Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. Located in the archaeological region of the Peten Basin in northern Guatemala, this thriving cosmopolitan city, would be rediscovered in the mid 19th century. It had been completely covered by the jungle for centuries.
Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/tikal-pyramid-maya-rainforest-889762/
Tikal is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and as of 1979, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tikal was the capital city of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilization.
Although there is impressive architectural structures that can be dated as far back as the 4th century BCE, Tikal would reach the height of its power and influence, during the centuries stretching from 200 to 900 CE.
During this era known as the Classical Period, Tikal would come to dominate the region of the Maya. Economically, politically and militarily, Tikal had become the head of a conquest state.
The number of inhabitants would swell to as high as 90,000 by some estimates. If one includes the surrounding hinterland, the population reached well into the hundreds of thousands.
The rise in population is quite impressive, considering the area surrounding the city is covered in swamp lands.
Interactions between Tikal and the rest of Mesoamerica became more commonplace, as the power of the Mayan reached its zenith.
Regular contacts were maintained with the valley of Mexico as far north as Teotihuacan. In fact, there is evidence, the latter would actually conquer Tikal in the 4th century CE.
After the late Classical Period, no new major monuments would be constructed at Tikal.
Around this epoch, it is likely that a number of the aristocratic palaces and temples would be desecrated and later burned. By this time, the population was already gradually diminishing, with final abandonment taking place by the end of the 10th century.
In the modern era, the city has been completely mapped and it has been determined that it once covered an area of 6.2 square miles (16 square kilometers). Within the main city about 3,000 buildings were constructed, over hundreds of years.
The structures were built on a series of limestone ridges rising above numerous swampy lowlands. These built up areas remained connected, by a series of causeways that spanned over the wetlands.
Major construction at Tikal was already underway, in the Late Pre-classic period during 400-300 BCE. The first leading pyramids and platforms would be built at this time. Although Tikal was still far smaller, than El Mirador and Nakbe. These northern neighbors, would decline in the 1st century CE.
It is interesting to note, that Tikal had no real water supply, other than what was collected from rainwater and then stored in a total of 10 reservoirs.
In the 20th century, archaeologists working in the area, were forced to restore one of the reservoirs for this very reason.
The dynastic line of Tikal, that may have been founded as early as the 1st century CE, lasted for a total of 800 years and included at least 33 different rulers. According to legend, it was founded by Yax Ehb Xook.
There were even a couple of occasions, when the male line was broken and women became queens of the city.
At the beginning of the Early Classical Period, power in the Mayan culture was centered in Tikal and Calakmul. The area was plagued with war, as competition between the city states would be ongoing matter.
Tikal remained often at war with neighboring Mayan states including Calakmul, Caracol, Naranjo and Uaxactun. In fact, by the end of the Early Classical period, Caracol would replace Tikal and take its place, as the leading center in the southern Mayan lowlands.
Today in Tikal, there are many different buildings to visit, with many more still waiting for a full excavation before they can be opened to the public. To date, only about 30% have been fully rehabilitated.
At the center of Tikal lies the Great Plaza that is bordered by two massive temple pyramids, the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis.
There are 6 Temples, that most in the tourist industry will agree are the most important constructions at Tikal.
Temple I located in the middle of the Park is known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar. It was built during 682 and 734 CE. It rises some 154 feet (47 meters). It was excavated between the years 1955 and 1964.
Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate) also known as Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, known as one of the greatest rulers of Tikal is associated with this temple. He is buried here.
Temple II known as the Temple of the Masks is one of the best restored in the park. It was also built by Jasaw, in honor of his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. It stands at just over 124 feet (38 meters).
Temple III known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was built around 810 CE. It stands about 180 feet or 55 meters. It is most likely the burial place of King Dark Sun.
Temple IV is thought to be the tallest structure erected by the ancient Maya. At over 213 feet (65 meters), a traveler is rewarded with an incredible view of the complex.
One used to have to make the ascent, by holding onto various roots and branches on the pyramid’s slippery slopes. Today, new wooden stairs make the ascent more amenable.
Temple V stands at 187 feet (57 meters) and is the second highest edifice in Tikal and in pre-Colombian America. From the top of this pyramid, one can see the other temples over the top of the tree canopy.
Temple VI known as the Temple of Inscriptions was discovered as late as 1951.
The top of the structure is visible for just over 39 feet or 12 meters. Further excavation will be needed, for this temple to be fully accessible.
How To Get There
Most tourists to Tikal come from three different starting points. The closet airport is the Guatemalan town of Flores, which is just 90 minutes away by bus.
A similar ride from the capital of Guatemala City, will take at least 8 hours. Tikal is located 333 miles or 536 kilometers north of the city.
The other entry point is Belize City, located 3 hours by bus from Tikal.
Upon arrival in Flores, you can then contact a tour company. The cost will average 100 GTQ, the equivalent of $13.63 USD (United States Dollar). The cost without a guided tour, will be around 70 GTQ ($9.54 USD).
Helpful Hints For All Travelers
There are no Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) at Tikal so you will need to bring extra hard currency (cash) with you.
Most tourists from northern climates visit during the dry season. This runs from October to May. The reduced humidity at this time of the year, makes the trip far more pleasant.
Tikal has a tropical climate, similar to that a traveler would experience in Yucatan Mexico. This reality will necessitate an ample supply of sunscreen, that will need to be reapplied throughout the day.