Tikal National Park
Tikal National Park encompasses 575 square kilometres of
jungle and thousands of ruined structures.
The central part of the ancient city alone contains 3,000
buildings and covers about 16 square kilometers.
Tikal is also part of the one-million-hectare Maya Biosphere
Reserve created in 1990 to protect the dense forests of the Peten, which
started to disappear at an alarming rate due to population pressures,
illegal logging and slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
Archeologists estimate that the Maya settled in the area now
known as Tikal in about 900 BC.
Tikal National Park by WBUR
Tikal grew into an important ceremonial, cultural, and commercial centre over the centuries.
Most of the city's huge temples were constructed during the eighth century AD when Tikal became the greatest city
in the Maya world with a population of perhaps 100,000.
Like Maya complexes on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Tikal fell into decline at the end of the
ninth century and was virtually abandoned. The causes of the Maya empire's collapse remain a mystery, but wars,
famine, overpopulation and resource depletion have all been blamed.
Tikal's great stone monuments languished for centuries and were gradually reclaimed by the
jungle. Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, and his motley band of conquistadors marched by Tikal in 1525, but
they failed to see its temples concealed by 40-metre-tall silk, cotton, cedar and mahogany trees.
Tikal's great stone monuments by brongaeh
Spanish friars later wrote of a great city hidden in the forests of the Peten. It wasn't until
1848 that an expedition sent out by the Guatemalan government officially discovered the ruins. Swiss, German and
British archeologists soon followed to clear debris and begin studying the site.
The Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and
History restored Tikal's structures to their current condition during the 1950s and 1960s. UNESCO designated the
ruins a World Heritage Site in 1979. Today Tikal is to Guatemala what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt, a national
symbol and a source of pride in the past.
Enormous trees still shroud Tikal's buildings, which cluster in groups reached by wide causeways
meandering through the tropical forest, home to toucans, parrots, wild turkeys, howler monkeys, raccoon-like
coatimundis and countless other creatures. Tikal's grand scale even awes those who have visited spectacular Mayan
sites such as Palenque and Chichen Itza in Mexico.
View over Tikal Nationl Park and Temples by Dennis Jarvis
The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) loom like a
pair of colossal bookends on opposite sides of the Great Plaza, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces and ball
Temple I rises some 50 meters above the plaza's eastern end. A stone stairway leads up the
pyramid's nine tiers, corresponding to the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. Tourists have fallen to their
deaths from these vertiginous steps, prompting park authorities to recently ban climbing.
View over the Grand Plaza and Temple I by Ken Douglas
In 1958, archeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate), one of Tikal's greatest
rulers, inside Temple I. Ah Cacau's skeleton was festooned with jade ornaments and surrounded by precious
offerings, including pottery, alabaster, sea shells and pearls from the Caribbean coast. You can see a replica of
this elaborate tomb in the Tikal Museum near the visitors' centre.
Temple I has yielded other treasures, including intricately carved wooden lintels over its
doors, which have furnished clues to Maya beliefs and cosmology.
Called Temple of the Masks because of huge stone masks guarding its stairway, Temple II is
almost as tall as Temple I, but safer to climb. Its summit offers travel-poster views of the Great Plaza and two
labyrinthine ceremonial and residential complexes named the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis.
Tikal Temples I and II by Greg Willis
Dozens of stone pillars known as stelae, each one paired with a circular altar, stand in rows
throughout the plaza and along surrounding terraces. Carvings and glyphs commemorating important dates and the
great deeds of Tikal's rulers still adorn many of these weathered monoliths.
From atop Tikal's pyramids, Maya astronomers tracked the movements of Venus and all the other
They used these calculations -- extremely accurate even by
today's standards -- to fine tune their complex calendar, which can be compared
to a system of interlocking gears made up of a 260-day calendar known as the
tzolkin that meshed with a 365-day solar calendar to complete 52-year
The enigmatic Maya ran this complex arrangement like a time
machine back and forth across immense spans of time.
One of Tikal's stelae records a mysterious date more than
five million years in the past, and glyphs on a stela at Quirigua in eastern
Guatemala commemorate some obscure event that took place 400 million years