After almost a week in Belize exploring the ancient Mayan masterpieces of Lamanai, Xunantunich and the depths of the mystical underworld of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, one would think that I’d had my fix of Mayan ruins. However, as soon as I realized that one of the grandest ancient Mayan cities of all, Tikal, was right across the Guatemalan border from our base in San Ignacio, I knew I’d have take a day trip to Tikal. With over 3,000 buildings spreading across 212 square miles of thick rugged jungle, Tikal is the largest and most restored archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya Civilization. Yet, the plot thickens. Recent LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping has revealed that the ruins of Tikal are even grander and more magnificent than ever imagined.
Deep beneath the jungle canopy lies 61,000 hidden structures representing part of a vast network of ancient Mayan cities that were perhaps the most advanced civilization of its time. The historical and archeological significance of the findings is immense. Could Tikal be even grander than the ruins of ancient Rome or Egypt? With all the mysteries surrounding Tikal, I knew I’d have to see for myself.
Located in the eastern Petén region of Guatemala bordering Belize, most travelers chose to visit Tikal from their base in either Flores or El Remate in Guatemala. However, Tikal can easily be done in a day trip from San Ignacio in the Western Cayo district of Belize. Roughly 15 minutes from the border, it is an easy, beautiful two-hour drive to Tikal National Park and half the fun is walking about a handful of steps from the small Belizean border to the Guatemalan border and getting your passport stamped multiple times. The only downfall is there is roughly a BZ$ 40 departure tax when you leave Belize (even just for the day) and another small tax on the Guatemalan side when you return. You also have to exchange money for some quetzals (Guatemalan currency). But in my opinion, it was well worth the adventure.
Once through the border, we met our local Guatemalan guide for the day, Maria, who happened to be our G Adventures Guide in Belize, Hugo’ sister. Hugo’s family grew up in the small Guatemalan border town where they were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend school in Belize and learn English, an essential skill for getting the best jobs in tourism. Maria is one of the few women tour guides at Tikal, a position she is fiercely proud of and her enthusiasm shined.
The two-hour drive to Tikal was absolutely lovely. As always, I asked to sit up front next to Maria where I could get a bird’s eye view of the scenery and also learn more about the history of Tikal. As we passed by small picturesque villages, farmland and jungle Maria shared bits and pieces of her life. Growing up in the border town of Melchor de Mencos, Hugo and Maria were the only two children of the family who got to go to school in Belize. Education in Belize is not free and is very expensive. Yet learning English is life-changing especially in the small border town of Melchor de Mencos where most families work in farming. Speaking English is the ticket to getting into the growing tourism industry which is one of the top industries in both Guatemala and Belize and pays far better than agricultural work.
Shortly before noon, we arrived at the entrance to Tikal National Park and then followed the road 12 miles through thick rainforest and jungle to the site of the archeological ruins. Along the way, we passed all sorts of humorous road signs warning drivers to be on the lookout for snake, jaguar and turkey crossings. Maria said she had once seen a jaguar cross the road and it was one of the most beautiful sights. We didn’t have that kind of luck but it reminded me that the jungle loomed all around us.
A Brief History of Tikal
The history of Tikal is mysteriously vast and unknown. Based on archeological findings, archeologists have determined that the Maya first arrived in the area of Tikal around 3,000 years ago. Tikal is believed by historians to be the remains of the ancient Mayan city of Lax Mutal which was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the entire Mayan empire.
Most of the Tikal’s magnificent structures that we see today were built during the height of Maya power and rule known as the Classic Period from 250 AD to 900 AD. It was during this time that Tikal became one of the most important commercial, cultural and religious city in Mesoamerica. Around 900 AD, Tikal (like most other large Mayan cities throughout Mesoamerica) was mysteriously abandoned most likely due to overpopulation and a massive drought that brought on starvation and upheaval by its people.
For centuries Tikal remained a mystery and only the legend of the lost city of Lax Mutal survived. Even the arrival of the greedy Spanish colonists did not uncover Tikal and its treasures. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the ancient city of Tikal was rediscovered. In 1848 a local named Ambrosio Tut was out in an area of the jungle where he saw the crest of the temples in the distance. Tut returned with Modesto Méndez the Governor of the province at the time and had an artist record their findings.
Archeological excavation and restoration began most notably in the 1950s led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, with the support of Guatemalan government and took over 13 years to unveil around 16 square kilometers of structures in the Grand Plaza of Tikal. Tikal National Park was opened to the public in 1955 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
In 2016, the Guatemalan nonprofit PACUNAM funded a research project using specialized laser technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping to scan a 800-square-mile area above Tikal. What the researchers found will change the way Tikal has been known to the world forever. In one of the biggest archeological breakthroughs ever, researchers discovered over 60,000 structures still hidden far below jungle vegetation. This new research proves that the ancient city of Tikal was in fact far grander than we have ever imagined, perhaps being home to millions of Mayan people. The discovery is truly astounding and it will be fascinating to see what more we learn about the mysterious world of Tikal as more research is done.
