The money shot, looking east from the top of Temple IV. The scenes for the rebel base on the forest planet in the first Star Wars movie were shot here. Just imagine a couple of x-wings taking off out of the jungle.

Tikal is the second major Maya site I’ve visited, after Chichén Itzá. It was founded before 300 BC, reached its peak around 600 – 800 AD, and was abandoned by 1100. In between, it was conquered, razed and rebuilt at least three different times. You can tell. The faces of the kings on all these altars and stelae and statues have been chiseled off by the conquerors–like this dude, my Facebook dopplegaanger:

Tikal went down around the same time as the rest of the great lowland Maya city-states, and presumably for the same reasons: conspiracy theories and over-sanguine academic speculations aside, because they overpopulated, overtaxed their resources and consequently starved themselves out of power. In the 900 years since the Maya collapse, Tikal, El Mirador, Uaxactun and the dozens of other Maya sites that occupy the misty lowland region of Northern Guatemala known as El Peten have all been completely covered over with full-on, mature rainforest. As a result, I never really experienced that eerie sense of connectedness and presence I met with among the ruins of Yucatan. Instead, Tikal filled me with an awareness of time. 900 years. The trees–like the colossal ceiba just outside the gate–are as awe-inspiring as the temples: trunks seven feet across with root systems big enough to get lost in, canopies dotted with epiphytes, toucans and spider monkeys hundreds of feet overhead. The mist comes down in constant curtains. The stone steps of the temples are treacherous, slick with rain. Howler monkeys shriek past unseen in the distance at dusk, with all the deliberate, unstoppable pacing, the intensity and elemental inexorability of a thunderstorm. Moss covers everything–skulls included–and it doesn’t restrain itself to making them look all epic and cool. It devours them. Nature, in El Peten, gave humanity its chance. Then it came and took everything back.

The temples are still there, huge and steep and imposing, as are the stelae and the altars, the aqueducts, the limestone causeways running miles through the woods. But the artwork, the stucco reliefs and stone carvings that were so gloriously and spine-tinglingly evident at Chichén Itzá and Tulum–the ones that hadn’t already been defaced by the vicissitudes of war, anyway–have almost all been wiped away by rain, time, and the gods.

Temple V. Back in AD 700, at its construction, all that gray mush of rubble above the doorway was a super-complicated monolithic frieze depicting masks of kings, the gods of sun and rain.

If you zoom in on this photo (click on it), you can see on the far left the top of the rickety-ass, near-vertical, 180-foot wooden scaffolding you have to climb to get to the top (here–the wikipedia photo shows it better). This was fricking terrifying. The steps were all covered with rain and mud, slippery as hell. This dude who was there on his honeymoon climbed up maybe 20 steps before his wife made him give up and come down. Wisely, I left my wife at home. At the top, there’s maybe three feet of crumbling stone to stand on. While I was up there, this one lady made it up, took one step away from the ladder and collapsed into a ball of whimper until her people had to physically help her back down. I, on the other hand, was totally unfazed, and walked all the way around to the right side of the platform, where there was only a foot and a half of space between myself and death by rainforest canopy laceration, to take this:

Yes, I am indeed wicked tough. Thank you for noticing.

As you might guess, I have way more pictures. Maybe I’ll share some more of them a little later on.


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