Tikal in Guatemala: One Of The Most Powerful Kingdoms Of The Ancient Maya

Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. It is our 8th stop in the series Journeys to Discovery.

Located in the archaeological region of the Peten Basin in northern Guatemala, this thriving cosmopolitan city, would be rediscovered in the mid 19th century. It had been completely covered by the jungle for centuries.

Tikal is situated in the department of El Peten. Today, the site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and as of 1979, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site core seen from the south, with Temple I at center, the North Acropolis to the left and Central Acropolis to the right.

Tikal was the capital city of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Although there is impressive architectural structures that can be dated as far back as the 4th century BCE, Tikal would reach the height of its power and influence, during the centuries stretching from 200 to 900 CE.

During this era known as the Classical Period, Tikal would come to dominate the region of the Maya. Economically, politically and militarily, Tikal had become the head of a conquest state.

The number of inhabitants would swell to as high as 90,000 by some estimates. If one includes the surrounding hinterland, the population reached well into the hundreds of thousands.

Map of the Maya area within the Mesoamerican region. Both Tikal and Calakmul lie near the center of the area.

The rise in population is quite impressive, considering the area surrounding the city is covered in swamp lands.

Interactions between Tikal and the rest of Mesoamerica became more commonplace, as the power of the Mayan reached its zenith.

Regular contacts were maintained with the valley of Mexico as far north as Teotihuacan. In fact, there is evidence, the latter would actually conquer Tikal in the 4th century CE.

Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico appears to have decisively intervened in Tikal politics

After the late Classical Period, no new major monuments would be constructed at Tikal.

Around this epoch, it is likely that a number of the aristocratic palaces and temples would be desecrated and later burned. By this time, the population was already gradually diminishing, with final abandonment taking place by the end of the 10th century.

In the modern era, the city has been completely mapped and it has been determined that it once covered an area of 6.2 square miles (16 square kilometers). Within the main city about 3,000 buildings were constructed, over hundreds of years.

Tikal Temple I rises 47 meters (154 ft) high.

The structures were built on a series of limestone ridges rising above numerous swampy lowlands. These built up areas remained connected, by a series of causeways that spanned over the wetlands.

Major construction at Tikal was already underway, in the Late Pre-classic period during 400-300 BCE. The first leading pyramids and platforms would be built at this time. Although Tikal was still far smaller, than El Mirador and Nakbe. These northern neighbors, would decline in the 1st century CE.

It is interesting to note, that Tikal had no real water supply, other than what was collected from rainwater and then stored in a total of 10 reservoirs.

In the 20th century, archaeologists working in the area, were forced to restore one of the reservoirs for this very reason.

The dynastic line of Tikal, that may have been founded as early as the 1st century CE, lasted for a total of 800 years and included at least 33 different rulers. According to legend, it was founded by Yax Ehb Xook.

Stela 31, with the sculpted image of Siyaj Chan K’awiil II.

There were even a couple of occasions, when the male line was broken and women became queens of the city.

At the beginning of the Early Classical Period, power in the Mayan culture was centered in Tikal and Calakmul. The area was plagued with war, as competition between the city states would be ongoing matter.

Tikal remained often at war with neighboring Mayan states including Calakmul, Caracol, Naranjo and Uaxactun. In fact, by the end of the Early Classical period, Caracol would replace Tikal and take its place, as the leading center in the southern Mayan lowlands.

Today in Tikal, there are many different buildings to visit, with many more still waiting for a full excavation before they can be opened to the public. To date, only about 30% have been fully rehabilitated.

The North Acropolis at Tikal

At the center of Tikal lies the Great Plaza that is bordered by two massive temple pyramids, the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis.

There are 6 Temples, that most in the tourist industry will agree are the most important constructions at Tikal.

Temple I located in the middle of the Park is known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar. It was built during 682 and 734 CE. It rises some 154 feet (47 meters). It was excavated between the years 1955 and 1964.

Temple II on the main plaza

Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate) also known as Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, known as one of the greatest rulers of Tikal is associated with this temple. He is buried here.

Temple II known as the Temple of the Masks is one of the best restored in the park. It was also built by Jasaw, in honor of his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. It stands at just over 124 feet (38 meters).

Temple III known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was built around 810 CE. It stands about 180 feet or 55 meters. It is most likely the burial place of King Dark Sun.

Temple IV is thought to be the tallest structure erected by the ancient Maya. At over 213 feet (65 meters), a traveler is rewarded with an incredible view of the complex.

The Plaza of the Seven Temples

One used to have to make the ascent, by holding onto various roots and branches on the pyramid’s slippery slopes. Today, new wooden stairs make the ascent more amenable.

Temple V stands at 187 feet (57 meters) and is the second highest edifice in Tikal and in pre-Colombian America. From the top of this pyramid, one can see the other temples over the top of the tree canopy.

The Lost World Pyramid in the Mundo Perdido complex at Tikal.

Temple VI known as the Temple of Inscriptions was discovered as late as 1951.

The top of the structure is visible for just over 39 feet or 12 meters. Further excavation will be needed, for this temple to be fully accessible.

How To Get There

Most tourists to Tikal come from three different starting points. The closet airport is the Guatemalan town of Flores, which is just 90 minutes away by bus.

A similar ride from the capital of Guatemala City, will take at least 8 hours. Tikal is located 333 miles or 536 kilometers north of the city.

The other entry point is Belize City, located 3 hours by bus from Tikal.

Upon arrival in Flores, you can then contact a tour company. The cost will average 100 GTQ, the equivalent of $13.63 USD (United States Dollar). The cost without a guided tour, will be around 70 GTQ ($9.54 USD).

Tour buses arrive late in the morning and leave by mid afternoon. This leaves the most reminiscent time of the day which is early morning and late afternoon/early evening to those tourists who remain.

Hours of Operation

The park is open every day of the week from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM local time.

It is advised not to go on Sundays. The day permits free admission for Guatemalan citizens and will likely be crowded.

There are two museums located in Tikal National Park, one is the Stelae Museum and the other is the Sylvannus G. Morely Museum.

They are open from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily with the exception of national holidays.

Admission And Entrance Fees

Adult tickets for foreigners cost 150 GTQ ($20.46 USD).

There is no entry fee for children under 12.

If you decide on a sunrise tour and enter the park before 6:00 AM, the price of the ticket will be 250 GTQ ($34.10 USD). The extra cost is well worth it for the marvelous views that you will see, the lower air temperatures and the far fewer visitors, you will encounter throughout the park.

All tickets purchased after 3:00 PM, are valid for the following day.

If a traveler wishes to visit Uaxactun located 12 miles (20 kilometers) to the north, it will cost an additional 50 GTQ ($6.82 USD).

To gain entrance to the Stelae Museum, a fee of 10 GTQ ($1.36 USD) will be charged.

Unfortunately to date, no tickets are not available for purchase on line.

Helpful Hints For All Travelers

There are no Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) at Tikal so you will need to bring extra hard currency (cash) with you.

Most tourists from northern climates visit during the dry season. This runs from October to May. The reduced humidity at this time of the year, makes the trip far more pleasant.

Tikal has a tropical climate, similar to that a traveler would experience in Yucatan Mexico. This reality will necessitate an ample supply of sunscreen, that will need to be reapplied throughout the day.

A visitor will also need to bring a generous supply of bottled water. It is important to stay hydrated during your visit of Tikal.

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