Visiting Tikal, a Mayan treasure in the Guatemala jungle

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When the wonders of the ancient world are listed, one of the top spots always goes to the Pyramids of Giza. But not everyone knows that around the time they were being built, another culture a world away was building a sophisticated culture that created cities and monuments just as impressive. They were the Mayans, and one of their most iconic achievements was Tikal.

Most travellers are familiar with Chichen Itza and Tulum, the famous Mayan ruins near Cancun and Playa del Carmen in Mexico. But fewer make the trip south to the Guatemalan town of Flores to discover Tikal. They’ve probably seen it, though — in the movies, with its majestic temples looming up out of the Central America jungle and natives milling about its famous central plaza.

Tikal view

Those who do succeed in visiting Tikal lay their eyes on a great city that at one time sprawled over 16 square kilometres (6.2 square miles), with about 3,000 structures and anywhere between 10,000 and 90,000 people (estimates vary — I’ve even heard 200,000).

Tikal was occupied as early as 900 B.C., became an important ceremonial centre between 300 B.C. and 100 A.D., and had its heyday after 600 A.D., in the Late Classic Period of Mayan history. At its peak it was a powerful political centre, commanding a significant part of what is now Guatemala.

Then, the decline and fall. Within 200 years, Tikal lost its prominence, and then its population. By the year 1000, the city was abandoned, forgotten until a gum gatherer discovered it while trekking through the jungle in the 1800s.

Tikal’s earliest visitors had to hack their way through the jungle to get there, but today you can take a minibus ride from Flores ($25, about 45 minutes), or even get a ride straight to the ruins from Belize City. There’s also an airstrip you can fly into if you have deep pockets.

The ruins are part of a large national park, established to protect them and their natural surroundings, which teem with birds and animals. And after paying the entrance fee, there’s a 10-minute ride to the park centre, where a large model illustrates the layout of the city centre. Built on swampy ground, it was organized into a series of elevated plazas or acropoli, connected by causeways.

Tikal park entrance

The walk down the forest pathways leads you past an amazing series of plazas, many featuring a pair of temples facing each other on the east-west axis: the sun would rise over one and set over the other.  The first one we encountered had a well-excavated temple fronted by several stelae, upright stone tablets commemorating a ruler or historic event. It was an easy climb.

Tikal temple with  stelae

Tikal steps

The opposite temple was left unexcavated, and gave a good look at what a Mayan temple really looks like when it’s discovered in the jungle — a hill.

Tikal hill

One plaza featured a side chamber with a stela and an altar, on which was carved the figure of a Mayan aristocrat, with his hands bound behind him. It was Mayan practice to capture enemy rulers in war and sacrifice them, since they believed the gods demanded royal blood to let the universe go on as it should.

Tikal altar detail

And one by one the major temples appeared, seemingly growing out of the jungle as if they’d been planted there. Seeing them through the foliage was a dramatic sight: check the photo at the top of this post.

Of course, the temples that meet the eye today bear little resemblance to the temples as they stood in their original form. This illustration shows Temple III in its original splendour, with smooth surfaces and bright paint to make it stand out for miles around.

Tikal temple III sign

Today, it still looks dramatic, but very different.

Tikal walkers

But at Tikal, all roads lead to the central plaza. and it’s an impressive sight, with major temples enclosing each end, a broad, grassy courtyard for gatherings and ceremonies, and an acropolis on one side filled with an array of administrative buildings and residences.

Archaeologists still aren’t sure what all the buildings in the acropolis are for, though many are believed to be for funeral rites. But the role of the courtyard itself is evident: Mayans still consider it a sacred spot, and some devotees were burning corn as an offering the day I was there.

Tikal great plaza

Temple I, commanding the east end of the plaza, is the classic model of a Mayan temple, with its high staircase and cock’s-comb headpiece. Known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar because of a decoration found on it, the temple was dedicated to Mayan ruler Jasaw Chan K’awil, whose image is thought have been carved on the roof comb. Little is left of the stone carving.

Tikal Temple I

The king is entombed in the pyramid, and archaeologists found large collection of inscribed human and animal bone with the burial, as well as jade and shell ornaments and vessels for food and drink.

Nearby is a complex of buildings that’s in some ways more fascinating: an area called the central acropolis. It includes a cluster of buildings thought to be the residences of Tikal nobility, and wandering through them is like visiting their houses while they’re away.

Here’s a piece od video I shot when there were no tourists in the courtyard; it kind of gives you the feeling of walking through Tikal’s strangely private places.

I imagined them walking though these small rooms and courtyards, eating, playing with their children, sleeping on the stone bed platforms — I hope they had thick bed clothes, because these stone shelves look hard.

Tikal central acropolis

Tikal bed

Next was an area called the Mundo Perdido, or Lost World. This is one of the oldest areas in the central city, with buildings representing several different time periods.

The central pyramid is plain compared with the later monuments in Tikal, but beneath it, in typical Mayan fashion, lie four similar pyramids, the earliest one dating back to about 700 B.C. People walked this ground, lived their lives and worshipped here almost 3,000 years ago.

Tikal Mundo Perdido temple

The final stop on the tour is also arguably the most spectacular. You climb a long set of wooden stairs to the top of one of Tikal’s lesser pyramids and take a seat on a stone ledge high above the forest canopy.

Tikal viewers

And there before you is the dramatic vista you’ve seen in so many movies and pictures, the roof combs of two great Mayan temples rising out of the thick jungle, stretching for miles beyond the horizon. It’s one of the great sights of the ancient world, and once you’ve seen it, you’re in no hurry to leave. It’s Tikal, and it’s well worth the trip.

Tikal vista

There’s more to see at Tikal, of course, and much more than meets the eye. There are plazas off the usual pathways, triple ball courts, hidden chambers inside the great pyramids, many burials, intricately carved wooden lintels from the many doorways … Many of the best artifacts are on display in the museum on site.

You could easily spend two or three days here in order to see it all. And if you’re going to, staying at one of the lodges on site is a good way to do it: there are dawn tours, night tours, and tours that take you inside the temples.

I came back to Tikal for a second day, to see more of the ancient city and for a second reason, which I’ll show you soon in a second post. Stay tuned.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

2 Comments

    • Thanks, JP. Tikal was actually a pretty big place — the area that’s been excavated is only the city centre, so to speak. Thousands of people lived in the areas around it, in buildings that will likely never be excavated.

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