Tikal is not only the largest of the Mayan cities in all America but also the most spectacular. It is situated in the province El Petén about 60 kilometres north of Flores. What makes it special are not just the well preserved or rather well restored pyramids; Tikal is a combination of monumental buildings, half covered by jungle ruins and breathtaking nature.
Beside some of the finest examples of Mayan architecture you can expect to see plenty of wildlife; birds, monkeys and with a bit of luck some Tarantulas and Coral snakes (depending on what you consider luck of course). The whole site is covered with rain forest and surrounded by thick jungle. Whenever you turn around a corner you can expect something new and exciting.
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Although archaeologists have been working there for decades now only a fraction of the buildings has been uncovered. You’ll still find plenty of structures covered by jungle, most of them you won’t even recognise.
According to my guide – and he was a Mayan descendant – the name actually refers to the area being rather muddy. The etymology is not quite clear but it is widely suggested that it derives from Ti-akal meaning “At the reservoir”. It is questionable that the name is ancient. Inscriptions refer to the place as Yax Mutal. It is quite possible that this name only applied to the central parts of the city but since the kingdom itself was called Mutal it would make sense.
Great Tour from Flores to Tikal: You are picked up at the airport or your hotel in Flores. The day trip takes 8 hours and you see a lot: More information and booking
“Urban” development began in the second century with Tikal seeing its heyday during the Early Classic period 200-600. The decline started towards the end of the Late Classic period (600-900), following long and exhausting conflicts with rivalling kingdoms like Calakmul . By the end of the 10th century the site was abandoned.
The most spectacular buildings in Tikal are the six large step pyramids. Most famous is Temple I that in many ways became the face of Tikal. It would feature on book covers, postcards and DVD’s and of course there is a reason. Temple I is sexy; without the shadow of a doubt one of the most beautiful Mesoamerican step pyramids ever built. It is also known as “Temple of the Great Jaguar”.
It was built after the death of Hasaw Chan K’awil (Ah Cacau) 682–734 and most likely following his instructions. The ruler’s tomb was discovered underneath the shrine but it is not quite clear if the tomb was built for this purpose. The ruler is portrayed on the huge roof comb that surmounts the temple on top of the pyramid. The temple has three rooms and there is very little question that it served as a mortuary shrine. Inside the shrine archaeologists found a carved wooden lintel that shows Ah Cacau sitting in front of a jaguar-protector deity.
The pyramid has nine levels. The whole temple is 44 meters high. The nine steps most likely have a mythological reference while the height of the steps is normally determined by astronomical demands. Like most pyramids it is carefully aligned and also served as some sort of astronomical calendar.
It was suggested that Temple II opposite Temple I was constructed in honour of Hasaw’s wife. The remains of one of the carved lintels show a royal figure that – although no inscriptions survived – is widely considered her. The construction of Temple II began much earlier than the construction of Temple I. From all we know Hasaw’s wife indeed died long before him in 703. Hasaw himself died around 734 – the date is not actually confirmed but his son followed him on the throne that year – so it makes a lot of sense that Temple II precedes Temple I. It is also known as the Moon Temple.
Temple III was built around 810. It is rather unusual especially in comparison with the other temples. It is an impressive 60 metres high but has only two interior rooms (instead of normally three). Since it was built at the end of a katun (unit in the Mayan calender = 7200 days) it should have been part of a twin pyramid complex but for unknown reason wasn’t. It is located west of the Great Plaza and associated with Yax Ain II. He is depicted as a rather heavyset man. Temple III is the latest of the pyramid temples.
You should actually check that out. It is a narrow strip of land just of the coast. It is shaped like a seven and – seriously – must have been a paradise before they started to build five star hotels, fancy night clubs, expensive restaurants, shopping malls and American fast food chains on it. The scariest thing I saw is Margariteville. It is some sort of theme park where you can pretend to be a pirate (Disney style) and get hammered. I only watched a video at the airport where they have a restaurant but that was good enough for me. I’ll probably have nightmares from that.
Temple IV is spectacular for a number of reasons. With a height of 70 metres it is not only the cities tallest structure but one of the tallest in all Mesoamerica second only to “La Danta” in El Mirador. The temple was build by Yik’in Chan Kawil, the son of Ah Cacau’s, probably around 741 AD.
It’s most spectacular feature is the view from the top. You overlook the whole area and in the distance you see temples I, II and III rising above the forest canopy. You’ll also see the Temple of the Inscriptions and Pyramid of the Lost World. Just to enjoy this view worth’s going to Tikal and it’s getting even better.
