Tikal is the largest and greatest of the ancient ruins of the Maya civilization. Located in northeastern Guatemala, these ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tikal is widely considered the highlight of any trip to Guatemala or Central America for that matter. It is a must for any trip to the region. It is by far one of the most popular attractions offered in the area.
HistoryMayans first settled in the Tikal region as early as 600 BC but it wasn’t until four hundred years later when the ancient city itself was founded. Between 200 BC and 100 AD, several structures were built including the impressive Grand Plaza structures. In the first centuries of its existence, Tikal was governed by the northern city of El Mirador. It wasn’t until 300AD when Tikal finally established itself as an independent city state, with its first dynasty beginning with King Great Jaguar Paw. The king quickly built Tikal into one of the most powerful cities in Central America. By 500AD, the city had a population of close to 100,000; many of the Mayan residents lived in the city itself, while others lived outside of the borders on farms.
During the 6th century, Tikal ruled over large areas of Mesoamerica under the leadership of Stormy Sky, who became king at around 426 AD. Storm Sky launched an aggressive military campaign to expand his power over surrounding communities. He also improved the agricultural productivity of Tikal by leveraging the region’s lowlands, which helped feed its growing population. Tikal’s location near two rivers also helped it thrive as a trade center. And the swamps surrounding the city helped protect it naturally from enemy attacks.
Tikal’s golden era came during the 7th and 8th centuries AD when Lord Chocolate ascended the throne. Lord Chocolate built several great structures and temples, including Temple IV, the tallest one. The city-state also forged powerful alliances with the Kaminal Juyu in the western highlands and Teotihuacan in Mexico City. Tikal reached the peak of its power in 768 AD after the death of Lord Chocolate and was mysteriously abandoned by 900AD.
Tikal remained undiscovered for almost 1,000 years, its ruins overgrown by the jungle vegetations. The natives in the area knew about the ancient city’s existence but Tikal remained rarely visited until the late 19th century when the Guatemalan government and international archaeologists began paying archaeological attention to it for its cultural and historical value.
In 1881, the English archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay and his successor peers drew the first architectural map of Tikal and began excavating the major temple sites. More large-scale excavations took place in the 20th century. After some 150 years of digging, archaeologists have uncovered or otherwise discovered about 3,000 buildings in Tikal with countless more believed to be still hidden in the jungle’s undergrowth. Archaeological research and digging continues to this day.
Tikal (or Parque Nacional Tikal) is one of the most popular archaeological attractions in Central America. Its temples are enclosed by vast expanses of jungle forests, giving the site an extra aura of mysteriousness. The presence of spider monkeys, falcons, oscillated turkeys, gray foxes, jaguars, and exotic birds like the toucan and macaw give these ruins the look and feel of a scene from Indiana Jones.
Perhaps the most prominent section of Tikal is the Grand Plaza, an area of the city towered by a towering pyramid and surrounded by various temples. This section features the pyramid (or temple) called Temple I and behind it the Temple of the Great Jaguar. The pyramid-like Temple I is the most iconic image associated with Tikal. The Temple of the Great Jaguar behind it is named as such for its feline carvings. Together, they form the two most recognizable structures of this section. The Grand Plaza was constructed by Lord Chocolate some time in the 8th century. Buried beneath Temple I, you’ll find Lord Chocolate’s magnificent tomb, which was discovered only recently. Behind the Grand Plaza are several structures that were used as administrative centers. The pyramidal steps of Temple I can be climbed and offer a great view at the top of Tikal’s temples and structures below.
To the north of the Grand Plaza at the North Acropolis is a series of temples built over layers of previous construction, the base of which is more than 2,000 years old. At the South Acropolis is where Temple IV is situated atop a hill. It is the tallest structure in Tikal and the tallest ever built by the Mayans for that matter. It offers the best view of Tikal and the surrounding jungle. A few hundred yards to the west, you’ll find the 105-feet Great Pyramid, which is similar in construction to the pyramids built at Teotihuacan.
In addition to pyramids, temples, and tombs, Tikal also has the remains of royal palaces, residences, and stone monuments. There is even a building, which appears to have been used as a jail because of its wooden bars across its windows and doors. There are also several ball courts that were used to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, including three courts next to each other at the Seven Temples Plaza.
Besides the ancient ruins, there are also two archaeological museums showcasing Maya artifacts at the Parque Nacional Tikal. It may be a good idea to check these museums out beforehand so you can learn more about the Maya people before exploring the ruins.
You’ll also find outside of the Parque Nacional Tikal a number of jungle trails that are great for hiking and bird-watching. The jungles are filled with exotic birds and various wildlife.
Relatively near Tikal deep in the forests of El Petén, there are more ancient ruins that may not be as well-known as Tikal but should still garner your attention. Nakum, for example, is about 15 miles east of Tikal. This was a city and former ceremonial center occupied around 700 to 900 AD. The site features an astronomical complex, temple structures, vaults, acropolises, palaces, and residential buildings.
Also worth exploring are the ruins of Yaxha, an ancient city founded some 3000 years ago. The ruins overlook the beautiful Lake Yaxha. At Yaxha, you’ll find pyramidal structures, temples, plazas, and rectangular structures. The site is about 20 miles east of Tikal and surrounded by rainforests.
Uaxactun is another ancient site that is notable. It is worth visiting if you can secure the permit required. Unfortunately, the permits are not always easily obtained but you can make an attempt at the administrative buildings while you’re in Tikal. Uaxactun is buried deep in the jungle about 25 miles north of Tikal and is difficult to get to via the rock and dirt roads. This ancient city dates back 4,000 years and is probably the oldest Maya city. It once rivaled Tikal’s prominence in Mesoamerica, but was conquered in the 4th century AD by Tikal. The site features a Maya astronomical observatory, a ball court, and several temples.
Armed robberies have occurred in the past on the roads from Flores and Belize to Tikal. Tourists, whether in private cars, local buses, or taxis, have been targeted occasionally in the past. If you do not plan on staying at Tikal’s lodges or inns, it is recommended that you store your valuables at hotels in Flores or Belize before making your trip up to Tikal.