I walked down the overgrown path in the Guatemalan jungles, feeling like some crazed adventurer from a movie. The mosquitoes were buzzing in my face despite having drenched myself in bug spray. My hands were doing all they could to keep the deadly insects from landing a bite. The sun beat down and the humidity was oppressive. I passed a sign that read: “Laguna del Cocodrilo,” accompanied by an arrow.
Great, Crocodile Lagoon, I thought. Because who doesn’t love being alone in the jungle when crocodiles are around?
I just wanted to get to the lookout tree. The map said it was just a short walk down this path. Imagine, climbing up top and getting to look out over all the forest canopy, seeing the Great Temples of Tikal in the distance.
I came to a fork in the road.
Oh no, this is nothing like the map.
I had no idea where to go. The path was longer than I had expected, I was in the middle of the jungle, and no one knew where I was. The path was getting smaller too, the sun was setting soon, and the insects were getting more aggressive. Plus, there were crocodiles around.
I did not want to end up like one of the famous adventurers from the movies: Dead.
I freaked and started running back towards the jungle inn. On the run back, memories of what the guides had told me flooded my mind, and it seemed as if anything around me could kill me: If you touch the bark of those trees, you’ll fall asleep and never wake up again; If you touch those caterpillars, they will sting and you will be in the worst pain imaginable; If you get bit by that spider, well, adiós.
Soon enough, the path began to clear up again and I made it back to the visitor’s center of Tikal and the small jungle inn where I would be sleeping for the night.
Everything was quiet: The tourists had already gone back on their buses to the small, local airport an hour’s drive away, the shop vendors had driven out of the jungle and returned to their small, rural towns, and all that was left were the few tourists that had chosen to brave the night in return for a sunrise hike, as well as the staff that made sure these gringos had a comfortable, safe night. They provided the small link to civilization so that we wouldn’t go insane.
Where was I? Earlier this morning I had been in the quaint, colonial town of Antigua. I had been driven to the sprawling capital of Guatemala City and boarded a small propellor plane that rocketed to the other side of the nation and deposited me on the minimally-inhabited island of Flores. One strip mall could be found outside the airport for whatever needs the tourists might have. From there, I boarded a van, and we headed off to the jungle.
The jungle. A place you read about in books, hear countless stories about. “The jungle holds many beauties and wonders, but beware the dangers– everything in it is designed to kill.” What would the jungle actually be like?
Well, the jungle is silent.
The road reached the beginning of the trees, and we were swallowed by the swaths of green. We drove and drove along the road that had only one destination, one one purpose: To ferry researchers and tourists to a hidden wonder of the world. To make the depths of the jungle accessible to people who can’t go outside for more than an hour without needing to retreat back into the AC.
Eventually, the van reached a giant gate, reminiscent of the entrance to Jurassic Park. Well, Tikal was called the Lost World. It fit.
Through the gates we went and officially into the Lost World of Tikal.
We arrived at the hotel and were told to quickly get ready for our tour. The Guatemalan man took us around the park, down wide roads that had been cleared to keep the jungle back so that tourists could walk with ease to each of the ancient sites. The guide explained the history of the Mayan empire, about their reasons for building the giant pyramid temples that we got to climb. Although it is unknown why the Maya mysteriously abandoned the site and vanished, he explained some of his theories as to why. It was interesting, all of this information, and the temples were impressive. Tikal is massive, and every corner you turn there are larger and larger temples reaching up to the sky.
But what was this place? How did it exist in the middle of the jungle? And why was it abandoned?
It was like I was in a dream. This place did not feel real.
So that was how I got there. By car and plane and van. Those were the facts. This was real. I was in this place that somehow existed in the middle of the Guatemalan Jungle, that somehow used to be a bustling city. The tourists kept me grounded, kept me connected to the world. They had traveled here too, they were proof that this was not some strange dream.
But the tourists left in their buses after their morning tours. As the afternoon wore on, Tikal became abandoned once more.
I had lunch in the jungle inn and talked with the other people who had been in my tour group. They too were staying the night. A New Yorker, a Brit, a Frenchman, and me. We discussed politics and the world, but then they all decided to return to their rooms to get out of the heat and rest for a bit.
I was alone.
I stayed in the lobby, sitting in one of the chairs and trying to utilize the hotel’s Wi-Fi that came via a large satellite on the top of the building. This was my last link to the world, to my life and friends that existed outside this never-ending swathe of green. But the WIFI was spotty. I gave up my attempts and also went to my room.
I was alone.
In fact, this was probably the most alone I had ever been. There was nothing here, only a few buildings and a handful of human. I had no one to talk to and no connection to the world.
Unable to handle being in my hotel room, I got up and went to explore the little plaza of shops where Guatemalans from nearby villages came to sell touristy souvenirs. I was the only shopper, and each merchant paid full attention to me, offering special prices on t-shirts, hats, bracelets that each of the other merchants also had.
Tikal was abandoned.
Wanting to explore more, I went on my little jungle trek to find the lookout tree.
Again, I was alone, and now trekking through the jungle. I realized if I died, no one would find me, and no one would know what happened.
Luckily, I made it back safely to the inn and went to sleep. This day had been enough for me, and I had to get up early for the sunrise hike in the morning.
With our tour group, we all rose early and with flashlights, made our way through the serenity of the early morning jungle so that we could ascend the tallest temple of Tikal. From the top steps of the ancient structure, we all sat in silence and watched the forest wake up. We were visited by birds and monkeys and heard the calls of the howlers in the distance. Then, once the sun had risen, we returned to the inn.
I decided to go back into the park again to do a little exploring of my own and climb some different temples. The tourists had once more mostly returned in their buses, and so Tikal was getting quiet once again.
At one point, as I was walking down one of the wide, cleared roads with no one else in sight, I just stopped. I listened. Cicadas droned all around, making a cacophony of noise, but strangely, it all felt so silent.
In fact, the silence was deafening. Yes, my ears were constantly being assaulted by the drone of the insects, but this only contributed to the silence. It drowned out all other noises I could possibly hear, noises of people talking in the distance or animals moving.
I was alone in the silence of the jungle. I was the most alone I had ever been, in maybe one of the loneliest places in the world. Here I stood, among ancient abandoned ruins. They too had fallen victim to the silence.
I could hardly comprehend that this had once been a major city, that hundreds of thousands of people had inhabited it: Workers and merchants and children.
But for some reason, the jungle had driven them out. All 200,000 of them had been scared away. By what, we still don’t know.
All I know is that the jungle had reclaimed its silence. It had grown over the ancient city and tried to hide all signs of civilization.
In this moment, I discovered the Silence of Tikal. I discovered the loneliness of this place hidden deep in the jungle. In this moment, I was the loneliest I had ever been. The jungle was trying to silence me too.
Luckily, the comforts of civilization saved me. That afternoon, a van took me back to the airport, a plane took me back to the sprawling urban masses of Guatemala City, and a car took me back to the quaint colonialism of Antigua.
But I would never forget that feeling that I had been given. That feeling that can only be evoked by a place that was once a bustling city but is now abandoned in the middle of the jungle. I would never forget the Silence of Tikal.
The Temples of Tikal Rising Above the Jungle Canopy
A Road in the Jungles of Tikal
Ruins of Tikal
Road to the Jungle Inn
Temple I Tikal
Temples of Tikal in the Morning Mist