When Eric visited the remains of the vast and powerful pre-Columbian Mayan city of Tikal in Northern Guatemala in 1993 he quickly dubbed it his favorite Mayan archaeological site. Eighteen years later we have now visited more than 50 other Mayan sites, including a return to Tikal. Though we’ve loved most of the Mayan sites we’ve visited Eric says that Tikal is still his favorite. Here’s why.

Tikal main plaza - Temple 1

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Though it feels a bit like choosing one child over the others, there’s just something about the combination of epic architecture, deep jungle (more than 20 square miles of it) and legendary history that makes Tikal appeal in ways few other Mayan cities do. Apart from being the country’s most famous archaeological site, Tikal was also Guatemala’s first national park (designated in 1955) and it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1977.

You can’t rush Tikal

To get to the Tikal site you must first pass through Tikal National Park. If you’re driving (as we were, of course) you get a time-stamped form (called a Boleta de Contro de Velocidad or Speed Control Form) at the national park entrance and a warning about the 25 mph speed limit within the national park. Arrive too quickly at the second park check point 10 miles (16 km) down the road and they’ll know you were speeding. Pretty clever.

Tikal Group Q twin pyramid

A pyramid in Group Q at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

To be honest, we were worried that time, “progress” and the pitter patter of so many tourist feet (Tikal attracts bus loads of visitors) might have changed the vibe of the site or, worse, damaged it. Some things have changed since Eric’s first visit. Conservationists complain of damage to structures and jungle areas and too much garbage (though there are plenty of trash cans and we didn’t notice trash on the ground during our visit).

Also, you can no longer climb Temple 1 in the Grand Plaza, in large part because at least one tourist has fallen down the crazy-steep stairs of this structure and died.

Start at the top

After paying 150Q per person (about US$20, the priciest archeological site admission in Guatemala) we walked along a shaded path with jungle encroaching on either side. At 6:30 am the sound of the birds starting their day was almost too loud. After passing an enormous ceiba tree, we reached the main attraction: the massive Grand Plaza and its facing temples.

Early morning fog over the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Temple 2 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

In the Central Acropolis between Temples I and II an impressive mask can be seen on an inner part of the temple which archaeologists have thoughtfully excavated for easy viewing.

The Central Acropolis at the Tikal archaeological site.

Tikal mask

A mask in the Central Acropolis at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Beyond Tikal’s Grand Plaza

Tikal’s Grand Plaza is breathtaking, but this massive site–with more than 3,000 structures and 250 stele (most of them unexcavated) spread over six square miles and cris-crossed with trails–has other surprises in store.

Temple V at the Tikal site.

In fact, limelight-hogging Temple 1 is not the tallest structure at Tikal. Temple IV, one of the most massive structures in the known Mayan world, is 212 feet (65 meters) high (more than 60 feet taller than Temple 1). It’s also still climbable via a vertiginous set of stairs that switch-backs up the side of the structure.

Temple V may only be 187 feet (57 meters) high, but it’s the steepness that will get you. It requires a practically vertical trip up and down a rickety, rusting metal staircase built up the side of this structure to reach the breezes and views from the top.

Steep steps down Temple 5 Tikal

Looking down from the the top of Tikal’s incredibly steep Temple V.

One of the distinct pleasures of Tikal is the trail system that connects all of these various plazas and areas. A peaceful stroll through the jungle is rewarded with the “discovery” of another civilized area, like Mundo Perdido (Lost World) which may date as far back as 500 BC.

Mundo Perdido pyramid

A pyramid in the Mundo Perdido area of Tikal archaeological site.

Even further afield you find five groups, each given a different letter. One of our favorites was Group Q with its twin pyramids. Group R at Tikal also has twin pyramids. The only other known Mayan site with twin pyramids is Yaxha.

A rebuilt pyramid in Group Q in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Though they weren’t Mayans and they lived more than 600 miles way, experts believe that the rulers of Teotihuacan, near what is now Mexico City, taught inhabitants of Tikal how to use spears (instead of hand-to-hand combat) and that helped Tikal dominate the Mundo Maya, control other Mayan cities and sustain a peak population of 60,000.

Our video, below, gives a sense of Tikal’s Grand Plaza in morning mist followed by the epic views you get from the top of Temple IV.

The end of the Mayan calendar

You may have heard that the astoundingly accurate Mayan calendar abruptly ends on December 21, 2012. Depending on who you ask, this marks the end of the world, a chance for humanity to hit the re-set button, or nothing at all.

In 2012, countries in the Mundo Maya are laying on special celebrations of Mayan culture all year long as a way of marking the end of mysterious Mayan calendar. There are so many special events planned that Moon decided to publish a special guide called Maya 2012: A guide to celebrations in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and we contributed to it.

At Tikal, 2012 celebrations will include an amped-up version of the annual Dia de La Razas (Day of the Races, October 12)—an alternative to Columbus Day which celebrates the accomplishments of the Latin American population and honors indigenous cultures.

Leaf Cutter Ants

Leaf cutter ants at the Tikal archaeological site.

We were also told that special ceremonies and rituals, lead by Mayan tatas and nanas (accomplished male and female spiritual leaders whose job is, literally, to “count the days”) will be held on December 21 at Tikal–the exact day the Mayan calendar ends. Details were thin when we were there, but all are welcome to attend just be prepared for crowds.

Looking for a less-crowded place to mark the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012? Just 12 miles (23km) beyond Tikal lies Uaxactun archaeological site which has the earliest known astrological complex in the Mundo Maya.

Pop culture tidbits

Part of the original Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was shot at Tikal mostly from on top of Temple IV looking back at the tops of Temple 1 and Temple II. And in 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés basically rode right past Tikal.

Tikal temple vista from Temple IV

Temples 1 and II as seen from Temple IV at Tikal which looks a lot like shots in  Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the very first Star Wars movie, which was shot, in part, at Tikal in the ’70s.

Tikal travel tip

Debate rages on about the pros and cons of using El Remate vs. Flores as a base camp for your visit to Tikal. However, your time, price of admission, and access to the site will be unquestionably maximized if you can spend two nights at one of the hotels located at Tikal itself.

Tikal Temple III

Karen with Tikal’s Temple III behind her.

New admission rules have eliminated a policy that used to allow you to use one ticket to enter the site in the evening then again in the morning and you now need a new ticket every single day. This means that if you want to see and photograph Tikal in the morning and in the evening (and you do) the easiest way to do that is to stay two nights at the site.

This allows you to arrive, sleep, get up and enter Tikal early, then sit out the afternoon heat and crowds, re-entering the site in the evening before spending a second night at the site.

Another option is to pay 250Q per person (about US$31) on top of the normal 150Q (US$20) entrance fee to gain access to Tikal before and after opening and closing times (6 am to 6 pm).

There are three hotels within a few hundred yards of the entrance to Tikal. We were hosted at Jaguar Inn which has 10 big, clean, tile-floor bungalows with great beds and Wi-Fi plus a decent on-site restaurant. There’s a grassy, flat camping area too including a few sites under a thatch roof.

As an added bonus, the grounds of the Jaguar Inn are full of plants that attract monkeys, so if you didn’t see enough of them in the site itself, you can check them out from the patio and hammock on the front porch of your bungalow.

A spider monkey having lunch–just one of the wild animals that live in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala

 

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