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Tikal, the storied Petén capital of the classical Maya

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we leave Mexico for the first time in our series to visit the magnificent city of Tikal.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Tikal’s Temple I, or Temple of the Great Jaguar, and Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Mask, is on Tikal’s main plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tikal is an archaeological site in northern Guatemala in the district of El Petén.  The ruins of the ancient city of Tikal are part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. The ancient city of Tikal is widely considered to be one of the most impressive in all of Mesoamerica. Its importance in the development of classical Maya culture is hard to overstate.

Many structures in Tikal will seem familiar even to those with no knowledge of Maya archeology, as they were famously featured in George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope. In the movie, Tikal played the role of an ancient Jedi ruin on the moon Yavin 4.

Tikal’s Structure I pierces the Petén’s thick canopy, just as it has for millennia, as well as in a galaxy far far away. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Tikal is widely believed to be a derivation of ti ak’al in the Yucatec Maya language, meaning “at the waterhole,” or alternatively “the place of the voices.” But hieroglyphic inscriptions found at the ruins of Tikal are translated to Latin script as Yax Mutal, meaning “First Mutal.” This name was apparently used to distinguish the city from another city, Dos Pilas which came to use the same emblem glyph. 

The giant nests of the Montezuma Oropendola swing above Tikal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given its remoteness and the difficulties associated with trekking through the thick rainforest of El Petén, no explorers visited Tikal until Modesto Méndez, Eusebio Lara and Ambrosio Tut made their way to the ancient city in 1848. It would not be until 1853 that their account would be published, in Germany. 

The view of Tikal’s main plaza from one of the site’s many jungle paths. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the 1880s, several expeditions were launched to Tikal, including that of Alfred P. Maudslay, who photographed several sections of the ancient city. Starting in the 1950s, the University of Pennsylvania conducted major excavations at Tikal and mapped much of the site. During this time a small airstrip was also built near the ruins to facilitate travel. 

 

One of the earliest photos of Tikal was taken by Alfred P. Maudslay in 1882. Photo: Courtesy.

During antiquity, the ancient city of Tikal covered an area of 16 square kilometers of what is now, for the most part, a thick tropical rainforest. Archaeologists working in Tikal have discovered traces of monumental architecture stretching back as far as 1,000 BCE. However, construction really took off in earnest during the 4th Century BC.

Despite the fact that Tikal is one of the most heavily excavated sites in the entirety of Mesoamerica, unrestored ruins of several large structures sit undisturbed to this day. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By the 1st century CE, Tikal overtook the great cities of the Preclassic such as Mirador and Nakbe in importance and became the dominant power in the Petén Basin. Architecture during the 2nd century CE in Tikal is marked by the influence of the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, in the form of talud-tablero Architecture. 

A second century CE talud-tablero pyramid is within the architectural complex known as Mundo Perdido, or Lost World. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name of Yax Ehb Xook, Tikal’s first known ruler, was also discovered carved on a polished piece of jade jewelry in Kaminaljuyu, present-day Guatemala City  — roughly 400 kilometers away. After the death of Yax Ehb Xook, the dynasty he inaugurated would continue for eight centuries and at least 33 of his successors.

Photo Caption: A large stucco mask adorning Tikal’s temple 33 in the North Acropolis, below which the remains of Lord Sihyaj Chan Kʼawiil II were found. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tikal grew extremely powerful by controlling trade along the Usumacinta river, as well as holding a virtual monopoly on overland routes to the Yucatán Peninsula at its north. Control of these lucrative routes would eventually lead Tikal into a series of wars with its powerful neighbor to the north, Calakmul

A large palace-like structure in Tikal with architecture similar to constructions found at its vassals along the Usumacinta, including Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite losing two major wars, in the end, Tikal would result victorious after a third decisive conflict in the 7th century C.E. After Tikal’s victory over Calakmul, the city would undergo a major construction boom that would see the erection of several of its most famous temples and monuments.

