Tikal is one of the largest archeological sites of the Maya civilization located in the Northern part of Guatemala; Peten province. The National Park itself encompasses 575 square kilometers of jungles, and thousands of ancient ruins. It’s one of the few World Heritage sites given status for meeting both natural and cultural criteria. Its extraordinary biodiversity includes wetlands, tropical forests, and savannah desert allowing a variety of wildlife to thrive. In addition, it maintains the most architectural and artistic remains of the Mayan civilization found in one site.
Over the centuries, Tikal grew into a major political, economic, and military center consisting of palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, residential dwellings, sporting arenas, roads, and terraces. Many of the structures preserved today include carvings, mural paintings, and hieroglyphic inscriptions which tell the story of the city’s dynamic history, and its relationship with far away civilizations located in Mexico, Honduras, and Belize.
Tikal fell into decline towards the end of the ninth century, but reasons for the collapse are unknown. Hypotheses include wars, famine, overpopulation, and resource deprivation. The surrounding jungles and forests eventually began to cover the stone temples so much so that even the Spanish conquerors missed the expansive city when they marched through the country in 1525. It wasn’t until 1548 when the Spanish wrote about a great city hidden in the forest, which brought about an expedition by the government to uncover the mysterious ruins. Swiss, German, and British archaeologists soon followed to assist in clearing debris to study the site.
During the late 1950’s, The University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History began to restore Tikal’s structure, and by 1979, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. Today, Tikal is to Guatemala what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt–a national symbol of the country’s past successes and achievements.
The expansiveness of Tikal amazes even those who have visited various spectacular sites such as Chichen Itza and Palenque in Mexico. The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) sit on opposite sides of the Great Plaza–a vast area which maintained terraces, palaces, and ball courts.
Temple I rises above 50 meters above the Plaza’s eastern end with a stone stairway leading up to the pyramid’s nine tiers–said to represent the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. Making your way to the top of the steps is now banned due to devastating falls of tourists who attempted to make the climb in the past.
In 1958, the tomb of Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate), who was the ancient powerful leader of Tikal, was discovered. The body was found to be decorated with jade ornaments and surrounded by valued offerings. Some of the offerings included pottery, seashells, and pearls from the Caribbean coast. A replica of the tomb is on display at the Tikal Museum near the visitor’s center. Other treasures found in the Temple were intricately carved wooden lintels offering clues to the Mayan beliefs and studies of the cosmos.
Temple II is known as The Temple of the Mask due to the giant stone mask guarding its stairway. The Temple is almost just as tall as Temple I, yet safer to climb, allowing for elaborate views of The Plaza, and two ceremonial and residential complexes.
Dozens of stone pillars stand in rows throughout the plaza and along the surrounding terraces. Carvings and hieroglyphs detailing important dates, and the leadership of Tikal’s ruler, can still be found on the weathered stone.
One of the great achievements of the Maya civilization is astronomy. From atop the pyramids, Mayan astronomers tracked the movements of visible planets, and used their accurate calculations to develop the Mayan calendar. Hieroglyphs found in Tikal record a mysterious date that took place 500 million years ago, and another found in eastern Guatemala notes an unknown event which took place almost 400 million years past.
Discovering the Ruins
There are various options for those interested in discovering the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Those adventurers interested in nitty gritty exploration might choose a newer option–Tikal’s 3-day jungle hike. Guides living in the local communities take groups deep through the Guatemalan jungle to explore the Biosphere Reserve and the lost city of Tikal.
The hike begins through a walking trail that follows the trade routes of ancient Maya beginning in Cruce Dos Aguadas. With two sturdy horses in tow, guides strap hikers’ bedding, food, and water. Locals have been traversing these paths since childhood and are very knowledgeable of the surrounding areas pointing out plants, flowers, and herbs typically used as natural medicine in their own communities, and those you should avoid. Trekkers hike until the final destination of El Zoltz, where you can set up camp, and get ready for the following day’s adventure.
At the break of dawn, howler monkeys act as your alarm for the coming day when you finally get to explore all that is El Zoltz–a stone pyramid found 2 hours away from the main road. Almost 1,200 years ago, this pyramid overlooked the metropolis of Pa’Chan, an important trading city. The entirety of El Zoltz is all but completely immersed in the jungle, knotted with vines and indiscernible from the surrounding landscape. Guards can be found throughout the jungle, stationed to ward off vandals and thieves, though there hasn’t been much criminal activity since the 1970’s.
Guides educate hikers on Mayan beliefs of sisimite–a ghoul who lures victims to steal their powers of speech–or siguanaba, a woman spirit with the face of a horse who feeds on men’s’ souls. It is believed that their presence can be found in these deeper parts of the jungle, therefore trekkers must keep their eyes peeled.
50 miles from the starting point of Cruce Dos Aguadas comes the final stretch of the trail, leaving you in the stone city of Tikal, as its lead so many Mayans before you. Emerge from the embracing jungle to unlimited open space surrounded by ancient temples, roads, and residential areas. Of course, overshadowing it all are the massive structures of Temple I and Temple II–a final awe to conclude your hike.
Trips to Tikal don’t have to be so immersive. One day guided tours from Guatemala City are possible, or even a trip on your own accord. But if you’re going to experience Tikal, why not walk the path of the Mayans?
Ruins Left to be Uncovered
Research has revealed evidence of highly sophisticated technical, intellectual, and artistic achievements, but none more evident than the last major discovery still left to be uncovered.
Only recently have laser pulses showed evidence of thousands of ruins, hidden under the dense jungle, expanding to reaches even greater than the size of Tikal. Populations formerly thought to be only a few million have recently jumped to as high as 10-15 million due to the size of the roads discovered through laser images. Only time will tell when the newly discovered pyramids, palaces, tombs, agricultural zones, highways, and dwellings will resurface thanks to current technology and the work of archaeologists as eager to explore the new Mayan sites, as we are.