We’ve all seen the classic photographs of Mayan sites – huge stone pyramids and temples poking out of lush green jungle, with yellow sun and blue sky above. Tourists have brought these ancient cities back to life, and streets that were once walked by Maya warriors and tradesman now bustle every day with tour guides, families, and hawkers selling souvenirs. But only until sunset.
The majority of Mayan sites only open during daylight hours and security staff patrol the grounds clearing out stragglers before nightfall. And then what? Do these sites become still and quiet? Not in my experience. In fact, Maya sites after dark are one of the most thrilling places you can go.
I spent an unforgettable night sleeping in a jungle hammock at the sprawling Tikal site in northern Guatemala – and for the first time I experienced the secret life of Mayan ruins after all the tourists have gone home. The murmur of voices is replaced with the squeaks and clicks of insects, the grumble of monkeys, the chatter of parrots and toucans, the rustle and creak of trees. And the paths and stairways and temples are busy as ever, trodden by the same feet that have walked there for centuries – and at Tikal, I was lucky enough to share a sunset with some of the site’s oldest residents.
My friend and I got talking to one of the security staff as the blue sky started turning pink and after a quick call to his boss, he allowed us to climb the tallest temple and watch the sun set over the jungle. We were sitting in silence, watching beautiful light colour the ruins and the jungle – when suddenly the tree canopy to our left started to tremble. Leaves fell off, branches creaked, the trunk started swaying from side to side. Then suddenly a family of monkeys appeared beside us! Seems they were also attracted to that spectacular sunset view over the jungle, unchanged for centuries.
I must admit I got very little sleep that night. Not because I was frightened – but because it was so incredibly noisy! Lying in my hammock, all I could hear were the animals of the jungle – which includes jaguars, anteaters and tapirs – gossiping and hunting in the ancient temples they call home.
I also spent an amazing night in the ancient city of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula of south east Mexico. I volunteered as a field assistant with a group of ecology students from a local university, monitoring the bat populations at several sites. And bat work meant night work.
The students had applied for permission to work overnight in the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, a World Heritage Site considered to be one of the most important Mayan remains in the area. We arrived before it got dark and located several groups of sleeping bats tucked inside the palace chambers – the very same rooms previously used by key members of this important Mayan community and where thousands of tourists now walk every day, unaware of the sleeping bats above their heads.
My job at the palace was to stand on the exterior steps, holding a curious machine called a bat detector toward a row of doorways at the top of the stairway. I stood still, gazing skywards, not sure what to expect. Flocks of birds were swooping in the pale evening sky above the ruins but they disappeared as darkness crept in, and for a few moments everything was perfectly still and quiet.
Then the bats woke up.
All at once, hundreds of them surged out of the palace doorways, a fluttering cloud of furry faces and wide-stretched wings. And I was in the middle of it, arm stretched out, recording their calls as they spread out into the night sky. I couldn’t see much, but I could feel cold air on my skin as they flew within millimetres of my face, using their sophisticated in-built radar to avoid a head-on crash.
Two exhilarating minutes later it was over, but we stayed at the palace all night to record bat data – and trying to bat away various winged insects attracted to the beam of our headlamps! We started packing up our equipment once the bats had all returned home to the palace and gazed in wonder when the sun rose over the nearby Pyramid of the Magician – a view unchanged by time or by tourists, and one that I’ll treasure forever.
So next time you visit a Mayan site – or a castle or palace or a museum – take a moment to think about what happens after closing time. And ask yourself, who or what appears when tourists leave?