Touring the Ancient Mayan City of Tikal
During our time in Guatemala, we have been fortunate enough to visit the Mayan City of Tikal in the rainforest about 190 miles from Guatemala City. We knew we couldn’t leave Central America without seeing this ancient community. Therefore, we found a tour guide and headed for the jungle.
Established in the 1950s, the Mayan City of Tikal is a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Today it is a fascinating site to visit because of its documented history, remoteness, and jungle setting. Still, not many people make the trip. On our tour, we were lucky enough to be one of the only visitors there. Alone with only the monkeys and Toucans in the trees above.
Size and Population
We marveled to learn that at its peak around 750 AD, Tikal was home to at least 60,000 Maya people. The main structures cover about one mile, but surveyors believe it covers at least six square miles.
Because of the many archeologists translating hieroglyphs’, Tikal is one of the best understood Maya sites. As we tour the site, our guide told us that records are so detailed that historians have chronicled over 800 years. We learned that in the Mayan city of Tikal, like many Maya cities, medieval kings constantly attempted to conquest each other and this place won and lost in equal measure.
The ancient city’s architecture is built from limestone and includes large royal palaces, smaller pyramids, residences, administrative buildings, platforms, and sports courts. But that’s just what we know today. Archeologists believe there are more than 3,000 structures in the city, but many await discovery and restoration.
Much of the Mayan city of Tikal is still yet to be clear for visitors. If you tour the area as we did, you’ll get to the temples by paths that allow you to walk from one to the next.
The Grand Plaza
The Great Plaza is the main square of the city. This is where we saw the Temple of the Great Jaguar: Temple I. It is a 154 feet high tomb dating from 750 AD. The nearby Temple II, the Temple of the Mask is 125-feet tall from 700 AD.
For their time, these were incredibly tall and unseen before.
Temple IV is the largest pyramid in the Mayan city of Tikal and, at 213 feet tall, the tallest Maya structure ever built. We climbed to the top by a wooden staircase and saw other temples’ caps above the canopy. It has the best views in all the city.
The second highest temple of the Mayan city of Tikal is 187 feet tall. You can catch an Instagram-worthy image of it from the trail where you first see it in the jungle clearing, appearing out of nowhere through a gap in the trees.
Temples III and VI
Temple III is a solid building seeming more like a carved rock than a stacked limestone. It is the Temple of the Jaguar Priest, but people also call it the Temple of Inscriptions. Here, hieroglyphic inscriptions run along its sides.
Lost World Pyramid
The Lost World Pyramid is one of the oldest structures found throughout the Mayan city of Tikal. Though this ancient temple is almost 100 feet tall, jungle vines cover most of it. At the top, we could stand on a viewing platform and see the city stretched out before us.
Historians believe that the Mayan city of Tikal reached its peak between 600 and 800 AD and collapsed from overpopulation and agriculture failure.
The last dated stone monument at the site dates from 889 AD, but archeologists believe small groups continued to live there for another century before abandoning it. Then the jungle overtook the ancient city, and it lay hidden for centuries.
Visiting the Mayan city of Tikal
Our visit here has been one of the highlights of our Guatemala trip. Visiting the temples is such a special experience because this is where Mayan culture first originated.