It is hot. Very hot, sitting at an even 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The air is steamy, the humidity approaching 85% and seeping through me. I stand in the shade of a tree, drinking water and sweating it out just as fast, staring at Temple 1, a large pyramid at one side of Tikal’s grand plaza. Birds are calling – odd, foreign songs. Despite the conditions, the weariness in my legs from trekking through the jungles of this vast area, the sweat pouring down my face, and the sunburn on my arms, I feel blissful.
Tikal is a bucket-list item for history lovers, myself included. Situated in the north of Guatemala, it is remote, isolated, and despite decades of excavations, more untouched than exposed.
Temple 1. Magnificent!
Tikal is arguably the most important Mayan city. Reaching the apex of its power in the Mayan Classical Period from 200-900, estimates hold its population at up to 250,000. During its rise, it was chief among the Mayan city-states, with many others as vassals.
Tikal, like most Mayan cities, seemed to be constantly at war. While it may have been conquered by a power associated with Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City in the 4th century, its main Mayan rival was the city of Calakmul, located on the Yucatán Peninsula to the north. Fascinatingly, each conquered the other at various points.
As with many Mesoamerican civilizations, it is unknown what caused Tikal’s collapse and ultimate abandonment in the mid-900s. Many speculate a water shortage – Tikal has no naturally occurring water outside of rain collection – but disease or political/religious reasons have also been suggested.
What remains, however, is incredible. More than 4000 structures have been discovered, although most are still buried beneath the jungle and the earthen mounds that formed over them. What is visible to visitors is extraordinary!
This structure is only beginning to be uncovered.
Staring around the plaza, I am amazed at what it took to create a civilization here in the jungles of Central America. Thousands of tons of limestone went into each of these pyramids – the tallest we climbed stands at nearly 250 feet – and even more massive projects to level the ground beneath them. Trees were cleared by the millions, and the encroaching jungle fought back constantly. Massive reservoirs were constructed to collect and hold rainwater, as there are no natural sources of fresh water in or near the city, and the dry season stretches months. Massive palaces were constructed as sorts of apartment buildings for the wealthy, some stretching nearly a kilometer long. Perhaps most impressively, many experts do not believe the Mayan civilizations relied on slave labor for these building projects, as it appears slavery had only been instituted following European contact, by which point Tikal was already lost to the jungle.
This is Temple 2, across from Temple 1.
Reaching Tikal is hard. I booked a tour package through Elizabeth Bell Antigua Tours to see the site as a day trip from my base in Antigua Guatemala, the old colonial capital. An hour drive to Guatemala City, an hour flight to Flores, and another hour and a half drive to Tikal itself, followed by nearly six miles of jungle trekking around the site and then the journey in reverse makes for a very long day. I was altogether satisfied with my experience until my driver was a no-show at the Guatemala City airport on the return end and I was forced to book a private shuttle for which they refused to reimburse me. I believe the measure of a company can only truly be taken when faced with adversity. Sometimes things go wrong, and a quality provider makes those things right in whatever way it can. Elizabeth Bell – despite giving me a great rate for my tour – failed that test. As such, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend them, and am sad not to be able to.
Once in Tikal, you’ll truly feel the enormity of the city. It covers more than 6 square miles, surrounded by a national park dedicated to both antiquity and biodiversity preservation. For me, the highlight was the ascension of some of the temples and pyramids. Rising above the jungle canopy, the world stretches before you, only the tops of the other structures visible in the distance. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight!
A view over the canopy of other towering structures.
Our guide, Henry, was wonderful. While it is perfectly possible to experience Tikal on your own, guides are worth it even if only for the jungle shortcuts they know, allowing for a slightly shorter (and shadier) walk. Add to that their knowledge base of Mayan civilization and jungle animals and it is a no-brain decision for me. Henry spotted spider and howler monkeys, as well as various birds. The odd raccoon-looking things got too close for anyone to miss!
Cute but supposedly aggressive. I didn’t get too close.
Tikal is part of the wider mundo Maya, the Mayan world, which extends to sites in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras, many of them connected. (The Mexican area around Calakmul, for instance, sits directly adjacent to the Mayan biosphere of Guatemala, leading to one large protected area.)
Most importantly, though, this is an area in which descendants of the Maya still live, some much as their ancestors did, though most in some ways connected to modern society. Estimates count the Maya at around six million people, making them one of the largest indigenous groups in the Americas. (Here in Guatemala, roughly 40% of the population can claim Mayan heritage, though few are full-blooded.)
When the Spanish colonized what is now Guatemala, they introduced a practice of treating the local indigenous Mayan peoples as subservient and, despite centuries of intermarriage and inter-racial procreation, that practice still continues against the pure Maya today. During the Guatemalan Civil War of 1960-96, it is estimated that nearly 100,000 women were raped, most of them Maya. Government forces destroyed at least 626 Mayan villages, and set about to wipe out all traces of their culture. (In 2012, former Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt was indicted for crimes against humanity for genocide against the Maya during his 1982-83 rule. While his conviction was overturned, then reinstated but sentence suspended, he died in 2018.)
Tikal is, without question, one of the most incredible ancient sites I have ever seen, and one of the most beautiful. The Maya were – and are – an amazing people, with a list of accomplishments that will astound anyone who thinks civilization only existed in Eurasia. (Seriously, Google this. The Mayan calendar is amazing, they independently came up with the mathematical concept of zero, and much more.) I can not recommend enough to visit this place on your Guatemala trip!
Henry scans for monkeys in the Tikal jungle.
A note here about Elizabeth Bell Antigua Tours. Sometimes, as a writer looking to share specific experiences with you all, I request – and am offered – discounted or complimentary admissions or services. In this case, I received a roughly 30% discount on my Tikal tour in exchange for mentioning the company when I wrote up my article. I had hoped to write an incredibly positive review, as I always do. (After all, who ever wants a negative experience?) However, integrity as it relates to passing on accurate information to you is the most important thing and, despite the discount, I cannot in good faith recommend their services. Had something more major gone wrong, would I have been abandoned in the jungle? Would I have been forced to purchase a new flight had their driver not shown up on the front end? I hope that this was an isolated incident, and not reflective of the company as a whole, but I can only write based on my personal experience.
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