Towering temples stand proud against a lush green backdrop of tropical rainforest. Majestic pyramids pierce the green canopy in almost every direction. The jungle comes alive with the sounds of hundreds of animals as you wander through the trees, exploring this massive lost city. Tikal has to be seen to be believed. This is without a doubt one of the most impressive ancient cities in the world, and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of Guatemala’s top attractions. If you love history and nature and want to feel like a real explorer, Tikal is one site you have to visit.
History of Tikal
The Maya first settled in the area that became Tikal as early as 3000 years ago, with evidence of agriculture and a small settlement from this period. However, it wasn’t until the 4th century BC that Tikal started developing into an urban centre. The city was known to the Maya as Mutul. The city grew in importance in the 2nd century AD, perhaps due to pre-classic cities in the Peten like El Mirador collapsing.
Tikal started expending and building an empire in the 4th century AD, when several neighbouring cities were conquered. Some archaeologists think Tikal’s rise was aided by being conquered by Tetihucan during this century, with the links between the cities helping Tikal to become the pre-eminent city in the Peten region.
Tikal had a long standing rivalry with Caracol and especially Calakmul, and was defeated by an alliance of these two cities in 562AD. Despite it’s crushing defeat Tikal managed to bounce back, and eventually went on to conquer Calakmul in 695AD. After it’s victory over it’s greatest rival, Tikal reined supreme as the greatest power in the classic Mayan world, with a population of possibly over 100,000. It was during the century after this, that most of the great monuments you still see today in Tikal were built. Recent research has suggested the area had a much higher population that previously thought, with highways connecting Tikal to other cities and urban areas.
Like most of the Mayan world Tikal went into decline in the 9th century, with order in the city collapsing completely by the end of the century. Most of the inhabitants subsequently abandoned the city, with small groups clinging on until 950AD. After this period the city was deserted, the beautiful buildings left to be devoured by the jungle.
The city wasn’t officially ‘rediscovered’ until 1848, when the governor of Peten led an expedition here. Some local Maya clearly still knew about the city, as they led the expedition to Tikal (Hernado Cortes himself had also come within a few kilometres of the city in 1525).
There were extensive archaeological excavations from 1958-1970 that uncovered many of the major buildings at the site. Tikal was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, ensuring it would receive at least some protection.
Location of Tikal
Tikal is located in the Peten region, around 40 miles from the beautiful city of Flores on Lake Peten Itza, and about 2 miles south of the small town of Uaxactun. The archaeological site lies within the Tikal National Park, which covers over 57,000 hectares of forest and contains many rare species. This national park comprises a small part of the 2,000,000 hectare Mayan forest reserve; the same reserve that stretches all the way to Calakmul and well beyond. It’s Tikal’s remote location within this amazing habitat that gives the site so much of it’s allure
There is a massive amount to see at Tikal, it dwarfs most other Mayan sites and was the largest one I explored. The ruins cover an area of over 16 square kilometres and contain at least 3000 structures, so you have a lot of ground to cover. However, it’s possible to thoroughly explore all the major sights over a long day — or a day and night if you are feeling adventurous.
Here are my picks of the sights you can’t miss.
This was the beating heart of the ancient city, where many ceremonies took place and the elite ruled the city from the surrounding palaces and temples. It’s a stunning place, with the plaza being by far the most restored area of Tikal. Exploring this area will give you a sense of the scale and grandeur of the original city. The plaza is surrounded by the iconic Temples 1 and 2, along with the North Acropolis and Central Acropolis.
This is the one area of Tikal that can get relatively busy sometimes, as many people understandably make a beeline for it. If you come here very early or late it will be much quieter or even empty though.
Also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, this magnificent pyramid is the most famous building at Tikal, and one you will probably instantly recognize from Star Wars. The distinctive, very steep pyramid dominates the east of the plaza directly facing temple 2. The pyramid is 47 metres tall and was completed in 732AD. It was partly built to honour king Jasaw Chan K’awil, known as the Great Jaguar, he was buried deep inside the building in a chamber filled with treasure: sadly there is none left. The temple was used for religious ceremonies by Mayan priests. The pyramid was built so that it aligns with the rising sun on the spring equinox, with the sun rising directly over the apex of the temple. It’s also aligned so that the moon passes over it’s pinnacle before midnight.
Unfortunately the public are no longer allowed to climb up the pyramid, though if you sneak in at night you can(if you fall don’t blame me though!)
