Maya // Tikal
Next stop in my Maya Archaeology series: the grand, Classic-era city state of Tikal. For me this was the holy grail of Mayan sites, a place I had dreamed of visiting since first opening a Mesoamerican archaeology textbook back in the university days. So, yes, a bit of a wait but man, it was well worth it! More than 3000 structures cover about 16 square kilometers of land and in it’s heyday, Tikal was the most powerful Mayan kingdom in Mesoamerica. Monumental architecture dates from 400BC while evidence of agriculture on this site dates back to 1000BC – that’s about 3000 years of history in this part of the jungle! Tikal reached a pinnacle during the Classic Period of 200-900AD with 90,000 inhabitants and remained in use until the late 10th century. This was an important ceremonial, political and dynastic powerhouse with both friends and enemies – Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City), Copán (in Honduras), Calakmul and Caracol. Tikal’s influence can be felt throughout the region into Belize, Honduras and up to Mexico.
Our experience at Tikal began with a 3:45am alarm call in Flores. Shortly thereafter, we were on a bus with other weary travelers, making our way north before sunrise. After an hour or so we got to Tikal National Park gates, still closed at 5:30am. We were given a little tip by some friends in Flores. When the bus assistant comes around to collect your park entrance fee, instead of handing him your quetzales, get off the bus and buy your own ticket, ensuring the higher fee you pay as a foreigner goes back into the National Park. It was a little sketchy as they didn’t want us to buy our own, but it felt good knowing we had a receipt, paper ticket and official stamp from the gate. No one else on our bus received anything in return and in hindsight were upset about where their money may have gone. We were told poaching is a major problem in the Tikal, and park fees allowed rangers more patrol time and environmental protection.
We were inside the park at 6am, rushing through the parking lot to meet our guide and get cracking to the Temples for a sunrise vista. Well, the sun came up at 6am, so we missed that (pro tip: stay the night inside the park at a bungalow and you’ll be there for actual sunrise, atop a temple). However, the first climb up Templo IV as the mist lifts, the monkeys howl and the birds sing was simply amazing. Emotionally charged by the energy, the sense of history, the beautiful architecture — time stood still for us up there. At 70m, this is currently the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. From here we followed our guide back into the dense foliage. One of the cool factors of Tikal is the rich environment – the site rests in deep jungle, paths between structures are tight, dark and alive and sometimes a walk between temples reveals secrets. After all, almost everything you walk upon here has something of interest below the soil – unexcavated perhaps, but there, covered in jungle flora.
After almost losing our group completely in the vines (a good ten minutes of true panic!) we caught up and made it to the awe-inspiring, 57-metre tall Templo V. Officially closed to climbers, we were ‘special’, so allowed up the extremely steep, rickety wooden ladders. Ok then. Going up wasn’t bad, the view was astounding once again – taking in the tops of the Gran Plaza structures and temples. Going down — yikes. Nerve wracking, what with my sweaty hands (humidity 100%!) and cameras slung across my body. You can see the steep descent in the pics below (“Bajar – Way Down”). A walk to the Gran Plaza, Acropolis, altars, stellae and more collected in one giant main gathering place. After the four hour tour, we left our group here and spent the next five hours exploring the periphery. Spotted a toucan, numerous monkeys, stunning butterflies, hard working cutter ants and little furry mammals.
A few notes gleaned from our guide’s tales: the site was re-discovered in mid-1800s by someone at the Wrigley company, in the area looking for gum trees for their Chiclets they built an airstrip and stumbled upon the overgrown site (true?). The stairs up many of the temples are very high, allowing only the taller royals to physically ascend. Temples are built upon temples and on and on. All for the little room atop, with many having no inner rooms at all. The structures of the Gran Plaza form the shape of the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) constellation when seen from above and are aligned for the solstice as an agricultural calendar. Templo IV features in the original Star Wars as the moon base Yavin 4. Jaguar are regularly seen amongst the ruins. One can devote a life to interpreting this place.
I’ll follow this post with some detailed images – textures, flora and fauna. I can safely say, experiencing Tikal is a highlight of any of my life’s travels so far. I would love a week here to explore further, sit and meditate and absorb some of the ancient energy and knowledge from the great Maya people. In this series, we’ll take a look at another fine site in Guatemala before heading into Honduras for the Copán experience.
Tikal, El Petén, Guatemala, 2011.