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Tikal – The Largest Mayan Excavation You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


24th July 2017

Buried deep in the Guatemalan jungle, miles from the nearest city lies one of the largest ancient Mayan sites. You may recognise it from some documentaries or pictures on the internet. The largest temple on the site, Temple IV, has even been featured in the first film of the classic Star Wars saga but Tikal remains a mystery to almost all but those that dare venture into the jungle to uncover some of its secrets.

jungle ruins Tikal

Dotted all over the jungle are restored and non restored ruins.  Tikal is much more open to explore than more popular sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum where the volume of people would make it hazardous.

Getting to Tikal

The ruins of Tikal are 303km (188m) north of Guatemala City. If you’re flying in to the country it is likely you will fly to here. Travel to Tikal from Guatemala City will take the better part of a day depending on traffic in the notoriously congested road system of Guatemala’s capital city. You can also fly to the small “international” airport in Flores from Guatemala City and also Belize City (hence the international title of the airport). Some American Airlines fly direct to both cities but if you’re flying from anywhere else you will more than likely have to change.

Today the island of Flores and neighbouring Santa Elena on the mainland are closest to the ancient site just 64km (40m) to the southwest. The quality of the roads, or lack of it thanks to corruption in the government, that leads visitors to the 220² mile Tikal National Park (the largest protected area in Central America) takes over an hour to navigate the potholed track that passes as a road.

If you’re going to do it on your own make sure you buy a ticket in a local bank before you leave. To stop the rife corruption and protect and preserve the ruins you must have a ticket before you depart for Tikal.  In the past the money that was changing hands wasn’t finding its way to the national park.  If you’re taking a tour, don’t fret your tickets will be handled by the guide.

Exploring Tikal – Using Flores As A Base

Most visitors choose to visit Tikal as part of a longer stay in the area, usually basing themselves in one of the hotels in the picturesque island of Flores in the western end of the largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Peten Itza. The island is small, you can walk round it in 15 minutes but with some delightful restaurants and bars to go along with the equally beautiful views and sunsets, a couple of days relaxing on the riviera are a perfect contrast to a day exploring the ruins of Tikal.

flores sunset panorama

Looking out over the promenade in Flores at sunset.

Getting To Tikal From Flores

The reserve is well signposted in the surrounding area if you plan on driving yourself. Because of the heat and humidity in the jungle, you will want to get to the ruins early to maximise your time. By going early you will also largely avoid the hottest part of the day in the early afternoon. If it is the rainy season this is also most likely when the rain will fall.

The excavations span 16² kilometres but the site covers 60² square kilometers. As impressive as the site is now, remember that only 15% of Tikal has been excavated so far. There is far more for us to learn here. Many more secrets hiding in the jungle buried beneath centuries of undergrowth where the jungle has reclaimed its territory. Unfortunately it takes an awful lot of time, money and resources to restore these structures. At the moment, they are all in short supply.

There are many tours running daily to the site. Here is a map to help you find the ruins if you want to drive yourself.

The guards at the gate to the National Park will offer to sell you an official map of the site for the equivalent of $5 which makes a lovely keepsake and offers some great information in a compact format. A purchase is not compulsory. It will come in particularly handy if you plan on not having a guide although I would highly recommend you hire one locally who will be able to bring the ruins to life on your tour.

Once you pass the gates of the national park you are still roughly 20 minutes from the parking area and visitor centre. It’s a straight road and you can’t get lost easily. The car park and visitor centre are well signposted.

To give you an idea of the size of the actual site, once you pass the gates and start making your way to the car park area the ruins run parallel with the road on the left hand side but because of the thick jungle you won’t notice a thing especially as a lot of the structures are still in ruins and unrecognisable in their present state.

Preparing For Your Day At Tikal

root strength trail Tikal

The trails in Tikal are littered with the root systems of trees that can’t penetrate down so fill out instead to get stability. Watch your footing!

If you plan on staying most of the day to see as much as you can, make sure to take plenty of water with you. Tikal is very spread out and to see the main sights requires a lot of walking along sometimes slippery jungle trails. Throw in various temples and structures where, unlike in Chichén Itza and Tulum, you are allowed to climb, and the going is surprisingly tough after only a few minutes in the searing heat of even mid morning let alone the hottest part of the day between midday and 3pm.

Because you will be walking through thick jungle, a mosquito repellent would be advisable. Just because there is a lot of trees around, don’t underestimate the power of the sun here. Bring a high factor sun cream with you. The area around Tikal regularly receives around 60 inches of rain per year. To say the weather here is unpredictable would be an understatement. To be safe, visit as early in the day as possible but take a waterproof layer with you just in case. Check with your tour company first if the transport will wait so you can leave it in the vehicle if the weather turns out fine.

