Builders of monuments, creators of calendars and discoverers of chocolate, the Maya easily hold their own as one of the most fascinating civilizations to have left their mark on the world. Mayan sites are some of the primary attractions which bring travelers to the American isthmus. Today we’ll begin a tour of the some of the more famous Mayan sites with a visit to the towering monuments protruding from the jungle in Guatemala – Tikal. But first a little context…
The Maya developed city-states starting from around 1800 BCE, in the area which is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Mayan history is generally divided into three periods: Pre-classic 1800 BCE – 250 CE, Classic from 250-900 CE and Post-classic from 900 CE until the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors.
Corn (maíz) was the basis of their subsistence, as it remains for the people living in this area today. The landscape was also characterized by large deposits of limestone, which the Maya used to carve monuments and decorate their temples. They had a pantheon of gods for whom they would sacrifice humans and make other (often bloody) offerings. Their hieroglyphic writing allowed them to record their history. They are also notable for their scientific advancements, such as the first known use of “zero” and the development of a strikingly accurate calendar systems.
For reasons that remain unknown, Mayan civilization began to decline around 900 and most sites were eventually abandoned. This does not mean that people died out. There are plenty of Mayan peoples populating their traditional lands today. But most of their great cities had been abandoned before the Spanish arrived. Experts debate about the cause of this decline, but that’s a subject for another post. Let’s get to Tikal.
Visiting the Park
Located in the northern, El Petén, region of Guatemala, Tikal is easily accessed from either Flores or Santa Elena.
I found Tikal to be a fabulously well-managed park. Guides were knowledgeable, there were no flocks of vendors and wooden staircases have been constructed which allow you to climb the temples without actually climbing on the temples.
The entrance fee is upwards (charged in Quetzals which varies in value) of $20 USD, but totally worth it.
If you’re staying in nearby El Remate, Santa Elena or Flores, get your hiney out of bed early to be at the park when it opens at 6 AM. When I visited, the only lodging available in the park was camping or a spendy lodge. If I had it to do over, I would cough up the cash and stay in the park. There’s a lot to see here. Tikal claims to be the biggest excavated site on the continent. And the local wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn.
Travelers are often advised to make their way immediately to the top of Temple IV, on the far side of the park in order to sit atop the temple and watch the pyramids emerge as the morning mist clears. This is, no doubt, a spectacular way to start the day, but I got distracted on the way there by all the exciting sounds of the jungle. That’s the thing about Tikal, the ruins are spectacular, but even if there were no ruins here, it would be worth the price of admission just to see the jungle. By the end of the day, I had seen so many monkeys, I wasn’t even bothering to look anymore. And birdwatchers will surely check more than one species of toucan off of their list.
More than any other Mayan site I’ve visited, the builders of Tikal seemed obsessed with size, specifically height. The temples soar, reaching above the forest canopy towards the heavens. As the guide explained, their quickly-narrowing design gives the optical illusion of even more height. Climbing the stair-ladders (steeper than your average set of stairs) up one temple after another, I understood the guides comment. “Going up is physically challenging, coming down psychologically.”
Tikal is believed to have been home to around 100,000 people at its peak in the mid sixth century. It had conquered neighboring cities and was the dominant power in the region. The relics left behind, plazas, temples and artifacts filling two museums, make a fascinating introduction to the Mayan world for any traveler.