Tikal National Park is to date the largest excavated archeological site in the Americas. In addition, it is Guatemala's most famous cultural and natural preserve, displaying the immense cultural heritage left by the Mayans through their architecture, artifacts, writings, and more. While Tikal has been widely studied, it is still a mystical place that keeps many of its answers shrouded in secrecy. But what we know and have unearthed to date shows an excellent perspective of how the Mayans had lived for more than 500 years when the civilization collapsed in the 9th century AD.
Curious to see more of it? Here's a rundown of how you can make the most out of your visit to Tikal.
A brief introduction
After the collapse of the Mayan civilization, Tikal remained lost in the middle of the dense jungle until 1848, when Ambrosio Tut happened to come across it.
It is believed that the Mayans built this city in honor of the Mayan rulers and deities. The temples and hieroglyphics demonstrate not only their architectural genius, but also show traces of a civilization far more advanced than was once believed.
How to see Tikal
- Since the archeological site is so big, there is so much to see that only one day won't be enough to see it all. But, if you just have one day, here's what you should do:
- The park is open from 6:00 am until 6:00 pm and the entrance fee is 150 Q (about $20). If you're taking a sunrise tour with an independent tour company, the entrance fee will be 250 Q since you're entering the park before its regular operating hours. Whether you see the sunrise or not, try to get there as early as possible.
- The easiest way to reach Tikal is by taking a 1-hour bus ride from Flores, the nearest city to the park.
- To see the sunrise, it is recommended to sleep at the park's accommodations (Tikal Inn or Jungle Lodge) the night before. Otherwise, you can take the 5:00 am bus from Flores to get to the park in time to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV.
Things to consider before heading to the park
- Make sure you have enough cash, as there are no ATM's in Tikal.
- The park gets very busy from about 10:00 am until 2:00 pm. Use this time to wander through the Lost World, as it is far behind in the park, and not all tours go there. If timed right, you will most likely have the place to yourself.
- Around mid-day, the temperatures in the park get really hot. Carry enough water with you or buy water from the stand next to The Grand Plaza, as there is no concession stand further in.
- The walking time between temples of interest can be between 15 to 30 minutes, so take your time walking through the paths at your own pace.
What you must see
Only a tiny fraction of Tikal has been uncovered, but even that small portion is enormous. Out of everything there, these are the buildings and areas you shouldn't miss.
Grand Plaza: This is the heart of Tikal and the most recognized place in the whole complex. It was the center of civic ceremonial activities of the Mayan culture, and it is surrounded by Temples I and II, a Mayan ball game court, and a series of palaces.
Temple I: This temple is also known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar because of its carved lintel showing a king sitting upon a jaguar throne. Although it is not the tallest temple at 143 feet in height, its size makes it an impressive icon next to the Grand Plaza. Inside the temple was found the tomb of the ruler Jasaw K'awiil Chan, whose replica is located in the Ceramic Museum.
Temple II: Also known as the Temple of the Masks, it is located directly opposite the Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the Grand Plaza. You can go up to the top of the temple by a steep wooden staircase. Be careful when going up, but make sure you do go climb up, as you will enjoy an excellent view of the Grand Plaza and surrounding buildings.
Temple IV: Standing at 230 feet tall, this is the highest structure in the whole Tikal complex and all of Mesoamerica. From its top, you can get an excellent view of the entire jungle surrounding the ruins. Also, this is the best place to see the sunrise and sunset while at the park. It is also known as the Temple of the Two Headed Snake.
Temple V: Another great temple to hike up for the view of the Grand Plaza and surrounding temples. Again, be careful when going up, as there are no guardrails on the top.
Lost World Pyramid: This is the oldest structure in Tikal, and it includes four stairways that reach the top, each one decorated with large stone-carved masks of the Mayan god of rain. Looking out from the summit (over 100 feet tall), you can see Temple IV and the Temples of the Great Plaza popping out of the jungle.
Ceramic Museum: You shouldn't miss this museum that displays the Mayan ceramic artwork through intricate masks dedicated to the dead and stone stelae that served as historical records.
Closing the day
Watching the sunset from the top of Temple IV is a sight you shouldn't miss either, though it is more challenging to see as the sun sets behind the temple, where no visitors are allowed. If you do stay to watch the sunset, make sure to have a flashlight with you. There is no artificial lighting once it gets dark, and you'll still have a bit of a walk back to the park's entrance.
Also, unless you're staying in one of the park's accommodations for the night, you will need to find a ride back to Flores, since the last bus leaves at 6:00 pm (before sunset). Unless you've arranged a tour or private transportation, your only other option is an expensive taxi ride back.
It's a full day of exploring, but one that will get you deep into the Mayan culture and one of the best sights Guatemala has to offer.
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