Tikal National Park/Maya Biosphere Reserve

Tikal National Park/Maya Biosphere Reserve, focus centuries ago of a magnificent now-disappeared Mayan civilization, today is 222-square-mile (576-km2) rain forest domain of jaguars, ocelots, spider and howler monkeys, and screaming parrots.

Orange-breasted falcons and lesser swallow-tailed swifts nest in temple and palace ruins where pumas and spotted margays may emerge to hunt when visitors depart.

Mexican anteaters are among 54 mammal species, as are nine-banded armadillos which sense insect caches deep underground and dig them out with manic speed, holding their breath up to six minutes to avoid inhaling flying earth. They consume 40,000 ants at a sitting, curling up afterward in armor-plated balls which few predators can penetrate.

Noisy bright kingfishers fish at lagoons, as do unobtrusive bitterns and graceful herons and egrets, among more than 350 bird species here. Colorful keel-billed toucans and mealy or whitecrowned parrots harvest canopy fruits.

Butterflies gather at flowering trees and shrubs along with white-bellied emerald and little hermit hummingbirds and their glittering look-alikes, rufous-tailed jacamars, which are there to feed on butterflies. (Despite appearances, jacamars are related to woodpeckers, not hummingbirds.) Just as colorful but quietly inconspicuous in high tree branches are violaceous, slaty-tailed, and collared trogons, spotted only when they fly out for insects. Aptly-named laughing falcons and sometimes crested eagles keep an eye on them all.

Giant mahogany, cedar, and zapote trees (source of chicle for chewing gum) overshadow remains of more than 3,000 temples, ancient palaces, and ceremonial structures dating from 600 BC to 900 AD, scattered through the forest, many still buried under mounded earth of centuries.

Tikal is Guatemala’s oldest national park which, with adjoining CALAKMUL BIOSPHERE RESERVE in Mexico and contiguous conservation areas in Belize, protects an enormous area of Central American mountains, wetlands, and jungle rain forests.