Tikal’s Temple I, or Temple of the Great Jaguar, is perhaps the city’s most recognizable structure. It rises 47 meters / 154 feet high and is easily recognizable by its extremely steep staircase. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By the late 9th century, Tikal was well into a gradual process of decline that would ultimately be its ruin. Much has been written about the collapse of the Classic Maya that swept the region. Some of the reasons often cited for this decline include warfare, deforestation, and erosion. In 869 CE, a stela was erected in the great plaza by the ruler of the time Jasaw Chan K’awiil II. This event would mark the end of monumental construction in the once-thriving city. 

Moss covers many of the structures deep in Tikal’s humid jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Make no mistake, the collapse of the Classic Maya was a very real and important process. But far from signaling the end of the prehispanic Maya culture, this collapse made way for a new era that would see power shift north to the Yucatán — most famously to the already well-established Chichén Itzá.

Photo Caption: Stelae are found on Flores Island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But there is an interesting circularity to this story. The famed Itzá of cities of the Yucatán, including Chichén Itzá and Edzna, traced their origins to Lake Itzá in the Petén basin. When Chichén Itzá was abandoned in the 1400s, the Itzá people returned to their lakeside home — where their descendants still live to this day. 

Several of Tikal’s largest pyramidal monuments, Including Structure II, are adorned with a crest which makes them appear even larger. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the north of Structure I & II lay the remains of Tikal’s acropolis which began construction in the 1st century CE and continued to grow and evolve over 800 more years. 

Tikal’s acropolis and its dozens of monuments and stelae appear to have been remodeled every generation or so to reflect the preferences, and ego, of the current ruler. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Getting to Tikal from the Yucatán is not really difficult as much as it is time-consuming. Virtually everyone visiting Tikal makes their base in the charming island town of Flores on Lake Petén Itzá.

Flores acts as the hub to most archaeological sites in Northern Guatemala, but it really is a wonderful attraction in and of itself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It used to be possible to catch a flight to Flores from Mérida or Cancún, but these flights no longer seem to be in operation. However, there are apparently efforts underway to restore these lost routes. If you want to fly, your best bet is to fly to Guatemala City via Mexico City or Cancún and then either connect to Flores or continue the trip north for eight hours or so by land.  

A map shows the location of Tikal in the Petén Basin, just south of Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

A much less expensive, though more time-consuming, way to get to Flores from the Yucatán is by land. If you look at the location of Flores or Tikal on the map, you would think that you could simply drive south into northern Guatemala from southern Campeche, but this is not possible at all. The most direct way to make this trip is to depart from Chetumal, make your way to Belize City and then turn westward until you reach Guatemala. Though it is possible to drive this entire way, regulations at Belize’s and Guatemala’s borders can make it quite difficult to get your vehicle through — which is to say nothing of the conditions of the roads. You really are much better off taking the bus. Leaving from Mérida, a one-way trip will cost around US$120 and take up an entire day of travel. On the plus side, the scenery is really interesting and quite beautiful.

Howler Monkeys are quite abundant in the Petén. You will likely see several and you are guaranteed to hear their fierce roars. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Once in Flores, you will find a wide selection of hotels and restaurants, so there will be no need to rough it unless you desire to do so. There are several local tour companies offering trips out to Tikal, as well as other archaeological sites like Yaxha. The earliest tours to Tikal depart at 4 a.m., in time to allow visitors the opportunity to get a glimpse of sunrise atop the majestic Temple IV. I would wholeheartedly recommend this option. As beautiful as it is, the cacophony of sounds emerging from the jungle as the first rays of light begin to pierce the canopy is truly otherworldly. Please, just trust me on this one. 

Photo Caption: Tikal’s main plaza at sunrise as seen from the summit of Temple IV. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Entrance to Tiak costs US$22, but usually, this fee will be included in your tour package departing from Flores. The drive to Tiak from Flores is between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, but here again, the ride itself is quite interesting and a great part of the experience.

Side view of the stairway of a step pyramid in Tikal’s Mundo Perdido. Photo: Carlos Rosado vander Gracht
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