Arguably, Tikal is the premiere Mayan site of Mesoamerica, due to the sheer numbers of monumental buildings. It, frankly, trumps every other site, including Copan, which we visited in 2012 and reported on for RoadWorks. A lengthy history from at least 500 BCE to 1200 CE is largely responsible for Tikal’s staying power. (It might have lasted longer if they had adopted a one-child policy.)
The approach to the national park is fairly long, dotted with pictograph warning signs along the route: Jaguar, serpents, Pixote (aka Coatamundi), turkeys. Seriously. And at the entrance, an Ocellated turkey did make an appearance.
Further on the entrance road, traveled by foot, the cohunes tree (also known as horse balls tree for obvious reasons) was populated by Spider Monkeys having a snack. Keep your hats on! These cheeky devils are known for throwing dead limbs and fruit at passersby.
The actual temples and palaces are breathtaking, rising out of the jungle unexpectedly. About 200 steps take tourists to the upper reaches of Temple Four. Equally interesting is the varied bird life: Copper-colored woodpeckers; Crested Guan; Slatey Teal Trogon.
Would that the books available about Tikal were so interesting. Michael Coe, an anthropologist at Yale, has published without doubt the most about the Maya, including the very readable The Maya (8th edition) and Breaking the Maya Code, the detective story of how the glyphs were finally figured out. Popol Vuh, a series of Mayan stories, is the original literature of Guatemala and one of the most significant works in all of the Americas.
For fiction, there really is only Daniel Peters’ lengthy 1983 novel, Tikal. The author of Incas and The Luck of Huemac explores the last days of the Maya when it becomes exceedingly clear that they can no longer live in Tikal, where people have denuded the jungle through overpopulations. It is the only game in town, really, in terms of fiction that has been through an editorial process, and by that I mean, other works that are self-published. The upside is that this historical fiction should take travelers through the complete trip due to its 422 pages. Unfortunately, it has to be lugged, as there does not appear to be an e-book version.
Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1984) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967, and his Men of Maize (1949) functions as the best read for those on the Mayan trail. This epic focuses on the European takeover and conquest but contains elements of magical realism in which characters assume folk legend status when killed or taken on the form of their animal guardian spirit. It is not a light read. It has a bimodal distribution on GoodReads: readers either love it for its poetic, dreamlike quality or are confounded as they cannot figure out what is going on. For those interested in more contemporary politics, Asturias’ The President (El Señor Presidente), written in 1946, is said to be a better read in its original language.
Short story writer Augusto Monterosso (1921-2003) does have work in e-book format, The Black Sheep and Other Fables; his work has been compared to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain for its humor and satire. The fables can be dramatically short, just a few lines, paragraphs, or pages. Some reviewers find them exquisite, remarkable in their economy. Although it doesn’t focus on the local landscape, it can be a fun, if brief, read for travelers.