I knew the days when travelers were allowed to sleep under the stars atop the temples of Tikal were long gone, but I was still surprised at the punctuality of the 6 a.m. opening, here in the middle of the wilderness, where rules were usually more flexible. I decided to play it suave.
"Is it like this every day?" I asked one of the guards, shaking my head in sympathy and gesturing to the sniveling crowd, as if I, too, had to deal with such insolence every day.
"Todos los dias," he said, starting to smile.
"Can you just give my friend and me a little pasadita?" I said. I flashed a press card. "Soy periodista. We need some pictures for a magazine article." It was mostly true.
"No, man," he answered. The smile disappeared and the body and gun straightened. I kicked myself for being just another whining gringo. It was almost six, and the stars fading in approaching daylight.
Sprint to the Lost World
Finally, he raised the gate and stood aside, allowing a Kentucky Derby of travelers to take off into the forest. Daniela and I were in awesome shape after a summer hiking rugged trails for a living, and we quickly pulled ahead of the pack, speed-walking through the trees as birds and monkeys awoke. A few sprinters shot ahead of us but our steady gait caught up with them as we pulled into a labyrinth of structures. We angled our way toward the Mundo Perdido (lost world) Temple, where, we'd been told by a crusty expat in El Remate, there would be no other tourists.
"Everybody goes to Temple IV," he'd told us through a beer-foamy mustache at the hotel bar. "But you'll have the Mundo Perdido all to yourselves."
Camera bags bounced against our thighs, the sky grew lighter still, clouds hung on the tree trunks and obscured the tops of the tallest pyramids. As we ran-walked toward the Lost World complex, darting over giant snaking ceiba roots, we realized that the others were following us. Damn.
Luckily, during our wandering the previous afternoon, we'd discovered a few dead ends and, without speaking, decided to lead everyone into one of them. A wall loomed ahead of us, and thick jungle on either side. An exasperated American shouted, "This isn't the trail to Temple IV!"
"You're right," I said. "Shit! Turn around!"
The guy and his friends turned back and ran into another group of lost souls. "Turn around!" he told them, knowingly, and they were gone.
Daniela and I hopped a short wall and continued to our goal. The sun had still not come up. But there wasn't much time. We ascended the steep, tall steps carefully; their pitted, age-old surface slick with moss and moisture.
The Mundo Perdido was not as tall as the other temples, but it was high enough to place us above the trees, which was the key thing. The Petén stretched around us but most of the trees were shrouded in a cotton blanket of clouds. The tops of Temples I, II, III, and IV poked through. On the steps of Temple IV, we saw tourists amassing, brightly dressed ants sitting in rows, and I could barely hear their chatter, the faintest jabbering human sounds skimming across the treetops of a site whose name in Itza Mayan means "the place of voices."
The eastern sky was pastel salmon and I was still out of breath, sweat cooling on my face, the slightest of breezes in the air. I milked this moment, for its purity and stillness, especially since I knew I would soon be racing to record it, to capture the color which was darker pink now, and orange.
We squatted and removed our cameras, faced the light, and fiddled with buttons, lenses, and filters. This was in the days of film. My friend set up her tripod and, still not having spoken since arriving on top, we began to shoot.
Any moment now, the sun would break above the mist, lighting up the temple tops and trees. Any moment.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher. This story is adapted from his book for Moon Travel Guides, MAYA 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras (see a review in the current issue in our book reviews). His website is http://joshuaberman.net
All photos by Joshua Berman. See a full gallery of them here.
Ballad of a Traveling Buddha by Joshua Berman
A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala by Michael Shapiro
The Burning of the Devil in Guatemala by Luke Maguire Armstrong
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives
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