The climb seems almost vertical, the stone steps so high that I almost crawl. It is like walking in the footsteps of giants or gods - a stairway to heaven. At the top I stop and look around. The jungle curls in all around me. Parrots and toucans are flashes of bright colour in the canopy below and the haunting call of howler monkeys echoes through the trees. From my eyrie at the top of the Temple of Masks I can look down at the ruins of the great plaza and across to the Pyramid temple of the Jaguar opposite.
Tikal, hidden deep in the Guatemalan jungles, is to Guatemala what Chichen Itza is to Mexico, Machu Picchu to Peru or Angkor Wat
to Cambodia -- the archaeological site you can't miss if you go to the country. Yet its name hasn't yet entered the popular imagination in the same way as other ancient sites and because it is relatively untouched by tourism it is still a place of myth and magic and ancient memories. 2010 is the year to go before the crowds get there.
This huge, ruined city built by the pre-Columbian Maya covers more than 9.5 square kilometres (25 square kilometres) and includes vast temples a millennium old, with six steep-sided pyramids that break through the jungle canopy up to 64 metres high. Tikal's magic, though, lies not just in it monuments, but in its untamed setting, the jungle that covered it for a 1000 years until it was re-discovered in 1850 still threatens to encroach at any minute. And the ghosts of its past seem to shimmer in the ruins. In the Great Plaza - flanked by its two huge pyramids - you can almost hear the echo of the ritual prayer and see the glint of the knife as the priest kings performed ceremonies in their extravagant feathered headdresses, with their sculpted regal faces and their magical, mysterious names: King Moon Double Comb, Jaguar Paw the First, Bird Claw and Shield Skull.
The history of the Mayans captures the imagination because it is full of tales of blood-letting ceremonies, human sacrifice and fierce battles. But they were also an incredibly sophisticated people: their calendar was complex, their writing unique, their religion all-consuming, their art and their architecture awe-inspiring. We had come to Tikal from the village of Bethel on the Usumacmta River where we crossed from Mexico to Guatemala. Upstream by wooden boat, we felt like real explorers as we arrived at Yaxchilan and Bonampak, two sites rarely visited and set in dense jungle with only the howler monkeys to greet us.
The best way to see present day Indian villages is to take boat trip around Lake Atitlan, south of Chichicastenango, is probably the best way. As we set out from Panajachel the early-morning lake is as clear as a senorita's looking glass, only the wake of our little blue boat cracking the calm. Reflected in the mirror of the lake are three impressive volcanoes and dotted around its banks Mayan villages - San Pedro, Santiago, San Antonio, Santa Catarina.
A Guatemalan bus rattles past us, its sides a RIOT OF COLOUR and design - art on wheels
Some are more used to tourists than others. As we jump off the boat at Santiago, two old ladies with rippled faces are already unwrapping their traditional ribboned head gear for our entertainment and young boys are pleading for pens - "What is your name, where do you come from?". It is more than an idle enquiry: their enterprise is so impressive that by the time we arrive back at the boat, the same boys are trying to sell our pens back to us with our names neatly embroidered around the stems. We wander around the cobbled streets past the brightly coloured houses. We settle down in a cafe to people watch. A Guatemalan bus rattles past us its sides a riot of colour and design - art on wheels; an old US school bus given a new lease of life and then packed with people, pigs and produce.
But the best people watching of all is to be found in Chichicastenango, north of the lake in the highlands of Guatemala. On Sunday morning the square of the little town is packed with stalls selling everything from brightly coloured textiles to trussed-up turkeys. The huge market has become famous as hundreds of people from the surrounding Mayan villages descend in force. There are some fabulously bright hand (and machine) woven textiles to buy. Weaving is a Mayan tradition. Look for bedspreads, table clothes and beautifully embroidered "huipuile" (blouses). Serious but good-tempered bargaining is expected. Although the locals aren't always a sanguine themselves as I discovered when a tiny woman her back bent with bundles, punched me squarely in the back to propel me through a crowd I had thought impossible to part so she could go about the business of selling her wares.
Before the market; there is Mass. The faithful enter through the-side door of the white-walled Santo Tomas church to take the sacrament and pray. But if you look carefully there is more going on. On the front steps of the church an old man in a bright blanket, his face like a Mayan carving, swings incense and chants until the flower-sellers spilling down the steps below are lost in a fragrant haze. Inside the church, strange rituals involving corn offerings, candles and bottles of spirits take place on the floor. Worship here, it is clear, is more Quiche Indian than Catholic.
It is the same all over the highlands because, despite years of oppression and aggression from the Spanish conquistadors to the present day the age-old culture of the Maya Indians remains strong I watch as one old woman bends to light a candle; In its glow her face is regal as if it were carved from stone in an ancient Mayan temple - yet another reminder that these villagers can trace their heritage, and their heart, back to the kings of old.
Luxury choices are slim. We include this destination for the luxury of exploration. In Guatemala City we suggest The Westin Camino Real near Tikal. In La Antigua Posada del Angel. Is a charming guest house but not the height of luxury. Near Tikal, La Lancha on the shores of Lake Peten is Hollywood film director Francis Ford Coppola's eco-lodge . A charming thatched bure choice but not conventionally five star. One of a trio of Coppola nature-based hotels in Central America which also includes Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn in Belize. (Coppola productions also include the Z hotels Jardin Escondido in Buenos Aires and the private7-bedroom house, 714 Gov. Nicholls Street in New Orleans.)
Words & photos: Hilary Doling 15/3/10