Tikal National Park: Captivating Maya Ruins Immersed in Lush Rainforest
Tikal National Park is located in the dense jungles of the Petén basin, in northern Guatemala, once the cradle of Maya civilization. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most extensive archaeological sites in the Americas comprising around 3000 structures and spanning an area of 16km2. The region was inhabited from 6th Century BCE until approximately 900CE.
Tikal National Park is home to jaguar, puma, ocelet, Mantled Howler Monkey, Yucatan Spider Monkey, tapir, coati, crocodile and river turtle. While coatis are occasionally seen near the entrance to the Park, the most commonly observed animals are the troops of spider monkeys swinging through the treetops. The primeval screams of the howler monkeys echo throughout the jungle as they defend their territory from would-be invaders.
The first modern description of Tikal was made by Franciscan monk Fray Andrés de Avendaño y Loyola. In 1696 during one of his evangelical forays into the jungle, he encountered “very tall and ancient temples that had the form of convents”.
The site was rediscovered in the 1840s by Ambrosio Tut, a chiclero (vegetable gum gatherer) who spied temple crests from the treetops while surveying the region. Locals referred to the site as Tikal. In Yucatec Mayan, ti a’kal means “in the water well” and may refer to an old water source in the region. Another possible derivation is “place of voices”. Maya glyphs from the site itself refer to the city as Yax Mutul.
The main palaces and temples of Tikal are built on a group of limestones hills which rise from the surrounding swamp plains and are interconnected by elevated causeways. The focal point of the sprawling city of Tikal is the citadel which comprises 60 structures making it the largest extant city in the Maya world.
Tikal may have dominated the commercial east-west route which spans the Yucatán peninsula. At its height, the population numbered 100,000-200,000 inhabitants. Most of the structures of the city were built between 250-900CE. Judging from artefacts and inscriptions discovered in the region, at its height, the city-state of Tikal exerted an influence over an area of about 750km2.
Despite being one of the major cities of the Classical period of Maya history, Tikal had no other water source than rainwater which was collected and stored in ten reservoirs. Dependence on seasonal rainfall is considered by archaeologists to be a contributing factor for the demise of the Maya civilization.
The Great Plaza is the central feature of Tikal which links many structural groups. The broad courtyard is flanked by two huge east-west pyramid structures and by the North and Central Acropoles.
To the north of the Great Plaza is the North Acropolis, an extensive funerary complex for the ruling elite of Tikal which was continually built over by successive generations.
To the south of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis, a palace complex which housed the royal families of Tikal. Unlike other palaces in the complex which were built over, the Palace of Chak Tok Icha’ak I, is thought to have been kept as a memorial to the murdered king by usurpers from Teotihuacan.
Seven Temples Complex, one of the larger plazas at Tikal, features a row of seven small temples and a Mesoamerican ballcourt.
The Mundo Perdido (Lost World Complex) is a large complex which was primarily dedicated to astronomical study. The complex is dominated by the Lost World Pyramid which bears a striking similarity to the great pyramid of Teotihuacan.
The 70m high Temple IV is the tallest structure in the park and affords stunning views of Temples I, II and III and the verdant rainforest canopy. Sunrise tours of Temple IV are popular and can be arranged either in advance with a tour operator or in person at the park office. You can stay overnight near the park, either in the campground or one of the few hotels located near the park entrance. If the sunrise tour is part of your full-day excursion, you will depart at about 4am from Flores to ensure early arrival.
Tikal in Cinema
George Lucas shot several scenes in Tikal depicting the rebel base on planet Yavin 4 which featured in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Where to Stay
Most visitors to Tikal spend at least one night in Flores, a picturesque colonial village on a small island on Lake Petén Itza. Brightly coloured low-rise buildings crowd the narrow cobbled-stone alleys of this charming town. The island is linked to the mainland town of Santa Elena by an umbilical bridge. Flores is completely set up for travellers and features hotels, hostels, restaurants, laundries and and internet cafes.
How to Get to Tikal
Mundo Maya International Airport (IATA code: FRS) in Santa Elena is the nearest airport to Tikal. There are daily flights from Guatemala City and Belize City. Taxis from the Airport to Flores cost approximately Q20.
Day-trips to Tikal from Flores depart on a daily basis. Such tours are best organized a day in advance so you can depart early the following morning and maximize your time at the site.
If you prefer to make your own transfer and guiding arrangements, there are minibuses from Flores which take 1hr15min one-way (Q120 round-trip, Q60 one-way). Local buses depart Santa Elena bus station and take approximately 2hrs (Q30). Official National Park guides await visitors near the entrance and ticket office.
Many agencies operate cross-border tours which depart from San Ignacio, Belize. Be sure to bring your passport.
Adventurous travellers can join local guides for a 3-day trek through the Petén Jungle via El Zotz which finishes in Tikal National Park.
Monday to Sunday, from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Tikal National Park – Q150 (USD 20)
Sunrise tour of Temple IV – Q150 (USD 20) contact the Park Administration Office or your travel agency.