Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Tikal, Guatemala
Visited: December 2019
Sweat began to run down my face and into my eyes as I walked along the rocky dirt path towards the ruins. On both sides, thick jungle flanked the trail, we could hear the call of forest birds and monkeys as we made our way forward.
A couple of times we heard something rustling in the trees along the path and when we stopped for a closer look, large rodents unlike any I had ever seen before hopped out from behind a shrub and stared back at me. We later discovered that these were coatis and agoutis, two varieties of small mammals that were once domesticated by the Maya, but still roam freely in the jungles of Guatemala.
Coatis are closely related to raccoons. They were domesticated by the Maya for pets and food.
After a few minutes, the thick jungle opened into a clearing, and peering through the trees, we spotted our first glimpse of one of the great stone temples rising above the forest canopy that was built by the Maya centuries before the first Europeans set foot on this soil.
Templo VI was out first glimpse of a Mayan temple through the jungle at Tikal
The story of Tikal began nearly 1,000 years before Christ, when the Maya first began to settle the jungle surrounding the city of Tikal. With the cultivation of crops such corn, beans, and squash the Maya civilization quickly grew from small villages of hunter-gatherers, into one of the greatest empires of ancient times.
Originally Tikal was a lesser city compared to much larger Maya strongholds to the north, but as those cities power waned, Tikal grew in importance to the Maya, and the city reached its height during the Classic Period from 200 to 900 AD. At this time political power shifted towards Tikal, and the population of the city grew, as did the size of its temples and monuments. The population of Tikal has been estimated to be as high as 90,000 people at its peak.
Templo I in the Gran Plaza at Tikal
There is evidence that the people of Teotihuacan, in central Mexico conquered Tikal in the 4th century AD, but the occupiers adopted a Mayan way of life, and many of the city’s old traditions remained in place.
In the 9th century AD, Tikal went into decline with the rest of the great Mayan civilization, and the city was all but abandoned. There are many theories as to the events that led to the fall of the Maya, including climate change, drought, warfare, and political inaction of the Mayan Kings, but in truth, no one knows exactly why the civilization disappeared.
When Cortez and the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Tikal was already swallowed up by the surrounding jungle. There is no mention of Tikal, once one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, in Spanish accounts of conquest in Central America.
A passageway into one of Tikal's temple complexes
As with many great Mesoamerican establishments, Tikal was never totally forgotten by the surrounding inhabitants of the region, and in the mid-19th century, locals led archaeologists to the ruins.
Since that time, the great structures of Tikal have been painstakingly reclaimed from the jungle by various scholars seeking to learn more about the once-great Mayan civilization.
The ruins of Tikal are enormous, the core city covers over 16 square kilometers, and has largely been excavated. It is estimated that in its entirety, Tikal actually spans over 60 square kilometers, but the majority of the ruins are still buried beneath the thick jungle.
The tallest temples at Tikal reach more than 70 meters into the sky, well above the forest canopy. It is hard to imagine structures so enormous lost in the jungle until you visit Tikal. Walking through the impossibly thick forest, steep mounds of earth jut skyward all around the surrounding area, covered in lush vegetation and thick vines. Many of these still hide large buildings and temples, waiting to be uncovered. It took us several hours to explore the ruins, and we still did not see it all.
A view of Tikal from above the jungle canopy
While there are some accommodations near the ruins of Tikal, the majority of visitors stay in the nearby towns of Flores and Santa Elena. From Flores it is easy to arrange a small bus to and from the ruins at any of the local travel agencies or hostels in town. We paid $80 Guatemalan Quetzals (10 USD) for a round trip ticket. Many of these busses meet up at in front of the Green Monkey Hostel in the morning, so if you don’t have an advance ticket, I would suggest heading to the hostel around 7am to secure a ride.
Entrance to the park is $150 Guatemalan Quetzals (20USD), and they do not accept credit cards or foreign currency. It is also possible to take a local “chicken bus” from the central bus terminal in Santa Elena. This will save you some money, but will take a lot longer, and may not wait for you at the ticket office to take you the last 10km or so to the entrance of the park.
We also saw many mini-bus tours from San Ignacio in Belize, San Cristobal in Mexico, and even as far away as Honduras. This would make for an incredibly long day though, as the border crossing can take up to 2 hours alone. Personally, I would recommend staying in Flores to ensure that you have enough time to see Tikal.