THE ANCIENT MAYAN CITY OF TIKAL, GUATEMALA
It’s fair to say that the highlight of my trip to Guatemala was my visit to Tikal. It was always going to be all about Tikal for me! If you follow my jaunts, I’ve mentioned often that ever since I was at school and studied the Mayan civilisation, I was obsessed and knew that one day Tikal would be the place I would have to visit.
Tikal can be referred to as an ancient Mayan citadel in the northern rain forests of Guatemala. It is thought that it could possibly date back to the 1st century AD with the Mayan civilisation of Tikal flourished between 200-850 AD. It was later abandoned for what is thought various reasons, such as lack of water supply from the lake and disease, however these have not been confirmed.
It is totally possible to visit Tikal on your own and hire a guide however we had a pre-booked day at Tikal through Via Venture Central America with our guide Eduardo. As time was pretty limited for us, we found this was the best way to cover the site and learn of its historical importance and significance in Mayan civilisation and culture to this very day.
The Tikal ruins are located in a lush jungle setting about an hours drive from our base at The La Lancha Lodge Hideaway on Lake Petén. Many visitors stayed in the neighbouring town of Flores, which is also about an hour away! If you prefer to stay a stones throw from the Tikal ruins then there are a number of lodges situated actually in Tikal National Park itself and range from basic to luxurious.
TIKAL NATIONAL PARK & RUINS
Whilst wondering through the lush jungle of Tikal National Park you will come across the huge Kapok, Ceiba Pentandra tree, which is known as the sacred tree of the Mayans. Mayans hold the Ceiba tree to be sacred. It is believed that the souls of the dead ascend to the top of the trees to go to heaven. It was also a connection between all three worlds; the underworld, earth and heaven.
Tikal National Park was given UNESCO World Heritage status back in 1979, dating back to the early classic to late classic period, so 200-850 AD. Its iconic temples and palaces include the giant ceremonial Lost World (Mundo Perdido) Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. At 70 meters, Temple IV is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas.
Tikal is the largest excavated Mayan site in the Americas, with approximately ten square miles excavated and the park covers over 200 square miles. Tikal was first discovered in 1848, by means of Temple five being unveiled. However, it wasn’t until 1951 that Tikal was first excavated by the University of Pennsylvania, excavation and restoration continues today, overseen by the Instituto de Antropología e Historia. While many of the ancient Mayan structures have been uncovered, countless more remain untouched, covered by over a thousand years of jungle and intertwined vine.
Whilst driving into Tikal National Park, it is evident to see this is most definitely a rain forest abundant with flora and fauna. There are constant reminders that you have entered a rain forest surrounded by the lushest, greenest canopy above you, whose high points are adorned with many birds, with small mammals at your feet. Native animals to the park include the ocellated Turkey, crocodiles in the lake, a small mammal known as Coatimundi and the magnificent big cats like the Jaguar and Pumas.
TOUR OF TIKAL RUINS
Tikal is a large site and Eduardo showed us through the ruins and explained the history of what is thought to have been the ancient Kingdom and Civilisation, methodically. We went through sacrificial sites, to administrative buildings to a scene where Star wars filmed, The Lost World and then the best was saved till the end, The Great Plaza.
One of my most memorable moments of the day was peering down as we walked through the stone work and seeing the Grand Plaza before me. Eduardo said he couldn’t wait to see our faces when we saw it and speechless really was the moment as we gasped in awe of what the Mayans built, all those years ago with their bare hands and no machinery.
There are three major buildings that make up the Great Plaza. To the east is Tikal Temple I (Templo I), the Temple of the Great Jaguar, which was built for the king and completed by his son. To the west is Tikal Temple II (Templo II), which was built by the king in honour of his wife. Temple I can no longer be climbed by visitors as people have fallen, but Temple II can be climbed.
To the north of the Great Plaza is the Acropolis del Norte. The North Acropolis is a larger area with a number of temples on a platform. There are stone masks built into the walls. Eduardo explained each Mayan ruler would build on top of what the previous ruler had built, yet preserved what the predecessor had built.
If you aren’t scared of heights, then Temple V (Templo V) is definitely the one to brave it to the top. To preserve the stone work the temples have steep wooden steps to the side of them and when I say steep in that midday humidity and heat, woah do they feel steep. You also get a fantastic view of all of the other temples of Tikal from here.
Temple IV (Templo IV), the tallest building in Tikal at 212 feet, which was completed in 741 AD. If you are a Star Wars fan then you will have seen this panorama on Star Wars Episode IV: The Hope. You are above the canopy here and thus you get a fantastic view of the tree tops.
You can also begin or end your trip by visiting the on-site museum, which contains some of the artefacts that were discovered during the archaeological excavation.
TIKAL TOP TIPS
- Make sure you’re appropriately dressed, covered shoes especially trainers or even hiking shoes are the best. A hat, sunscreen and backpack are ideal for a day trip like ours.
- Bring along mosquito spray and wear long trousers as the jungle is packed with mosquitoes.
- Take some snacks and especially water.
- We had a fresh local lunch booked in Tikal National Park before-hand with our guide, which worked out well but you can buy snacks in the shops, although you will pay a premium for these.
- I would recommend a guide as Tikal really is a place where I feel the expertise of a local guide is essential.
Have you visited Tikal and norther Guatemala?