Most everyone knows about the Mayan temples at Chichén Itzá, Mexico, which aren’t far from the tourist playgrounds of Cancun. But the Mayans left an even more impressive complex at Tikal in Guatemala, which is lesser known only because it is more remote and less touristed. Ethan Todras-Whitehill, however, went to Tikal recently and reported on his experience for the NY Times.
Now, in the dim light of early morning, a green sea of leaves stretches out before us, fog banks float about like dinghies, and only the resident leviathans, Temples I and III, dare to lift their stony heads above the horizon. Slowly, the city below the canopy begins to take shape, the hidden concert hall of moss-covered stone that has echoed this same jungle symphony every morning for more than a thousand years.
The very word “ruin” suggests a fallen city or temple, a one-time New York or Jerusalem whose inhabitants died out, taking the life of the place with them. But Tikal, surrounded by ever-creeping vegetation and screeching wildlife, and since 1996 once again used for rituals by the Mayan people, feels organic and strangely vivid. It is as if when the inhabitants of the city left, the jungle moved in, keeping it alive until the Mayans could return. Tikal has the feel of a living ruin, closer to its original vitality than perhaps any other deserted city of the past.
Among Mayan sites, Tikal has long been second banana to Chichén Itzá in Mexico…But that popularity seems based on factors other than the ruins themselves. The great advantage of Chichén Itzá is accessibility, in particular, its proximity to the resort towns of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is less lively than Tikal and smaller — its centerpiece a step pyramid that is half the height of some Tikal structures…But for my park entry fee, no ruins can match Tikal’s. Some ancient sites — the Pyramids, the Colosseum — feel monumental. Others — Ephesus, Petra — feel like cities. Stand in the center of Tikal’s Great Plaza, and you will have a feeling of both.