If you find that you are drinking more water than you thought there are a few stalls dotted around the site that sell soft drinks, beer and water.

Tikal In A Day

Tikal is vast. 16² kilometers doesn’t sound like a large area for a city but in the heat and humidity here it is energy sapping work. To see every structure in the excavations will take roughly 4 days. Most people though opt for a day trip so what can you see in a day in Tikal?

If you are only here for a day I would recommend you visit the following in this order:

  1. Complex Q
  2. Complex R
  3. Temple 4
  4. El Mundo Perdida (the Lost City)
  5. Grand Plaza
  6. Temple 5

Start At the Visitors Centre

The most popular route starts at the visitor centre where you need to get your ticket validated if you come on your own. There are stalls here for souvenirs but wait until you return to save carrying everything around with you. From the visitor centre its a short stroll past a crocodile pond to the hut that will check your ticket. You are then free to enter the site to the left of the hut up a dirt track that takes off into the jungle under an unassuming yellow traffic barrier.

Complex Q

You will come to a crossroads with a map, take the right hand fork which will take you to Complex Q, the first stop of the day. Complex Q contained identical twin pyramids on east the east and west sides (to represent the birth and death of the sun) of a small plaza.  Only one has been restored, the other has been left to the jungle.  Twin pyramid complete were built to celebrate the end of the 20 year k’atun cycle, a unit of time in the Mayan Calendar.  You can read a more in depth guide on the mayan calendar at Norwegian based Time And Date.

complex q reconstruction, Tikal national park

The reconstructed side of one of the twin pyramids in Complex Q. The Stelae and Altars have been placed where they would have been.

With a new complex being built for every cycle, Tikal is littered with these mini representations of the Great Plaza. Think of Twin Pyramid complexes as ancient Mayan calendars. At the base of the pyramids, rectangular limestone plynths called stelae had low relief hieroglyphics and figures carved in them.  They glorified the king and his achievements & victories as well as notable dates of the last 20 year cycle. In total 9 have been discovered on the site but not all have been restored. Complex Q is the most impressive of these twin pyramid complexes and is a perfect introduction to Tikal.

You will notice though that restoration of the site means reconstructing of 1 half of the outside of a structure while the other half is made safe but left in a close representation to the way it was discovered. It is an interesting comparison standing on the west side of the pyramid seeing a mound of rubble to the left and a multi layered temple to the right. Restoring structures like this not only helps to cut the cost of the initial restoration but also in effect halves the cost of upkeep.

Tikal Complex Q panorama, pyramid reconstruction Tikal

The partial reconstruction of the Complex Q pyramid is your first stop on your tour of Tikal.

Complex R

A short walk under cover of the trees is Complex R. Unlike the impressive Complex Q, Complex R has been left untouched so visitors can compare the states of the buildings before and after restoration. Without the trained eye of an archeologist you would be hard pressed to spot a pyramid here amidst all the undergrowth. The only thing that gives their original purpose away is the stelae strewn around the base.

tikal complex r, unreconstructed pyramids Tikal

In a stark contrast to the reconstruction in Complex Q, Complex R has been left as it was found. The only giveaway to the untrained eye that the mound of earth was a pyramid is the fallen stelae at the base.

Temple IV

Getting to the next, and most famous, temple in Tikal even if you haven’t heard the name, requires a long trek. From Complex R there is a long undulating trail through the jungle, just over 1km long. It’s not very hilly but you do need to be prepared to look where you’re walking through some sections because the roots will make the going more hazardous than it should be.

The tallest temple in Tikal is more famous for the views its summit affords.  The unreconstructed front which is covered in undergrowth and scaffolding.  Restoration has been ongoing for years.

All of a sudden Temple IV is on you but you may not realise it.  The top of the comb is only just barely visible as you emerge from the thick undergrowth. To aide restoration efforts while still giving visitors the opportunity to get the view that many come here to see, a wooden staircase has been erected off to the west side. They pyramid stands 65 meters high.  It is currently the tallest mayan structure in the world.  There is a small shaded seating area to the left near the base of the stairs for anyone that would prefer not to climb.

Tikal temple 4 stairs

The stairs up the side of the temple save you from scrambling up the sides clinging to roots.

Laid out below you amongst a sea of green is the tops of some of the most famous Mayan temples in the country. The scenery is wild and stunning no matter what time of day you come.  While the site will be quieter in the morning, the lighting could be more striking in the afternoon.

A lot of the construction in the excavations are from the Late Classic period from 700AD until the city’s demise in the early years of the 10th Century.  Temple 4 is perhaps the greatest example of this dating from around 760AD. This is around the same time that Tikal was at its peak with a population of around 100,000. Standing on the platform atop Temple IV taking in the scenery around you its easy to realise how insignificant us human beings can be but when we put our minds to something we can create something of astounding beauty.

