Tikal: Guatemala's amazing, ancient wonder
Shrouded in thick rainforest and centuries of mystery, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal is one of the least-known great sites of antiquity in the West.
We’ve all heard of Machu Picchu, but the scale and preservation of Tikal, located in the lowland tropical forest of eastern Guatemala, dwarfs the famed Incan ruins in Peru.
Some of Tikal’s skyscraping temples, which rise through the tops of dense jungle canopy, were the tallest buildings in the New World until the 19th century.
If you want to feel what it was like wandering the central plaza of a bustling Mayan city in 800 A.D., Tikal is an outsized time capsule, complete with sound effects from howler monkeys, spider monkeys, raucous parrots and some 285 other bird species.
The natural ambience is as it was some 1,300 years ago, when for reasons that are still a mystery, the inhabitants of Tikal disappeared at the end of the 10th century.
What it was, what it is
Tikal was one of the major metropolises of the Mayan civilization and one of the biggest in the world. Located in the wilds of Tikal National Park about 200 miles north of Guatemala City in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, it was settled as early as 600 B.C.
Most of the major buildings viewable today date to its heyday, 550-900 A.D.
With a population of 10,000 to 90,000 people, Tikal was larger than London in 800 A.D.
Archeologists have uncovered 3,000 structures over a six-mile-square area, with more than 200 sculptured stone monuments and altars.
Unlike many archeological sites, where the viewings tend to be mounds carpeted in grass or crumbling stone barely taller than a human, many of the edifices here remain on a monumental scale much as they were a millennium ago.
That’s especially true for the Great Plaza, the ceremonial center of Tikal, a place that seems to have been concocted by a wayward pharaoh.
Steep, pyramid-like temples reach for the sky around the Grand Plaza -- some 10 acres’ worth, paved with limestone. The plaza was the scene of epic religious rites and chiefly dramas over the centuries, not to mention sporting events.
There are several ball courts, one in the main plaza, where ancient sportsmen tried to keep a rubber-like ball in the air as long as possible without using their hands.
It’s uncertain how or if points were scored, but there was certainly an incentive to win. Experts say the penalty for losing was death for the leader of the luckless team.
Others think it was the victors who were treated to the honor of a ceremonial death.
The lofty Temple 1 must have been reserved for aerial acrobats. Getting to the top of this very vertical 170-foot staircase -- and getting back down -- requires the footing of a mountain goat.
Facing this giant is Temple 2, which towers some 145 feet above the Great Plaza. It’s surrounded by yet more temples in the Central Acropolis and at the North Acropolis.
Temple IV was once the tallest building in pre-Colombian America, towering 212 feet. You can climb to its roof for a spectacular vantage of the scenery.
From the tops of the temples at Tikal, you can see the white rooftop combs of other temples poking through the rainforest canopy and ponder the far-flung location of this hidden civilization.
For whatever reason, the Mayans chose a location that would hold tens of thousands of people yet had no river or major body of water. They relied completely on seasonal rainfall for their water supply, which they collected in reservoirs.
This was an advanced civilization that knew engineering, math and astronomy possibly better than its European counterparts in the eighth century.
Tikal residents created a calendar with 365 days, and their lunar cycle was only seven minutes off the best that modern instruments can calculate.
While no one knows for certain what happened to the Mayans of Tikal, some think drought could have been the culprit that brought down this thriving civilization, as it did Native American societies in the Southwest United States.
Dependent on rainfall and with a growing population, Tikal was vulnerable to climate change and extinction.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1979, Tikal has so much to take in, it’s best to overnight at the site at one of the three lodges, such as the Jaguar Inn, and spend a couple days marveling at it all.
The easiest access to Tikal is from the small town of Flores, Guatemala.
From Flores to Tikal: Virtually all hotels in Flores will arrange minibus transport to Tikal. Minibus trips take about 75 minutes. Public buses depart for Tikal throughout the day from the Santa Elena bus station in Flores. The trip by public bus takes about two hours.
Tikal admission is US$20, children under 12 free; Tikal walking maps are available at the Visitors Center for a few U.S. dollars.
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