry.

Transport: There are literally hundreds of structures, spread out over a large area.  If you’re planning to spend the day at one particular temple, Angkor Wat or Bayon, you can have some one drop you off and spend the rest of the day on foot.  Motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks are easy to find.  However, if you’re planning to cover some ground, you’ll want wheels.  A bike or motorbike is perfect.  I found a pleasant, punctual and reasonable motorbike driver whom I hired for the week.

Food & Lodging: Siem Reap has ample restaurant (too many good choices- by the time I left, I had started going out for “second dinners”) and lodging options.  The place I stayed was spacious, clean, $10 per night and even had a small swimming pool which was great for refreshing oneself after a dusty day of sightseeing.

Fourteen of us caravanned through the desert in two vans.  It was a cultural anthropology class studying the native populations of the American Southwest.  We pulled into Chaco Canyon and our instructor announced, “Students, I have a surprise for you,” and promptly ushered us into the visitor center to see a movie.  I was pissed.  We had been in the van for hours and the last thing I wanted to do was sit some more.  I wanted to be outside exploring Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwest New Mexico, is a fascinating place to visit. Mysteries abound.  About a thousand years ago (from 900 to 1150 CE), the Ancestral Pueblo People made this canyon one of their cultural centers.  The ruins they left spark the imagination and repeatedly beg the questions, “how and why did they do that?”

Buildings constructed of strikingly beautiful, mortar-free masonry populate the canyon.  The most famous enclave is called Pueblo Bonito.  My mother, a math professor, once told me that  math books often include aerial photos of Pueblo Bonito because it is shaped like an almost perfect parabola.  But how and why this is, no one can say.

Pueblo Bonito. Photo by Chris M Morris.

Then there are the roads, eight to ten meters wide, radiating outward for miles and miles in almost perfectly straight lines.  How did they build such straight roads? And why? Their culture did not have wheels or pack animals.  Curiouser and curiouser. Even NASA is on the investigation.

Finally, there is the solstice marker.

Fajada Butte, a majestic monolith, stands in the middle of the canyon.  Nestled at the top of the butte sit two vertical rock slabs.  The ancient inhabitants carved a large spiral into the rock behind these slabs and when the midday sun shines through on the summer solstice a dagger of light perfectly bisects the spiral.

It’s actually way cooler than that.  I recommend you see the film yourself to understand how amazing this is: http://www.solsticeproject.org/index.html .

Fajada Butte. Photo by Claudia Zimmer.

Hearing about the “Sun Dagger” opened a whole new world to me and made me appreciate the fact that ancient peoples lived under the sky in a way that we home-and-office-dwellers no longer do.  Learning about the illusion of the snake slithering down the pyramid at Chichen Itza on the summer solstice, the original city of Cuzco designed as a living calendar and the wonders of Stonehenge have changed the way I visit ruins.  A few recommendations:

  • Consider the timing – you may want to plan your visit in concert with an astronomical event (solstice, equinox, eclipse, etc.).  In the case of Chichen Itza, I was delighted to discover that they recreate the solstice-serpent every evening during the otherwise cheesy sound and light show.
  • Carry a compass so you can appreciate how ancient city planners frequently aligned their constructions perfectly with the cardinal points.
  • Look at the horizon and note which landmarks could have been used to note the sun’s most extreme rising and setting points. In ancient times, this type of “horizon calendar” is how folks knew that spring had sprung.  Pretty important knowledge to have if your staple crop- corn for instance, needs a long growing season.

I learned other things on that trip as well, including the importance of looking down as well as up.  But that’s a story for another time…