3.45am. I am up, showered and dressed. I’ve done the ‘double-triple check’ to make sure I have everything – camera, lenses, fully charged battery and ample memory cards in one bag. Snacks, water, hats, raincoats, sunscreen and insect repellent in another. There is only one more thing I need and he has been slumbering peacefully throughout my preparations.
Our pick-up is due in 15 minutes so I gently start to wake him. I sit him up in bed, put a banana in his hand and help him to dress. My son has the starting ability of a formula 1 racecar. Within 10 seconds, the banana is in his mouth and the words are tumbling out. He won’t stop talking (or eating) until the evening when he finally succumbs to sleep again.
We wait outside our hotel in the gloom of the pre-dawn. I have optimistically dressed us for a cool morning but even now, long after the sun’s last rays slipped into the lake in front of us, the jungle still retains it’s warmth. The wrong van arrives, shortly followed by the right one and we are whisked an hour away along bumpy and winding roads to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.
We (and a ‘United Colours of Benetton’ assortment of backpackers) are here to scale the 65 metre high ‘Temple IV’ in the dark for the iconic experience of sitting atop it’s east façade and watching the sun light up the jungle below.
Temple IV is located 2km away deep in the jungle. Our guide, anxious for us not to miss anything, frog-marches us straight there so that we actually miss everything (leaf-cutter ants, reptiles, glimpses of nocturnal birds and mammals) we pass on the way. After 40 minutes of stumbling blindly in the dark, tripping over tree roots and skidding on loose rocks (all whilst dragging 20kg-plus-backpack of not-wanting-to-rush five year old) we reach the rickety wooden stairway attached to the side of the ancient structure. We are given strict instructions to maintain absolute silence, then stagger, breathless, to the top.
A refreshing lack of health-and-safety madness enables us to perch on the precipitous terraces, mere centimeters from a fall that would almost certainly result in death. We find a spot, get comfortable and wait.
And wait. And wait.
Like many of the places on this journey, I have been here before. Seven years ago Claus and I sat here. We watched the sun rise to wake the jungle from it’s slumber. We saw the tops of temples I and II, their heads above the canopy, slowly appear as the she burned off the mist surrounding them. It was magical.
Today, I squint in front of me and see nothing but….. well, just nothing. A thick fog blankets the entire scene, reducing visibility to just a few metres. It grows perceptibly lighter and soon becomes obvious (to me, at least) that even though the sun has risen it is going to be a loooong time before we will see anything in front of us. Our intolerant guide’s dictum of silence is becoming increasingly harder to maintain for a fidgety and hungry five year old, and so, reluctantly, we pull the plug on sunrise. We sneak quietly in front of the hundreds waiting patiently for the non-event and head back down the wooden stairs.
Best. Decision. Ever.
With all the sensible people still in bed and everyone else sitting on top of Temple IV, Tikal is deserted. We have the entire place to ourselves. The fog has cleared at ground level, but the tops of the tallest trees and temples are still shrouded in mist. It is spooky, eerie, and intensely beautiful.
We wander along jungle paths and emerge into plazas bordered by towering limestone pyramids.
The silence is broken only by the watery burbling of Montezuma Oropendula birds, screeching pairs of parrots and the terrible roar of the (poorly named) Howler Monkeys.
David Attenborough Jnr. is pleased to observe at least a dozen species of birds. He spots various reptiles, Spider monkeys, and an entire clan of Coatis on the hunt for breakfast.
We wander among the ruins (some still almost wholly claimed by the jungle) ‘Indian Jones’ style, scrambling to the top of structures, and trying to imagine life as it was centuries ago.
It’s all going wonderfully until I have a major attack of déjà vu and realise I am standing in the exact spot where Claus took of photo of me all those years ago. I ask a guard to take a picture of Thomas and I in the same place. Comparing them side by side is… uncanny. If anyone had told me back then that I would be visiting in the same location seven years later with my fatherless child, I’d have slapped them for insolence and had them committed.
(Why yes, I am wearing the same fleece. The zip broke years ago but I replaced it – make do and mend! And I appear to be holding a spare camera lens in both pictures. I really need to invest in a bag that holds everything…..)
Calling “adios” to the wildlife, the jungle and the ruins, we trek out of the park just as thousands of day-trippers are trekking in.
I can’t imagine I will ever be back in Tikal, but who knows. Life throws me curve balls, not crystals balls! Better make that a ‘hasta luego’ and not an ‘adios’.