Tikal National Park, Guatemala - Flashlight beams play across stone structures as we stumble over tree roots and each other in the pre-dawn hours. After what seems like a never-ending vertical stair climb, a weary crowd gathers on top of the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent for our promised magical moment.
We've come to the top of this Mayan building to watch the big red orb rise over the magnificent panorama of surrounding ruins and forest canopy. Then, just as the darkness of the night subsides, the skies open up and snuff out any glow with raindrops.
"The gods must be upset," one guide says as he looks to the heavens.
Tucked away in a 574-square-kilometre national park, Tikal is without question one of the world's premier archaeological reserves. The site is dominated by five enormous temples, steep-sided limestone pyramids rising powerfully from the forest floor.
One of the oldest Mayan centres, Tikal was established around 200 BC. It became an important commercial and religious centre, but after thriving for more than 1,000 years, it mysteriously disappeared.
In fact, there's a lot that scholars are unsure about when it comes to this ancient city. Who built it? Where did they come from? What led to its collapse and abandonment?
Perhaps the most impressive building in the park is the 45-metre-high Temple of the Great Jaguar (Temple I). As I enter the Grand Plaza, I'm astounded by the size and magnificence of the temple complex. At one end is the Temple of the Masks, named for the carvings of faces that flank the stairway. From here I'm rewarded with a great view of the Jaguar Temple, its nine sloping terraces pointing west toward the setting sun.
Lying south of Temple I is a small ball court built during the Late Classic period. By all accounts, the ball games were fiercely competitive. The athletes had a strong motivation to win: losers were often sacrificed to the gods.
Tikal is more than an archaeological site. It's also the first and one of the largest nature preserves in Central America. A day hike around Tikal is a day of wildlife discovery. Today, the spider monkeys are putting on a show.
Leaping from branch to branch, these guys can balance on tree limbs no thicker than a pencil. The other primates occupying the canopy are howler monkeys. The howler's distinctive roar, especially when echoing in the dark of night, can be quite unnerving to newcomers.
Brazen coatimundis, cute little raccoon-like mammals with a ferocious appetite, lurk everywhere. Birds fill the sky. We spot white-fronted parrots and keel-billed toucans exchanging perches above us as we explore the lost city.
When my wonderful day of temple- hopping and jungle-exploring comes to an end, I make my way back to the Grand Plaza along empty trails, accompanied only by scattering monkeys overhead. I'm hoping the Mayan gods will bless me with a great sunset.
But, alas, it's not to be. Any hope of seeing the sun disappear into the vastness of the national park is lost to the clouds. However, even the absence of blue sky can't dampen my spirits after my day of sensory pleasures.