It is spectacular at any time but there is one particular day where it’s breathtaking: May 4th towards sunset. The tops of the pyramids will glow like as if they are made of gold. According to my guide sunset looks awesome any other day but at exactly this date the light is special. Of course this is no coincidence. The day marks the beginning of the rainy season. The pyramids were built this way on purpose!
One of THE things to do in Tikal is watching the sun rise from Temple IV. With a bit of luck you will see the sun rising behind the pyramids and that is something special. To get there you will have to book the so called Sunrise Tour. The site is still closed at that time and with a tour is the only way in. I agree it is quite expensive (around 45 USD) and departing from Flores at 3AM normally isn’t my idea of a holiday either and to make it worse it was so misty when I was there that I didn’t actually see the sunrise; still I’d recommend it at any time.
Imagine this: You arrive in Tikal 5.30 in the morning while the park is still closed. Everything is pitch black. The guides give you basic instructions and then off you go. For about 20 minutes you have to walk through the dark jungle (I had lost my torch just before getting there), you are surrounded by noises you cannot place and you do know there is all sorts of animals here including jaguars, spiders and snakes. It’s awesome. You stumble through the dark, up and down man made hills until you finally arrive at Temple IV. Of course you still can’t see a thing but that only adds to the fascination.
At this stage you they have installed stairs to get up to the platform and I considered that good news. As much as I normally dislike them I was glad to see proper stairs on this occasion. The guide told us they had steep ladders until recently but so many accidents happened that they finally got rid of them. Climbing a wet and slippery lime stone pyramid in the middle of the night may sound like fun but I wasn’t too disappointed to miss that.
When you arrive on the platform the first thing you notice is that it is bloody freezing (bring a jumper) and secondly: you can’t see a thing. This is the time to sit down and chill out. Listen to the jungle as it is waking up; birds, monkeys and who knows what else. After a while it will get brighter and brighter and then you suddenly see the sun rising at the horizon; the three pyramids in the foreground, mist emerging from the rain forest. You get the picture.
Although we did not actually see any of this I was more than happy that I went. It was an experience, something you will keep with you for the rest of your life.
The different guides in Tikal all have their speciality. Mine was into nature more than anything else. He would still explain everything about Mayan culture and all the structures you see on the way but he was eager to show us how beautiful this area is.
I mentioned snakes and spiders before. He took us to one of the closed sections of the excavation. Since it was a Sunday no work was going on there so we didn’t disturb anyone. He stopped at a hole in the ground and explained to us what we looked at: a spider nest. He tried to tease the Tarantula with a blade of grass but all we saw was a hairy spider leg. Good enough for me to be honest. He also warned us to be very careful when doing this since they can get really pissed off and jump at you. The second thing we learned is, make sure the hole has a spider web on top. Otherwise there might be a coral snake in there.
The most useful thing I learned that day was that if you only have a small digital camera you can still take amazing pictures of birds in a tree. The trick is to hold your binoculars in front of the lens. I never would have thought this works but I saw it with my own eyes. I admit I was a bit pissed off because I carried a heavy semi-professional camera with a 300 millimetre zoom lens and people with their 50 Euro crap cams got as close to the birds as I did but then I still believe none of them managed to take pictures as good as I did. You see them below.
I think I can stop here. There is more to see in Tikal. I haven’t mentioned Temple V which is now fully rebuilt and breathtaking beautiful. Although work finished only four or five years ago the originally shiny white limestone already turned dark and it looks just perfect. Don’t miss Mundo Perdido (The Lost world), Temple VI (The Temple of the Inscriptions) and all the other cool stuff there but most important don’t forget to take your time. Look up in the trees. You will see Toucans, Parrots, rare hawks and plenty of monkeys. Enjoy the beauty of nature. If Tikal would look like the old times it wouldn’t be all that cool. Back then there were no trees, no green just 64 square kilometres of plaster covered with tens of thousands of structures.
I strongly recommend seeing all the ruins you want to see before going to Tikal. You will be spoiled afterwards and I’m speaking from experience. Even most beautiful sites like Palenque did not impress me as much as they should and would have because I went to Tikal first.
FACTS ABOUT TIKAL:
- Tikal is one of the most impressive Mayan sites in all America.
- It is in the province El Petén.
- Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Get there by bus or Mini Van.
- Tikal is huge. A guide is highly recommended.
- The Site is open 6 AM – 6 PM.
- Tickets cost about 20 USD.