Tikal is a large archaeological site in Guatemala, the largest excavated site in the Americas. It is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and natural preserve, and is located in the department (state) of El Petén. The ruins are part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tikal was a Maya city of great power and size, the largest of Maya cities during the Classic Era over 1000 years ago; and the Mayans occupied this area from about 600BC to 900 AD. Today it is a fascinating and enjoyable site to visit, because of its remoteness and jungle setting. It is heavily visited, but not crowded because of its vast size. Many beautiful buildings have been uncovered and many more wait to be discovered and restored. It is possible to climb to the top of a few of the temples and get spectacular views from above the tree tops.
The closest large cities are Flores and Santa Elena, approximately 40 miles to the southwest; and Guatemala City, approximately 188 miles to the south.. Most tours to Tikal start from Flores or El Remate village which is located half way between Flores and Tikal ruins. There is no Tikal town and no stores for shopping to speak of.
Tikal was the capital of a state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal peaked during the Classic Period, about 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico. It often clashed, conquered, traded with and engaged with other cities in the region, and was prosperous until the general decline of Mayan civilization about 900 AD, at which time it was abandoned. Tikal at its height, was a dominating and important economical and political power in MesoAmerica, but fell into ruins as did all the other such centers around 800 – 1000 AD. It was eventually consumed by the jungle.
The population of Tikal grew continuously starting in the Preclassic Period (approximately 2000 BC – AD 200), and peaked with the population of an estimated 120,000 by the year 830 AD. This was followed by a sharp decline in population in line with the general Mayan collapse.
The Mayans had a complex form of hieroglyphic writing that was found carved on the stele (stone tablets) and altars that dot most of the site. Pictures depicting events and the beliefs of the time, were carved in the lintels, stone steps,and various walls throughout the temples and tombs.
The lack of springs, rivers, and lakes in the vicinity of Tikal brings to light an amazing accomplishment: building a highly populous city with only supplies of stored seasonal rainfall. Tikal was able to prosper with intensive agricultural techniques which allowed the area to feed itself, but left it vulnerable to drought, which is thought by some to have played a role in the collapse of the Maya civilization. It is theorized that the most likely cause of collapse at Tikal is overpopulation and agrarian failure. The fall of Tikal was a blow to the heart of Classic Maya civilization, the city having been at the forefront for over a thousand years, with an ancient ruling dynasty. As Tikal and its hinterland reached peak population, the area suffered deforestation, erosion and nutrient loss followed by a rapid decline in population levels.
The ancient city became overgrown, and the hundreds of temples and other structures were lost to the jungle. The city lay hidden by the jungle for centuries. The local people, however, never forgot about Tikal and they guided Guatemalan expeditions to the ruins in the 1850s, and the site was visited by various explorers, archeologists and adventurers during the next 100 years, From 1956 through 1970, major archaeological excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania which uncovered nearly 10 square miles of ruins. They mapped much of the site and excavated and restored many of the structures. This work has been continued by the Guatemalan government, and ongoing excavations are almost continuous.
The park’s main gate opens at 6 am and closes at 6 pm. Adult tickets are under US$20. Maps are available outside the Visitor’s Center, and walking trails wind through the temple complexes. The visitor’s center offers food and drink, but there is no ATM at the park or the adjacent hotels.
In the main area there is the parking lot, 3 hotels, a museum and visitors’ center, post office, campground, souvenir handicraft shops, and three local eating places. Also there is a guide service and information desk, and a restaurant overlooking the jungle. A smaller museum housing some of Tikal’s artifacts is located near the hotel area. No ATM. There is no Tikal village or town at the park other than the visitor center and gift shops. There is also lodging in Flores and El Remate.
Tikal National Park is made up of 222 square miles of jungle surrounding the ceremonial center. It is located within the 6,000 square mile Maya Biosphere in the northern part of Petén. The major architecture of the site is clustered upon areas of higher ground and linked by raised causeways spanning the swamps, and most of Tikal Park structures remain covered with jungle growth recognized only as large mounds of rocks over grown by trees. The partially restored area consists of nine groups of courts and plazas. There are 5 large temples. One of the most impressive and tallest structures is 230 feet high.
More than 285 species of exotic birds and animals live in the park. In addition, there are hundreds of orchid species and more than 30 hardwood species. Tikal is a bird watchers paradise, and is considered one of the best birding areas of Central America. Some of the wildlife species commonly seen in the park include: howler monkeys, spider monkeys, ocellated turkeys, coatimundi, crocodiles, and gray fox. Others not as common are jaguars, pumas and ocelots. Conspicuous trees at the Tikal park include gigantic kapok; tropical cedar, and Honduras Mahogany. The average annual rainfall is 76.6 inches.