I climbed up with a friend near midnight and it was an exhilarating experience; the steps are very steep and slippery in places and one wrong move could have resulted in a fatal fall. By the time we reached the top the rest of pyramid and plaza below us was shrouded in thick fog, making it feel like we were sat on top of a pyramid above the clouds. It was a surreal and magical moment.
At the west end of the plaza stands the smaller but still impressive Temple 2, known as the Temple of the Masks. This pyramid is 40 metres tall, and was built as a mausoleum for the wife of Chan K’awil. This pyramid is in remarkably good condition for it’s age, and unlike Temple 1 you’re allowed to climb up it. Stairs and a wooden platform have been built around it to make it easier and safer to climb, and also to preserve the building.
The view from the top is impressive, allowing you to look down on the centre of Tikal and imagine what it must have been like when it was the heart of an empire. The view from here at night is even better, with the buildings of the plaza seen against a stunning backdrop of thousands of stars. If you sit facing the Great Jaguar Pyramid on a clear night, you can see the moon rise over the apex of the pyramid, with the light of the moon shining into the temple on top of temple 2. I sat up here for several hours watching the moon rise and enjoying the tranquility. We even noticed what looked like a UFO in the sky above the jungle – it was a spherical object with different coloured lights around the centre. Perhaps it was just a weather balloon or another mundane object though…
At the north side of the plaza is this large collection of buildings built atop an artificial platform. This area is one of the oldest in Tikal, with the foundations of some buildings dated back to the 3rd century BC. The buildings included palaces and ceremonial centres, with rulers being buried here until 550AD. Some of the buildings here are badly eroded, but you can still get a sense of the former size and grandeur of the place. There are lots of different temples and stairways to climb up here, giving you a good workout (thoroughly exploring Tikal is like a day long gym session). The views of the pyramids from the top are particularly majestic.
In front of the Acropolis is a collection of stele and altars commemorating different rulers and events in Tikal’s history. It’s remarkable they have survived this long, still keeping alive the deeds of people who have been dead for millennia.
On the south side of the plaza is another Acropolis, which isn’t quite as old as the other one but is still over 2000 years old. Part of it was used as a Royal residence, with some of the other buildings possibly used for religious functions and as schools. The Acropolis was occupied until Tikal was abandoned.
The Acropolis is a maze of small rooms, courtyards and buildings, with the odd tree thrown in for good measure. It shows how time is the great leveller, with travellers like us tramping around what was once part of a secluded, rarefied world for the elite of Mayan society.
Situated a few hundred metres west of the great plaza, this pyramid is still almost completely swallowed up by the jungle. Only the top of the pyramid has been cleared, so the lower levels are still swathed in trees giving the building a wild look. Known as the temple of the Jaguar Priest, this pyramid was completed in 810AD and was the last great monument to be built in Tikal. It seems fitting that the last pyramid built before the collapse should still look like the quintessential lost jungle pyramid.
The area was deserted when I came here, making it feel even more like I was exploring a real lost city. The building is closed to visitors, and for once I decided not to climb up anyway, as I didn’t want to damage the badly eroded steps.
This colossal pyramid towers over the forest at the far west of Tikal. It’s the tallest structure at Tikal at over 65 metres. Better yet you are allowed to climb up this pyramid, with steps winding up from the jungle floor to the very top. The views from the top are mesmerizing, with the peaks of five pyramids the only man-made structures visible above the green canopy of the thick forest, which stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. It really is an awesome feeling being stood on top of here looking out at such a view.
The view from here at sunset is out of this world, and better yet when I was here there was only one other person admiring the show.
South of the central Acropolis is this impressive pyramid, which is the second tallest in Tikal at 57 metres. It was built around 700 and archaeologists aren’t sure which ruler it was built by. Unfortunately you’re not supposed to climb this pyramid, but it’s certainly an impressive site. There is a nice contrast between the front which has been cleared of vegetation, and the sides and back which are still mostly covered. It gives it the impression of building being slowly consumed by the jungle.
The Lost World
No I’m not about to start writing a review of the latest Jurassic Park film, or the original Michael Crichton book (which is worth a read). The lost world complex, or Mundo Perdido in Spanish, is a fascinating collection of 38 buildings in the south of Tikal with it’s own unique architecture. This one of the oldest areas of Tikal, with the largest collection of Pre-Classic buildings in the city. Some of the buildings date from as far back as the 6h century BC; it’s awe-inspiring that these buildings have survived for so long lost in the jungle.