The Grand Plaza

The Grand Plaza is the best restored area of Tikal and the one place you will find the most congregated visitors.  To the north and south there is the aptly titled North Acropolis along with the Central Acropolis while Temples I and II flank the east and west sides. Temple I (aka Temple Of The Jaguar) is probably the most iconic example of classic Mayan architecture. Ever since 2 tourists fell to their deaths from the 47 meter platform the temple has been closed to would be climbers. The 38 meter tall Temple II (aka Temple Of The Mask) is open to the public via a staircase at the rear providing fantastic panoramic views of the Grand Plaza and both Acropolis. While you’re at the top take some time to admire the carving on the roof comb of the temple as well as the breathtaking view.

tikal grand plaza, grand plaza panorama

Looking across the Grand Plaza from the top level of the Northern Acropolis. Temple I is on the left, Temple II on the right.

Its been a long day to get here so you will be glad to know there there is a toilet available as well as a refreshment stall nearby. Shaded seating is also available to the rear of Temple II.

The Lost World

The Mundo Perdido Complex lies just southwest of the main plaza.  The 32 meter tall Great Temple affords equally stunning views of the area despite being only half as tall as Temple IV. Being used mainly as an astronomical observatory there is no temple at the top, only 3 rooms. With an 80² meter base it was one of the largest pre classic mayan structures to be built. Be careful climbing the stairs which are very uneven and broken in parts and slippery when wet.

great pyramid Tikal, lost world Tikal, astronomical observatory Tikal

The largest structure in the “Lost World” section adjacent to the Grand Plaza, the Great Pyramid served as an astronomical observatory.

Temple V

Completing the circle, Temple V is accessed via a short trail with a dramatic reveal after a small climb out of the Grand Plaza. Like Temple I it is a mortuary pyramid built over the grave of an as yet unidentified ruler. The impressive 57 meter tall structure is second in height to Temple IV. It pre-dates temple IV by around 60 years being constructed around 700AD.

temple V reconstruction, Tikal temple 5

The last reconstruction in Tikal, Temple V is also one of the most photogenic.

Like other structures in Tikal, only half of the pyramid has been restored. With the front facade of Temple IV still undergoing painstaking renovation and Temple I crowded by other structures in the Grand Plaza, Temple V is probably one of most photogenic temples in Tikal.

Tikal – Is It Worth The Effort?

climbing pyramids Tikal

Many of the structures in Tikal can be climbed but be careful with the stairs which aren’t uniform in height of width.

Tikal was lost for a millennium since it was abandoned in the mid 10th Century due to what experts now believe was a meteorological draught. Locals in the area have always known of its existence and even showed the first Guatemalan explorers to the site in the 1850’s.

Back then getting to Tikal took days to reach on foot or by mule.  In 1951 a small airstrip was constructed to aid the massive Tikal project of mapping the central core of the site. A task so large it didn’t finish until 1970.

Today, Tikal is more accessible thanks to a rudimentary road network in the region.  Roads built because of its significance to history and tourism but it still isn’t classed anywhere near as accessible as even Chichen Itzá. It’s not on the main tourist trail of the Riveria Maya but buried deep in the wild jungle of northern Guatemala, around 90 minutes from the border with Belize. Getting here will require a little more effort than Chichen Itza or Tulum but the payoff, for anyone even remotely interested in Mayan history, will be paid many times over.

The landscape is as wild as the spider and howler monkeys that also call this place home. Arrive here early enough in the day and you may find some of the local wildlife accompanying you on your exploration. Tikal shines in its accessibility to the people that choose to make the effort to come. While the popularity of Chichen Itza has made the few once climbable structures off limits, Tikal’s relative obscurity has allowed it to keep it’s treasured temples open to visitors.

As astoundingly beautiful as the sites are from the ground, there is something magical about seeing the sites from the top of a pyramid peaking above the tree canopy. You feel a closer connection to the people that once called this place home. Sitting atop a pyramid for a moment of quiet contemplation surrounded by jungle while the distant sounds of howler monkeys echo through the air is as surreal as it sounds.

Tikal is so large its easy to loose yourself in the site, the culture and the mythology. Trees growing on top of long since overgrown structures contrast sharply with the reconstructions nearby. Its clear that Tikal has much more to give and yet it gives so much of itself to the visitors already. Is it worth the effort? You better believe it!

looking out over Tikal, temple 4 Tikal views, Guatemala jungle in Tikal,

The view out over the Tikal National Park from the top of Temple IV. The tops of temples I and II in the Grand Plaza are on the left.  The giant mound in the middle is also a temple. The Chinese government is interested in possibly funding a restoration project of this temple.

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