Sometimes the best of trips begin poorly. At 7:20 on our first morning in Belize we were still waiting for the 7:00 meeting with a tour guide for our trip to Tikal, who was to pick us up at the hotel. We had made reservations through Discovery Expeditions for a two day three night Tikal package, which included our flights to and from Flores, three nights in the park itself, plus other odds and ends. The only reason to purchase a package rather than do it all yourself is to remove the stress of making your own reservations and keeping track of the details that can distract you from enjoying the trip. Discovery Belize did none of these things. Our driver arrived at 7:40, very worried about Elayne and I missing our flight. After a race to the airport that got us at the ticket counter just in time we realized that our "guide" was just there to taxi us to the airport and was about to abandon us with no papers, receipts or any proof of our tour package. The only proof we had was email from someone at Discovery, which I had printed out prior to the trip. The person at the Tropical Island Air counter asked to see our vouchers. We had no vouchers (a word we'd grow to despise) because Discovery Expeditions sent us none, but I waved my hard copy of the email about and failing to reach Discovery Expeditions by phone, they whisked us aboard the flight to Flores and we were on our way! The request for the non existent vouchers would haunt us for the rest of our Tikal trip, but by waving the printed email about we were able to proceed with few delays (I began to feel like Bilbo Baggins and his letter from the Dwarves promising 1/14 th share of the profits).

The airplane was a small two engine craft that skimmed just above the low thin cloud cover, offering glimpses of the marsh and jungle below. The farther west we flew the more the marsh gave way to jungle. In Flores we quickly passed through immigration and found our driver for the 50 km trip to Tikal itself. The road was paved and in very good condition and we followed it around the large lake and then up into the hills. We passed through a number of small villages and I was amazed at how clean and well kept every house and yard was. School children dressed in spotless uniforms walked or rode bicycles to class. The houses themselves were adobe brick with thatch or metal roofs (the later equipped with gutters that fed a cistern for fresh water). Many houses had adjoining thatch covered pavilions that served as open air kitchens.

Tikal National Park is an enormous complex with a couple of small hotels, a campground, an information center and museum, and restaurants serving tourists. We settled into our hotel (the "Jungle Lodge"), put on hiking boots and plunged into the jungle.

The first thing we realized about Tikal is how vast the place was. This city (actually a ceremonial center more so than a city proper) and surrounding area once boasted population of nearly 80,000 Mayans, and it stretched out in all directions atop a wide limestone plateau. The next thing we realized was that most of Tikal was now overgrown with jungle. Without a map we would have soon been lost, for the line of sight in most of Tikal is a hundred meters or less on the jungle floor. I had envisioned a well excavated site with grassy lawns between the structures and the forest encircling the complex, but very little of Tikal is open, and the view from the top of the tallest temples is still obscured by the forest canopy. It is both beautiful and wild in the extreme. We slowly advanced along a pathway into our first group of ruins, finding and identifying dozens of birds -- many of them first time species for both Elayne and I -- when Elayne spotted a large weasel shaped animal with a rust colored body and tawny head moving through the underbrush. At first we thought it was a coatimundi, of which there were many scuttling about the paths and trails, looking for handouts or hunting on their own, but Elayne quickly realized that it was something a little more exotic.

The animal, a tayra, crossed the path a few meters in front of us and then plunged into the dark jungle on the other side. A tayra is a mustelid, like our beloved ferrets, and we were delighted to see yet another member of that family in the wild. Elayne made a sketch of the tayra to include in an article she would later write about our encounter for the Oregon Ferret Association newsletter.

After an hour more of hiking about the ruins and being overwhelmed by the number of exotic birds we saw, Elayne and I returned back to the hotel for lunch. A small word of advice for those planning a trip to Tikal: stay at the Jaguar Inn and eat at the nearby restaurant. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, which was pleasant enough, but the staff was not friendly and the food at the restaurant brought a new meaning to the word bland (it was over cooked European style dishes). Thumbing through the guest book we discovered that over half of the comments were complaints about the service and food. Live and learn. The splendor of Tikal was more than enough to make up for the poor lodgings and fare.

We spent the rest of the day hiking around the northeastern perimeter of Tikal, bird watching. The sights and sounds of the jungle filled our senses and we walked about as if in a dream. We re-entered the complex at Temple IV and walked into the middle of a parrot battle royale. A group of red lored parrots had claimed a pear tree for their own and were actively chasing of a troupe of blue front parrots that had dropped in for a bite or two. The noise was phenomenal, and the sight of parrots chasing after other parrots around and in the canopy was amusing.

As the day drew to a close we climbed atop a temple in the Mundo Perdido complex and waited for the sunset. The lighting was fantastic as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, bathing the forest and temples in a warm glow. We climbed down from the temple with our fellow sun worshippers and walked the mile back to our hotel in the twilight beneath the jungle canopy. The paths themselves are of limestone, and they appeared to glow with a pale opalescence, guiding us out of the forest. Large spiders ran back and forth across the path as we walked, and above just glimpsed between the branches of the trees the stars began to come out. We were in paradise.

Early the next morning, around 3 AM, the tranquil quiet of the jungle was shattered by a group of howler monkeys calling in the trees just outside our cabin! The vocalizations of the howler monkey are haunting, almost as if the all of the Mayans that had ever lived were calling out in agony from the grave. The cries lasted for nearly an hour, but as disquieting as they were, the calls also had a calming affect on us -- the monkeys were a part of the forest and we were their guests.

With the arrival of daylight we met our guide, Caesar, for a tour around the ruins of Tikal. Caesar was a font of information about the Mayans in general and Tikal in particular, and he was a joy to have around. Caesar provided the history of area (both natural and cultural) as we walked about the ruins with him and he proved quite adept at identifying birds by their calls, thus allowing us to quickly find them in our binoculars before they would flit away.

The hours passed quickly as we tromped around for mile after mile of ruins, jungle, wildlife and good companionship. At lunch Caesar took us to the local museum where we spent a full hour gazing at artifacts removed from the temples, tombs, palaces and houses of Tikal. After lunch Elayne and I plunged back into the jungle, checking out places we had not yet seen and revisiting our favorite spots.

The entire plateau upon which Tikal was built was clear cut back in the days of the Mayan, only to be completely covered in jungle when their civilization collapsed. At the turn of the century the entire plateau was once again raised as part of the archeological expedition that mapped and excavated parts of the ancient city. Now the bulk of Tikal lies beneath the trees, as their twisted roots splinter the building blocks of temple and tomb alike and turn a once grand city into topsoil and dust. Only 20% of Tikal has actually been excavated, and the rest still lies beneath tall mounds of debris covered by trees and undergrowth.

Like the one before, this day passed all too quickly and we found ourselves at the Great Plaza for the sunset. This complex has been heavily excavated and partially reconstructed, so here at last I found the plazas of grass leading up to the feet of the temples and administrative structures. A few rare plaster friezes were protected from the elements that had destroyed most of Tikal, and ropes protected other fragile facades from the destructive hand of man. The sky deepened from a pale blue to a deep turquoise, paused for a moment or two in bands of orange, pink and indigo, and then settled to black. The waxing gibbous moon rose above the Temple of of the Jaguar and cast a yellow tint over the complex as we made our way back to our room and bed. The next morning we found ourselves heading back to Flores and wishing we had another day left to explore the wonders of Tikal. For a moment it looked like we might get our wish when we found that we had not been correctly booked by Discovery Belize for our flight to Belize City. The good folks at Tropical Island Air sent an airplane for us all the way to Belize City, so we made it back in time to make the next leg of our trip.

Head out to Glover's Reef.