Sunlight trickled through the “Jurassic Park”-esque trees intertwining above and on either side of us. Below us the vegetation tangled, roots crisscrossing and undulating through and on the confined hiking trail. With bowed head, I heeded where I stepped and half-prayed that I would not splay out across the forest floor, a victim of the innumerable roots. At midday, the flora reigned as the most treacherous organisms in Tikal National Park. Then, a sound between a howl and an elongated hoot echoed through the forest.
“What’s that?” my mother asked our local guide, Milton.
“A jaguar,” he responded nonchalantly.
He chuckled. “No. It’s howler monkeys. They are calling to each other. Or they call for the rain.”
With the powder blue sky and beaming sun above the forest canopy, it hardly seemed a likely day for rain– despite Tikal’s average 1 meter of rainfall. Perhaps the monkeys were wrong today. At least their howls gave us hope that, if not rain, we would see a few of Guatemala’s fauna sooner or later during our three-hour trek through the park.
Covering 222-square miles in northern Guatemala, Tikal National Park is a UNESCO Mixed Cultural and Natural World Heritage Site, home to one of the largest archeological pre-Colombian Mayan sites and incredible biodiversity. Through the late-1950s and 1960s, University of Pennsylvania archeologists excavated only a fraction of the large site and uncovered archaeological treasures—skyscraper-challenging pyramids, colorful ceramics, jade jewelry, and huge stone stelae, carved stone markers covered in figures and Mayan hieroglyphs—displaying the surprisingly well-developed architectural and artistic talents of the Mayan civilization who flourished in the area between 6th century B.C. to 10th century A.D. While the towering, dark-grey stone monuments (reaching up to 230 feet tall) inspire awe, the surrounding lush jungle, a green sea surrounding the isles of stone, equally amazes; over 2,000 different plant species, and a wide variety of animals, including the jaguar, the three-toed sloth, the giant anteater, and 333 different species of birds, inhabit the semi-deciduous forest.
Despite the overwhelming setting with the vegetation endlessly surrounding us and the heat and humidity becoming more oppressive as the day went on, we were more engrossed in watching our steps along the trail than of the nature enveloping us. Suddenly, we entered a clearing, a miniature desert relative to the encircling forests—a reverse oasis. Occasional trees grew out of the blazing sand-colored soil, brightly lit by the uninhibited sun, too abruptly non-green after making our way through the green-walled tunnel-trail.