This article highlights Tikal, a large archeological site located in Guatemala and considered by many the greatest Mayan city.
I haven’t been to a lot of Mayan ruins and that is actually not a good fact. Why? Because I have been to Tikal and after seeing its grandiose temples I don’t know if I will be able to see other sites without being disappointed (I am exaggerating here, a little bit of drama spice up things).
The truth is Tikal is one of those places that seem cut out of the real world. It is a place of dreams where wild creatures roam free. As a matter of fact, one of the areas of the complex is called “The Lost World” (very a la Jurassic Park). Believe it or not, I almost miss the opportunity to visit this amazing place. Yes, thanks to a series of unforeseen events. Here is how the story goes.
During the second half of 2008, my husband and I did a three weeks trip around El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize. While we were in El Salvador, I noticed my ATM card was not working. The problem continued for several days so I decided to call my bank in the United States.
For some reason that I still do not understand, the bank canceled my ATM card and sent a new one to my apartment. At that moment, the card was expiring in 2010 and to this day I don’t understand why the bank suddenly took that decision. I called again in order to speak to another representative but I was notified of the same situation. There was nothing to do.
To make the story short, I ended up really tight on cash. We tried to charge most of our expenses to credit cards but in Central America, it is difficult to move around for a long time without cash.
When I arrived at San Ignacio, Belize (the base city for my trip to Tikal), I was almost out of cash. I had booked most of my Belize excursions from home but I wanted to get a better price for Tikal once in town.
Well, nobody was accepting credit to take you to Tikal. I had no other option than to present one of my credit cards at a bank and ask for a cash advance (at least that bank in a little undeveloped town offered sandwiches and cold Coke to its customers).
I had depleted the cash advance limit from my other credit card. After a total mess, I got the money to visit Tikal. After being so close, I had to do everything in my power to visit.
The good thing about life is that after the storm there is calm. Leaving aside all the negative emotions and energy, I was able to enjoy this magical place.
Tikal’s meaning can be interpreted as “The place of the Voices”. Experts know that this wasn’t the ancient name for the site. In the Classical Mayan Period, the city was called Yax Mutul which means First Mutul. Apparently, there was another Mayan city called Mutul and the inhabitants of Tikal wanted to make sure their city was recognized as the oldest of the two cities. Mutul means hair bundle (the precise meaning is unknown).
When people think about Tikal, they exclusively think about the Mayan ruins. However, there is much more than the ruins of the ancient city. The ruins are surrounded by deep jungle. Both the ruins and the jungle are protected inside Tikal National Park. The whole park is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This place is huge and contains thousands of structures. Hence, there is more to see than the huge temple (but, of course, they are the most striking structures).
As mentioned, the previous photos correspond to Tikal’s lesser known areas and structures. The truth is that the park is enormous. The whole complex contains more than 3,000 structures. Most of them are still covered by the jungle and there are no plans for excavations.
Let’s take a look at the big pyramid temples. Yes, hold on because this is as good as Tikal gets.
Let me say that the tall structures we see today in the area were built from the late 7th to early 9th centuries. This period of massive construction was known as Tikal resurgence (Late Classic Maya period). Tikal was one of the most powerful Mayan cities during the Early Classic Maya Period.
As you can imagine, Tikal had serious problems with the other powerful cities during the time. Its biggest (and powerful) enemies were Calakmul (today in Mexico) and Caracol (today and Belize). One time Caracol beat up Tikal pretty bad. Then, Caracol allied with Calakmul and hit Tikal even worse.
After this defeat, Tikal stopped building structures, writing, and proceeding with its usual cultural activities. This dark period in the city’s history is known as the Tikal hiatus. Once Tikal recuperated, it started to build the giant pyramids that we can admire today.
Temple IV is the tallest structure in Tikal with an altitude of 70m (230 ft). The bottom of the temple is covered with rainforest and only the tip is visible. You climb the temple though wooden stairs constructed on the side of the temple. The stairs are easy to climb even though the top is really high.
Believe it or not, this is not the tallest Maya structure in the world. The tallest structure is called La Danta Temple and can be found in the city of El Mirador (still Guatemala but close to the Mexican border). La Danta is 30 feet higher than Temple IV.
Then, we moved to the area containing Temple V. This is the second highest structure in Tikal. Now, the climb to the top of this temple is more challenging. The stairs are completely vertical. For a chicken like me, it took a long time to go up and down (sorry people who was climbing or going down after me). Once at the top, the view was magnificent.
Finally, we arrived at the Gran Plaza area. This is where the Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple 1) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) are located. The plaza is surrounded by an acropolis or a residential area. Some of the buildings have notable signs of erosion but it is easy to imagine how this area was more than 1,000 years ago.
You can climb the Temple of the Masks but not the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. It was great to lie down in the center of the Gran Plaza while being covered by the shadow of the two big temple-pyramids.
Now, let’s talk about the options you have to get to Tikal. If you are in Guatemala City, you can take a domestic flight to Flores which is the town closest to the National Park.
Alternatively, you can take a bus from the capital to Flores. An overnight bus makes the trip every night and takes about 9 hours. I am talking about big private buses which are generally safe to use. I assume there is also public transportation doing the route. However, I can’t recommend you to take this option due to security concerns. Get informed before making the decision of using public transportation.
If you are in San Ignacio, Belize, it is easy to get to Tikal. There are a lot of companies offering excursions to the park. Most companies price the excursion at about the same price and have similar tour guide quality.
Now, there is a big difference you should be aware of. Some include Belize departure fees and entrance to Guatemala fees on its price. Others do not include this so you will have to pay from your own pocket once at the border.
Therefore, pick a company that includes all the border-crossing fees. In other words, if the excursions are equally price, pick the one which offers more for your money.
You can also use public transportation to get to the border and then take another bus to Flores. Again, do some research before deciding to use public transportation. These areas are safer when compared to Guatemala and Belize cities. I will consider public transportation an option in this case.
Remember to get your passport stamped every time you move between Belize and Guatemala. You don’t want to go through an uncomfortable situation (yes, it happened to me).
Hope you enjoyed the post!