Tikal is immense and can take a full three days to see everything in its entirety. However, with one full day you can easily see the most interesting ruins within and surrounding the Grand Plaza. Also, if you time it right like we did, you may be blessed with having very few fellow tourists to share it with. We had almost the entire Grand Plaza all to ourselves, a common theme I’d experienced my entire time traveling to visit the Mayan ruins in Belize. Within a span of four hours, we were able to tour with leisure the Grand Plaza, Temple III and Complex Q and R.
Once out of the van, we stretched our legs and began our walk on foot to the first group of ruins (known as Complex Q) located about a ten minute walk away along a dusty path. We were surrounded by lovely gigantic trees, most noteworthy the famous La Ceiba tree which is Guatemala’s national tree and symbolic to the Maya. As we entered a clearing, we saw a partially excavated pyramid with a series of standing stones known as stellas around it. This is Complex Q – one of seven similar complexes built every 20 years to commemorate a ruler of Tikal. Over the span of 1800 years that Tikal was occupied, Tikal had 33 kings. It is the only Mayan site with so many rulers which also explains why it is so grand. The Mayans believed in cycles and the number 20 was very important. At the end of every 20 years, a new oratory of structures would be built.
Researchers were able to estimate the date of the structures at Complex Q back to 771 AD and it was built to commemorate Ruler number 29.Complex Q is the best preserved complex of the seven in Tikal. Each complex contains a palace, an oratory and a pyramid on the east and west. What we saw today is all the has been excavated. More of the ruins lie beneath the layers of vegetation.
Maria stopped to talk a little bit about the large mounds of buried structures. Since the structures were made of porous limestone, tree roots have become intertwined and tangled in the ruins making excavation and restoration extremely difficult. There are thousands of ruins still buried under the ground.
As we continued walking, we passed the Complex R and could see the majestic top of the temple poking out through the jungle. The view provoked an eery sense of anticipation for what was to come. We rounded the corner and there before our eyes was the most excavated and impressive ruins of Tikal known as the Grand Plaza. The Grand Plaza took over 1,000 years to build and was the most important center of Tikal. It still remains an important and sacred place for the Maya community.
The Grand Plaza is made of several magnificent structures including the Jaguar Temple (Temple 1), Temple II, and the Central and North Acropolis. You can spend a good hour or more walking around the Grand Plaza, climbing the ruins for sensational views and getting a sense of the incredible scale of Tikal. It truly is a sight to be seen.
Temple I -Jaguar Temple
Temple I is also known as the “Temple of the Jaguar Priest” and was built around 810 AD. The Jaguar Temple rises a majestic 180 feet (55 m) up and is the last known construction at Tikal. It was built for the 36th Ruler Lord Chi’taam, the last man to rule Tikal. You are not able to climb it however you can still take plenty of photos of this spectacular temple. Maria told us that Temple II was first built in honor of his wife and then he built a higher, more important temple for himself. There are carvings of a jaguar at the top of the temple giving the temple it’s noteworthy name. An altar was placed at the very top where the ruer was able to connect to the Gods and speak to his people. It is hard to imagine what the view must have been like from 180 feet up in the sky! Unfortunately you are not able to climb Temple I.
The North Acropolis
The North Acropolis was built as a tiered mausoleum for its rules with layers of elaborate burial chambers for its rulers. Archeologists have discovered over 100 structures within the acropolis and some date back before the time of Christ. There is evidence that the site may have been occupied as early as 600 BC. The final completed acropolis had over 12 temples laying atop a giant platform and it must have been an extraordinary sight to see.
The Central Acropolis served as the residential and administrative quarters for the Mayan rules. It is an architectural maze of buildings forming a series of seven mini plazas. It is fun to walk around the explore the rooms of the nobility and also get a different perspective on the Grand Plaza.
Temple II –Temple of Masks
Temple II is also known as the “Temple of Masks” and was built around 700 AD by the ruler Kasaw Chan K’awil as a mausoleum for his wife. You can still climb the 125 feet/38 m temple by a series of wooden stairs behind the back of the temple. I would highly recommend it for the magical view of the plaza.
Temple III -Temple of the Great Priest
As you leave the Grand Plaza and round the corner, you get your first real view of Temple III known as the “Temple of the Great Priest”. Built in 810 AD, it was the last structure to be completed before Tikal was completely abandoned in 900 AD. It is the third tallest temple in Tikal measuring 197 feet/ 60 m. Only the top of the temple is excavated and the rest lies underneath thick vegetation.
Temple IV -The Two-Headed Snake Temple
I did not have time to see all in one day, only the highlights. I missed Temple V, Plaza of the & Temples, Window Palace and a few other noteworthy sites. However, in my opinion one day gave me a very good overview of Tikal. By far, Tikal pretty much blew me away and to this day I can’t quite say I’ve seen anything quite like it before.
If you Go
Tikal National Park is open 365 days a year. The opening hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost of admission to the park is Q 150 (US $ 20) for foreigners and Q 25 for nationals. If you would like to spend more than a day there to explore (highly recommended if you want to see more than the Grand Plaza), you can stay at a campsite or one of the park’s lodges. For more information on lodging check out the Tikal Inn, Jungle Lodge Tikal, and Jaguar Inn Tikal.
Worth a Read
I found these two articles absolutely fascinating: Tikal Rediscovered: The Greatest Mayan City Just Got a Lot Grander (AFAR) and Sprawling Maya network discovered under Guatemala jungle (BBC News).
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