Tikal National Park near Flores, Guatemala houses one of the world’s most famous and impressive Maya sites, known as Tikal.
History of Tikal
Tikal (probably originally called Yax Mutal) was a major ceremonial site in the Maya culture, with many temples and pyramids built there between 300 BC and 100BC and then further expansion taking place from 600AD to 800AD. Its peak is thought to have been in Classic Period, i.e. between the 3rd and 10th century AD.
In addition to its ceremonial significance, Tikal was a thriving settlement, a political hub and almost certainly the capital of its region. Tikal has been linked with the Maya city of Teotihuacan in modern Mexico: it’s believed that the two interacted.
The mysterious collapse of the Maya affected Tikal too: the site was abandoned by the end of the 10th century and some evidence seems to suggest that several palaces were burned to the ground. Tikal was gradually reclaimed by the jungle: the first Europeans to ‘discover’ Tikal did so in the mid 19th century, and various expeditions returned to photograph, map and make attempts at excavations. It was nearly 100 years later, in the late 1950s, that serious archaeological work was undertaken at Tikal, and the temples were fully uncovered.
Today, visitors to Tikal are greeted with a wealth of well-preserved monuments, palaces, structures and temples. This UNESCO World Heritage site actually has a staggering 3,000 or so ancient structures mostly dating back to between 600BC and 900AD, six of which are fully uncovered. Amongst these are five magnificent pyramids, some of them being crowned with temples and the largest one being an impressive 213 feet tall.
Note the sacrificial altars, such as that at the Temple of the Masks, and also try out the acoustics, which were designed so that people could be heard from the tops of the temples down to the bottom of the pyramids. The large number of tombs found at Tikal have also aided understanding of the dynastic rulers at Tikal and so it’s one of the Maya settlements we have the fullest picture of.
Tikal remains one of the best, and therefore most popular, Maya sites in Guatemala. Be prepared for it to be busy unless you’re there for dawn or dusk. The jungle climate means it’s hot and sticky, so bring plenty of water and insect repellent.
The site is pretty large, so it’s worth wearing sensible shoes so you can climb up and down the pyramids with ease. Guides at the entrance will offer their services and it’s well worth hiring one: you’ll learn plenty more from them than any guidebook.
Also know as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, this temple was constructed above the tomb of Ah Cacao: excavations have discovered a wealth of burial goods. The temple would have once been brightly coloured and would have had a roofcomb. It is no longer possible to climb Templo I.
At 65m tall, Templo IV is the tallest building at Tikal and unsurprisingly, has phenomenal views over the jungle canopy. It’s a steep climb, but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts: spot the tops of other temples peek above the trees, enjoy sunrise (or sunset), and listen to the noises of the jungle.
Thought to have been completed in the 8th century AD, the lintel which once rested on the top is now in a museum in Switzerland.
Acropolis del Norte
One of the oldest structures at Tikal, it seems that the first structures on this site were erected around 600BC, and the final, and most impressive, version of the site would have had 12 temples sitting on top of a large platform. Rows of stelae record majestic deeds of kings, and have helped further our knowledge and understanding of the area.
Getting to Tikal
Tikal is located deep in the jungle of Petén: the nearest town, where almost all travellers visit from, is Flores. There’s a wealth of buses from Flores to Tikal, although getting to Flores itself can be an arduous journey – if you’re short on time, there’s an airport with flights from Guatemala City.
There are some accommodation options on site which are highly recommend if you want to visit early in the morning or late at night – you’ll get a feel for the magic of Tikal and staying in the jungle is always an experience!
Organised tours are also a popular option if you don’t want the hassle of organising your own travel. You’ll find plenty of tour operators in Flores.