Major Structures and Attractions
There are four architectural areas in the central cleared area: the Great Plaza, North Acropolis, Central Acropolis, and Mundo Perdido (Lost World Complex). The outstanding feature of these structures is their monumental size as high as 230 feet.
The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower up to 230 feet high, large royal palaces, in addition to a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments. There are also seven ball courts.
The limestone used for construction was local and quarried on-site. The holes left by the removal of stone were plastered to waterproof them and were used as reservoirs, together with some waterproofed natural depressions. The main plazas were surfaced with stucco and channeled rainfall into a system of canals that fed the reservoirs. The residential area of Tikal covers an estimated 23 square miles, much of which has not yet been cleared, mapped, or excavated. A huge set of earthworks has been discovered ringing Tikal with a 20 foot wide trench behind a rampart.
By the Late Classic, a network of sacbeob (causeways) linked various parts of the city, running for several miles. These linked the Great Plaza with Temple IV and the Temple of the Inscriptions. These causeways were built of packed and plastered limestone and helped the passage of everyday traffic during the rainy season and also served as dams.
The Great Plaza lies at the core of the site; it is flanked on the east and west sides by two great temple-pyramids. On the north side it is bordered by the North Acropolis and on the south by the Central Acropolis.
The North Acropolis, together with the Great Plaza immediately to the south, is one of the most studied architectural groups in the Maya area. After AD 400 a row of tall pyramids was added to the earlier Northern Platform, which measured 330 by 260 feet, gradually hiding it from view. Eight temple pyramids were built in the 6th century AD, each of them had an elaborate roof comb and a stairway flanked by masks of the gods. By the 9th century AD, 43 stelae (stone tablets) and 30 altars had been erected in the North Acropolis; 18 of these monuments were carved with hieroglyphic texts and royal portraits.
The South Acropolis was built upon a large basal platform that covers an area of more than 220,000 square feet.
There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large step pyramids, labeled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 200 feet.
Temple IV, the tallest temple-pyramid at Tikal, measures 230 feet from the plaza floor level to the top of its roof comb. In fact, it is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, rising above the jungle canopy. An early morning view looking east from the top Temple IV one can see the tops of three other temples and the sunrise rising above the jungle, a favorite photo in Tikal.
In addition, there are nine Twin-Pyramid Complexes at Tikal. They vary in size but consist of two pyramids facing each other on an east-west axis. These pyramids are flat-topped and have stairways on all four sides. A row of plain stelae is placed immediately to the west of the eastern pyramid and to the north of the pyramids, and lying roughly equidistant from them, there is usually a sculpted stela and altar pair. On the south side of these complexes there is a long vaulted building containing a single room with nine doorways. Each such twin-pyramid complex was built at once, and these complexes were built at 20 year intervals.
The entire site has numerous alters, lintels, stelea (carved tablets), and tombs, some of which have been removed to museums around the world, and some of which were defaced or destroyed in ancient times. but many of which remain in place. They are decorated with elaborate artistic or hieroglyphic carvings depicting royalty, history and the Mayan way of life.
How To Get There
Flores is the nearest airport.
Arrangements can be made for a minibus to pick you up from your hotel in Flores in the morning on the hour. It costs about US$ 5 round trip, leaving hourly in the morning and returning on the half hour in the afternoon (travel time about 75 mins). Regular buses leave from the Santa Elena bus station to Tikal, arriving two hours later.
Taking a tour is recommended. They are available departing from Guatemala City, Flores and El Remate.
El Remate is a small village about 10 miles from the entrance to Parque Nacional Tikal and 20 miles from the Park Visitors Center, entrance to the ruins and hotel area. This popular wood carving village offers a good option for lodging and is a good base for a stay in the area. El Remate, a village of approx. 350 families, has several good hotels and several places to eat.
It is sunny, hot and humid even in winter so dress lightly and bring water, since you will be climbing up the many steep steps of the temples and walking from building to building. Very steep wooden staircases lead up to the temples. Protect yourself with sun screen, bug spray, a hat, light cotton clothing and lots of water. Drink some water before you get thirsty. The trails are also muddy in a few places but there is plenty of shade under the canopy of trees. Winter nights can be cool.
The park is reasonably safe, but robberies (and worse) have happened in the past, and you should be aware of your surroundings. It is definitely best to travel in groups along some of the more remote trails, especially to Temple VI.
Be especially careful with the bus rides from Flores to Tikal, as there has been a recent rash of robberies on the main highway. Only take a bus that leaves on the hour and is on time. A bus that leaves Flores late will not have the security of police protection that an on-time bus will have. Do not carry more money than you will need at Tikal.