Tikal are Mayan ruins located deep in the jungle of northeastern Guatemala. The road into the park enters Tikal about 11 miles from the ruins. The ruins are quite spread out through the park and despite heavy tourism the jungle atmosphere makes for a pleasant experience. Many of the ruins remain uncovered and you can see current excavations taking place. It’s possible to climb some of the structures in the park and to see stunning panoramic views with the tops of pyramids jutting out above the jungle canopy. The history of the ruins dates back to 400 BC and ends around 900 AD along with the general decline in Mayan civilization.
I took an organized day tour from Flores to Tikal and this is what I experienced…
Upon entering Tikal the shuttle drove by a pack of pisotes. The shuttle stopped at the inn before we began our tour into the jungle. At the entrance there are a few restaurants, two museums, campground, ticket booth, the visitor center and the licensed tour guides. After showing our ticket we walked for about 5 minutes into the park and we came to the photographic map of Tikal.
After walking another 10 minutes or so we came to our first structures in the park, complex Q. Complex Q was built to commemorate the end of an era (almost 20 years). Two temples were built, one representing the sunrise and the other representing the sunset. The temples have a staircase on each side. On the north side of the plaza is a building associated with the heavens. Directly across the plaza on the south side is a building with 9 entrances. The 9 entrances symbolize the nine layers of the Underworld. Several Stelae and altars are erected within the plaza. The Stelae depict the various rulers of Tikal. There are more of these “twin temple” commemorative plazas in Tikal yet some remain unexcavated.
Upon exiting Complex Q we came right to Complex R. It was built in 790 A.D. Now the two pyramids appear as two mounds covered in grass and plant-life. Next we walked over to the Great Plaza. Along the way we came across the back of Temple I.
As we entered the Great Plaza on our left was the Central Acropolis. This structure is a maze of courtyards, small temples and little rooms. It is believed to be royal residences or a place for rituals depending on who you ask.
Contained in the Great Plaza are Temple I, Temple II, and the North Acropolis. The stairs of Temple I have been closed after at least 2 people fell to their deaths. A set of steep, wooden stairs provide access to the top of Temple II. Access to the Northern Acropolis is via the stone stairs. The Northern Acropolis was a burial ground for Tikal nobles.
After exploring the Great Plaza we walked past Temple III. The base of Temple III is still covered by vegetation and appears the same way early explorers probably encountered it. Next up on our improvised itinerary was “El Mundo Perdido” or The Lost World. The Lost World is unique to the rest of Tikal in that it holds buildings from many different periods. the two largest buildings are the Talud-Tablero Temple and the Lost World Pyramid (Structure 5C-54). The Lost World Pyramid is about 100 feet high and over 220 feet wide at the base. It was built in five phases with the latest being around 250 A.D. The phases were built on top of each other. The Talud-Tablero Temple is currently over 70 feet high.
After wandering around the Lost World complex we walked through the jungle once more to a rest area where we talked with our tour guide. This concluded the organized tour portion of our time in Tikal. We were right next to Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal. After climbing up a multitude of wooden stairs we reached the summit shrine. From here you can see over the jungle canopy with the tops of Temple I, II, and III jutting out above the trees.
The rulers of Tikal had godlike status among the Mayans. This may have been partially due to their abnormal appearance in comparison to the other Mayans. They were substantially taller (1 or 2 feet taller) than the rest of the populace due to better nutrition and the placement of wood to elongate there foreheads. In addition, there teeth were covered by jade, contributing to an otherworldly visage. Tattoos and intentional scarring were also heavily featured among the nobles.
Tikal is an essential part of a visit to Guatemala. The jungle setting and impressive structures captivate its visitors. Some tours arrive around 6am. At this time their may be substantial fog. While the fog may in fact increase the mythical atmosphere of Tikal it may make it difficult to photograph. You may need to return to an area later in the day after the fog has dissipated. It is also a good idea to have footwear that is good for walking. The buildings of Tikal are spread out amongst the jungle and require a fair amount of walking. If you want to climb up the buildings it can be steep and slippery so be sure that your shoes have a fair amount of grip as well. Sunscreen, bug repellent and water are also highly recommended to make sure your time is pleasant. One full day of exploration at the park is likely enough for most tourists. If you have a limited timeframe to explore, you could rush through the Great Plaza and a few more Temples within 3-4 hours. I stayed in Flores, which is about an hour’s drive from the park. There are three hotels within the park and a campground as well.