Volcanos rise above Antigua and Guatemala City
Before my last stop to chill out in Belize, I figured I could squeeze in a nearby visit to Tikal in Guatemala.  Yep this is that place in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto movie about those crazy bloody-thirsty Mayans.  (I have to admit, after looking at the trailer I am excited to see it and watch Tikal come to life.)  In term of ruins its ultra-famous, supposedly rivaling Ankor Wat itself in beauty.  To get up there I had a brief layover in Guatemala City, which bummed me out.  Not the fact that I almost missed my connection in that crazy, under construction zoo with AK-47 toting military pointing me in all sorts of wrong directions.  No, what bummed me out was when our plane took off, I saw the sunset blazing behind the ring of black volcanos lording over Antigua in the distance.  It was beautiful and clear.  Lava and chicken buses and the fun of exploring a new country was over there, but because of the week I’d lost I had been forced to cut it out.  I hadn’t realized I would actually be able to see it from my plane, kinda of throwing it in my face.  I resolved to come back and see it one day.
Anyway, off we went and arrived into Flores, a pretty town plunked on a little peninsula in a lake.  My time was running out, so I was kind of in a hurry to "do Tikal" in the worst kind of touristy way and then get over to Belize.  So instead of spending a night in Flores like a traveller should, I got an overpriced taxi directly to the ruins.
After a night in a crappy over-priced hotel, I was woken at 0-dark-30.  I had signed up for the sunrise tour, which meant getting up at some unholy hour, then trekking through the jungle in the dark with a flashlight.  When you are jetlagged and on 3 hours of sleep this isn’t a joyful activity.  The idea is that we would be blessed with a wonderful clear sunrise over the spectacular ruins.  Finally we reached Templo IV, the biggest temple at the site.  I think the same aliens that taught the Ankorians how to build these things visited the Mayans, because the steps were once again impossibly small and steep.  Luckily (or maybe because an American had brought a lawsuit), they had built a wooden ladder all the way to the top.  It was still was a long climb but at least I wasn’t on all fours with the risk of tumbling to my death.
 Cloud-rise over Tikal
At the top, we waited excitedly.  Or at least they did.  I was struggling to keep my lids open.  Finally enough light had come to show us….. that we were completely socked in.  Honestly I wasn’t even sure if the sun had come up yet when our guide said that it was over.  Woo-hoo!  But, in fairness, even in the gray light it was pretty cool.  There they were, the towers of Tikal.  Rising up straight out of the jungle, which sprawled endlessly to the horizon in all directions.  I could imagine without the clouds it would have been pretty spectacular.
After snapping the pics, the troop marched back down and waited for the subsequent guided tour.  I started to walk off by myself when the guide asked what I was doing.  I replied, "I’m off to explore the ruins."  "But you’ve already paid for my tour."  "I know.  See you later."
As in Ankor Wat and Macchu Picchu, the last thing I wanted on earth was to be herded from one site to the next like cattle.  Being lectured on what I should see, what this little clump of dirt meant, like I was back in a classroom studying for a quiz.  Are you kidding me?!  Here I was in Tikal, this awesome huge city-state still buried partially under jungle ripe for exploring!  We were here hours before the crowds from Flores and I wanted to wander.  Just get lost and see what I could.  You can’t sit in awe in front of an ancient ruin, imagining the spirits of the Mayan ancestors hovering around if you are in a noisy 50-man battalion on the march.  So off I went.
The first place I went to see was pretty well isolated.  You hear stories of people occasionally seeing jaguars, so I figured if I had any chance at all I had to get lost.  The jungle has literally grown up undisturbed here since the 900’s.  I mean, we are talking over a thousand years since the Mayan kings vanished.  So its old big thick jungle.  It was awesome strolling along the path, watching spider monkeys clamber overhead, hoping to glimpse a spotted cat or a friggin’ quetzal.  I got to the place I was headed, and I was completely alone.  Perfect.  Just explored it and walked around.  What strikes me about Mayan architecture over its counterparts elsewhere in the world are the big blocky lines.  The buildings are almost like massive legos.  Unfortunately, the glyphs on the tops are generally in very bad condition and unreadable.  Hey, its been a 1000 years exposed to the elements.  Can’t blame ’em.
My backpacker buddy

On my way out of the place, I ran into this hippy chick dressed head to toe in bright cheap fabric.  I asked the obvious question: been to India?  "Yeah, spent 6 months volunteering there."  If you’ve been to India you can spot other backpackers who’ve been there a mile away.  Its the only place I know where you can cover yourself head-to-toe in a bright yellow sari and blend right in.  Anyway, I had to admit it was cool to meet another person who wanted to get away from the scene and explore the place on their own.  I said goodbye but was hoping I’d run into her later.
Basically the rest of the day was spent climbing up and down the big temples, avoiding herds of tourists, and dodging the intermittent rain storms.  I did manage to run into the backpacker gal again atop this ancient pre-Mayan pyramid that offered stunning views all around.  Since it was too difficult to climb up for most people, it was a pleasant spot to rest and soak it all in.  From here you could see Templo IV, where I had watched the "sunrise".  Along with it, to the right was Templo’s III, II, and I, all jutting above the canopy like ancient alien ships poised for takeoff.  You could see part of the Acropolis in the main site.
Tikal’s claim to fame recently is that its featured in Star Wars as the rebel base on Yavin 4.  For non-dorks, this was that scene in the first film (i.e. from the 70’s) near the very end where they showed some green planet with Temples that had the "rebel base."  But back in the day, it was famous because it was just the badass in the area.  Tikal was the biggest and most powerful Mayan city-state ever.  The site is enormous, at its peak they estimate between 100,000 to 200,000 peeps lived here.  The kings had cool names like Lord Chocolate, Lizard Head II, Dark Sun, etc.  At their height, the Mayans were well known for their technology like astronomy, canal-building, temples.  Most famously, they were the only civilization in the Americas to ever independently develop writing.  But unlike the Incas or Aztecs no king ever was powerful enough to conquer everyone.  So there was never any big empire, and they remained fragmented.  They (ya know, those people) say that this fragmentation and constant warfare was one of the reasons the Spanish had much more difficulty conquering the Mayan descendants vs the Aztecs or Incans.
Those crazy bloody Mayans (as depicted in Apocalypto)

Course, my favorite part of the Mayans was how blood-thirsty they were.  And down here near the pyramid I was atop you could see the famous ballcourts where the winner had his head removed.  Dunno about you but hey just give me a trophy or something.  "OK fellas, taking off my head is a cool reward and all but you guys are just being way too nice.  Ha.  C’mon stop that you guys.  Hey.  Seriously."  Then to top it off the king took his heart and drank from it.  Dude.  Probably good source of iron though.
Overall, I really liked Tikal.  Its big.  Its impressive.  When you get a bit of sun cracking through the clouds it can beautiful.  I like how lots of it is still covered in jungle.  But it doesn’t compare to Ankor Wat in my book.  The thing I really loved about Ankor was that you could get lost and wander around inside these ancient temples, with giant trees sprouting in and around them.  It was almost spooky.  With Macchu Picchu you have those incredible mountain landscapes all around.  With Tikal, the Mayan temples are smaller and you can’t wander inside of them.  And I pretty much saw all the main stuff in half a day.  So its worth a visit, its cool, but if you’ve seen Ankor don’t go thinking you will be blown away.
Enough of this jungle crap, I’m off to the Caribbean.