The building most people make a beeline for here is understandably the Great Pyramid of the Lost world, which provides some of the best views in Tikal. The pyramid is 35 metres tall and has a large flat rooftop, perfect for getting panoramic views of Tikal. Due to this pyramids location you have uninterrupted views of all the tallest pyramids at Tikal, it really is a mesmerizing view. I’ve been told you also get the best views of the sunset from here.
The rest of this large complex has some interesting buildings, including a palace complex and the ominously named temple of the skulls. There are three temples here that were used for astronomy, with the positions of the stars tracked throughout the year. Astronomy was vital to the Mayans, as they used the positions of the constellations to predict events and hold ceremonies.
For me the greatest pleasure of exploring here was simply the quiet atmosphere, and seeing how nature has taken over civilisation. Most of the vegetation hasn’t been cleared from the area, so buildings are still shaded by huge tropical trees and in many cases have trees growing through the buildings. It shows now nature is always quick to reclaim land when civilisation retreats. It made me imagine what if our civilisation collapses, and in a thousand years future explorers stumble upon the ruins of some of our once great cities, reduced to decaying shadows of their former selves. The husks of a few skyscrapers poking above the lush green carpet.
At the far north of Tikal is this interesting twin pyramid complex, which is the quietest and most secluded spot in the entire abandoned city. The complex is nearly 1 Km north of Temple 5, and is reached by walking along a narrow path that cuts through the forest. The walk there alone makes it worthwhile, as some of the old trees here are immense, and you are sure to see some wildlife along the way. I saw a family of spider monkeys playing in the branches just above me.
I had the Pyramids to myself for nearly an hour, and it was so quiet I was able to meditate on top of the main pyramid. Sitting next to the temple on the tallest pyramid, with the trees gently swaying in a slight breeze and no sounds apart from the occasional insect, allowed me to experience a level of profound calm and relaxation it’s often hard to achieve.
Sometimes when you dream about going to a place for a long time, the reality doesn’t match up to your fantasies. You build up an image in your mind of a place that might be totally different to the reality, so when you finally go there it shatters your illusions and leaves you feeling let down. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Tikal.
I’d wanted to visit Tikal for many years, and imagined what it would be like to explore it. The reality of it being there was even better. I half expected Tikal to be overrun with tourists, but the site had nowhere near the numbers of visitors as places like Chichen Itza. The park is huge and spread out, so I often found myself exploring areas alone, or with a couple of other visitors. It made it feel like I really was exploring a city that had been lost in the jungle for a 1000 years.
Exploring Tikal at night was even more amazing, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not much can compare to sitting on a pyramid under a dazzling night sky, looking out over the grandiose, jungle clad ruins of a once mighty city.
Do yourself a favour – go to Tikal.
Admission price: 150Q Rather than selling tickets at the entrance, surprisingly you can only get them at the national park entrance 12 miles away. Tickets are valid for one day, though I went in with the same wristband the next day!
Opening Hours: 6am-6pm
As you can imagine with a park this size, it’s really easy to stay after it closes, or you can sneak back in at night. I’d recommend staying to watch the sunset and the stars come out, the whole place really comes alive at this time. It’s like a different world at night too. Just watch out for snakes…
Getting there: You can take a shuttle from Flores for 40Q one way or 70Q for a return. It takes around 1.5 hours to get there. If you want an even cheaper option public buses go from Santa Elena, but they naturally take longer and don’t go that frequently.
Most people who visit Tikal do so on tours or day trips from Flores, or one of the other towns around lake Peten Itza like El Ramate. However, if you have the time it’s really worth staying at one of the hotels near the entrance so you can experience Tikal at night.
Hotel Jaguar Inn Tikal
An attractive hotel and restaurant, that has wooden bungalows with large rooms spread around a verdant garden. Also has about a dozen tents already supplied with air mattresses and sleeping bags, perfect for budget travellers or anyone who wants to get as close to the jungle as possible. I stayed here and found it a good base-camp, the food was also quite nice though a bit overpriced. Tents are 100Q a night.
The closest hotel to the site entrance. As the name suggest it’s cabins really are in the jungle. Has a good swimming pool. Like all the hotels here electricity is run by a generator, so there is no power after 9pm, which makes for a more authentic experience.
Next to Hotel Jaguar, this hotel looks quite similar and has the same attractive surroundings. There is also a pool here and the rooms look clean and spacious.