Tikal National Park is one of the best preserved Mayan complexes anywhere, and certainly in Guatemala.
It's a 575-square kilometer preserve in PetÉn, about a 6-7 hour drive (or 30 minute flight) from Guatemala City. It's actually a small part of a nearly million-hectare Maya Reserve, intended to forestall loss of the dense forests of the region. The drive covers a very interesting and constantly changing flora as you drive past rivers, mountains and plains to reach Flores, the closest large city in the area.
The entrance has dual pricing, one for locals and one for tourists, which supports the maintenance and preservation of the park. Many universities and archaeologists are eager to uncover the secrets of the complex, but once it has been uncovered from the jungle, the preservation is quite difficult, as there is constant rain, humidity, heat, and of course, over 180,000 tourists per year, all traipsing through the ruins, adding graffiti, and just the human touch.
The universities aren’t nearly as interested in providing ongoing support for preservation once discovered. Thus, only about 20% of the complex has been excavated in an attempt to preserve the whole complex for the future. There are believed to be over 3,000 building in a central 16 square kilometer area. But, if you have two mounds covered by enormous trees and general vegetation and you uncover one, you know the other one is equivalent or similar, and thus it does not have to be “discovered.”
The Maya complex is part of a civilization that started around 900-1000 BC. The complex has many important ceremonial temples, cultural and commercial buildings that are all set several hundred meters apart. The complex thrived for centuries, until it fell into decline around 900 AD, and was then abandoned.
The main plaza has two temples (Temple I and Temple II, also known as Grand Jaguar Temple and Temple of the Masks), that face one another, but from which you can see the others. Temple I, with nine levels (the nine levels of the Maya underworld), reaches about 50 meters above ground level. Wooden carved lintels were useful in highlighting the beliefs of the Maya and their cosmic discoveries.
Built by various members of the dynasty, the one built by the first ruler (Ah Cacau or Lord Chocolate in the common vernacular) was then superseded by the next (usually a son), to create multiple different temples. Ah Cacau’s skeletal remains were found at the base of Temple 1, after digging around the site uncovered his burial site accidentally. Filled with jade ornaments, pottery, alabaster, and sea shells/pearls, it was quite a find.
The Great Plaza or Gran Plaza, with the two temples, is certainly the most impressive site, surrounded by terraces, palaces and even ball courts. We were able to climb Temple II (Temple of the Masks) up to the summit, which allows for a spectacular view of the surrounding complex. From this vantage, many of the stone pillars (stelae) can be seen at the base of many of the important temples or buildings. They are matched to a circular altar-like structure. They are covered in carvings and glyphs, which in essence provide an accurate historical record of important dates and events of the various Tikal rulers.
A few of the buildings also served as funerary complexes, others as observation towers (flat topped), others for worship (small rooms at the top), while several were designed as living quarters or visiting dignitary housing during various festivals and rituals held in the city. The observation towers provided points to observe the cosmos, and thus create a fairly sophisticated calendar (260 days) that would match the 365-day solar calendar every 52 years. Thus, once every 52 years, there was a major event where 5 days of celebration allowed them to “realign” their calendars.
It is thought the city held more than 110,000 people at the height of the Mayan civilization, and so there is significant space around the various temples that were probably housing for the common citizens, but made out of less durable materials, thus no longer part of the complex. It is thought that through fighting, famine, overpopulation and general resource depletion, the population move away over time to result in abandonment.
The buildings are in remarkably good condition, although many have had no restoration done so that you are able to see the more natural condition. It is quite interesting that many of the monuments were not initially re-discovered by the Spanish conquerors of the region in the mid-1500’s, because the very tall seiber, cedar and mahogany trees obscured the buildings.
It was only in the mid 1800’s that Guatemalan officials “officially” re-discovered the ruins, with European archaeologists soon swarming the region to begin excavation and study. Specifically, the University of Pennsylvania and scientists from Guatemala in the 1950-1960’s were responsible for bringing attention to the site and getting a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1979.
You are able to climb up several of the buildings, although not all. The stairs are steep and with the rain, can be amazingly slippery. But, we did climb up. Several of them now have various scaffolding or stairs around the buildings, so you don’t actually walk on the stones. This provides for better preservation and is certainly less scary than climbing the structures. Various architectures are seen, with some of the buildings built over others. Thus stairs have slightly different appearance as they were built over other sets of stairs.
The views from the top were quite spectacular and afforded a view of the whole area. The greenery is spectacular and the buildings are by far the highest things in the region. They were thought to be the connection to the gods, and thus the higher they were the more likely you were to be able to commune with the gods.
We had a guide, Carlos, a native of PetÉn, who has been guiding for the past 25 years. His knowledge was considerable, including history, geography, and nature (both fauna and flora). Thus, we were able to see and hear about various birds, mammals, rodents and even an anteater, while also learning about the various agricultural plants and trees of the area. The forest is the natural habitation of many species of toucans, parrots, turkeys, and other birds, while various howler monkeys, coatimundis, and raccoons are present.
We learned from him that the ceiba tree is the national symbol of Guatemala. Originally, the Mayans believed it was the tree of life and would hold ceremonies around the tree at the time of death. There is a large root complex at the base of the tree trunk. These large “buttresses” were thought to be the houses of men, while the underworld was known to live in the roots and the deities were through to live in the four main branches, which created the cardinal points (directions).
The tree grows amazingly quickly, reaching heights of 200 feet. There are fruits, with seeds that contain a cotton-like material, that has been used for creating ropes and clothing. Needless to say, it was a very unique tree and just a hint of various plants in the area.
We also saw an ant eater way up in one of the trees, slowly moving around. The guide said he had only seen one 3 or 4 times in his 25 years, so was very impressed with it. It was probably 70-80 feet up in the trees, so we didn’t really get any good photos, but did see the animal slowly moving around (sloth-like) with the binoculars. Overall, this was an amazing and worthwhile exploration of Maya and Guatemalan history.