A Mayan city that flourished around 700 AD in modern-day Guatemala, Tikal is best known for its five towering pyramids and the rich flora and fauna of the surrounding rain forest.
History of Tikal
Tikal was first inhabited in the Middle Formative Period (900-300 BC) of Mayan history, when it was just a small village. In the Late Formative Period (300 BC-100 AD), it became an important ceremonial center and numerous pyramids and temples were constructed. The first ruling dynasty of Tikal was established by Yax Ehb' Xok (First Step Shark) between 100 and 200 AD.
The city of Tikal especially flourished in the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD), reaching its peak around 700 AD when about 10,000 people lived in the city center and 50,000 more occupied outlying areas. Most of the ruins still visible today were built in this period, when the art, architecture, farming, writing and city planning at Tikal was exceptionally advanced.
The great ceremonial center began to decline after 800 AD, with rapid depopulation and decline in artistic quality. The cause is not known for certain, but was probably related to climate changes including a major drought. The last dated monumental stela (Stela 29) at Tikal dates from 889. By the 10th century, the site was abandoned.
The Mayan city gradually receded into the jungle and was mostly forgotten, save for some local legends among the native people. It was rediscovered by chance in 1848 by Ambrosio Tut, a collector of chiclero, and scholarly investigation began shortly thereafter.
Tikal was designated a National Monument in 1931 and a National Park in 1955. It stood in for a rebel base in the original Star Wars movie in 1977 and became a World Heritage Site in 1979.
What to See at Tikal
Tikal National Park contains an astonishing 3,000 structures, many of which remain to be excavated. There are temples, stelae inscribed with heiroglyphs, tombs, and residential buildings.
Every visit must include in the central area where the main pyramids are located, but from there it is possible to occupy several pleasant days wandering the jungles in search of more outlying ruins. Needless to say, this should not be done without a good map (available at the entrance) and a compass.
The most notable structures are five large pyramids, given Roman numerals by archaeologists but better known by the temples that crown them:
The heart of the ancient city is the Great Plaza, an open grassy space covering 1.5 acres and enclosed by impressive monuments. The oldest part is the North Acropolis, which dates from as early as 250 AD; the two large pyramids (I and II) date from the 700s.
The Jaguar Temple (Pyramid I) was built shortly after the death of King Hasaw Chan K'awil (r.682-721) to contain his tomb. The pyramid was built by his successor but probably planned by the king himself before his death. It gets its name from a jaguar sculpture on its door lintel, which is now in a museum in Basel, Switzerland.
The king's tomb (Tomb 116) was found at the center of the pyramid, facing north and containing grave goods including jade, pearls, seashells, stingray spines (symbols of human sacrifice), and a bone ornament showing a man being rowed to the underworld by mythical animals. There is a replica of the tomb in the site museum.
The architecture of the Jaguar Temple represents a significant departure from most other Mayan pyramids. It is exceptionally steep and vertical in appearance, which draws attention to the three-roomed temple and roof comb at the top. Originally, the comb was brightly painted in cream, red and maybe green. Climbing Pyramid I is now prohibited.
It is still possible to climb Pyramid II, known as the Temple of the Masks for the weathered masks that still flank the central stairway. No tomb has been found in the pyramid so far, but it is thought it was built for the wife of Hasaw Chan K'awil a few years earlier than Pyramid I. The two pyramids were intended as an imposing matching pair; they were the same height before Pyramid II lost its roof comb.
The north side of the Great Plaza is occupied by the ancient North Acropolis, with the ruins of 12 main temples and about 100 other structures. This was the focus of the Great Plaza before the two pyramids were built, and members of the ruling class were buried here for some 500 years. Temples and tombs were first constructed on the North Acropolis around 100 BC, then completely rebuilt in 250 AD and renovated a few times later. Excavations have uncovered some of the earliest remains, including two 4m-high Preclassic stone masks protected under a thatched roof.
In front of the North Acropolis are two rows of monumental stelae, which were originally painted bright red. They bear hieroglyphic inscriptions and portraits commemorating the rulers of Tikal, functioning both as religious monuments and a meticulous historical record. Many of them have been purposefully defaced, probably by invaders from Caracol and Calakmul during the Classic era.
Occupying the other side of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis, consisting of 45 little rooms and stairways built around six small courtyards. These were probably residences and administrative rooms for the ruling class of ancient Tikal. Near the east end of the complex is Structure 5D-46, which was built around 360 AD as the royal palace of King Chak Tok Ich'aak I (Great Jaguar Paw) and seems to have been used by his successors for 400 years.
Behind Temple II is the West Plaza, with assorted ruins, from which the Tozzer Causeway leads west to Pyramid III (one of the latest structures at c.810, inaccessible to visitors) and Complex N with two Late Classic pyramids, terminating at the spectacular Pyramid IV.
The tallest structure at Tikal, Pyramid IV was built in 741 AD probably as the burial monument of Yik'in Chan K'awil, the son of Hasaw Chan K'awil. It had beautiful carved wooden lintels, which are now displayed in Basel. It is topped with the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpant. The pyramid may be climbed, via ladders attached to the sides, for the finest views at Tikal.
From here the Maudslay Causeway leads to Group H, with two more twin-pyramid structures, then the Maler Causeway leads back to the East Plaza.
A visit to Tikal is an easy day trip from Flores or Guatemala City. Tourist minibuses ($5 round trip) pick up passengers from Flores airport and every hotel in Flores and Santa Elena, starting at 5am.
From Belize, change buses at Ixlú, from where there are plenty of passing minibuses to Tikal ($2.50 one way).
Quick Facts on Tikal
|Names:||Parque Nacional Tikal · Tikal · Tikal National Park|
|Categories:||temples; city ruins; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Dates:||flourished c.600-900 AD|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||17.222094° N, 89.624577° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tikal|
- Tikal - Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Tikal National Park - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Tikal - Rough Guide to Guatemala
- Tikal General Information - tikalpark.com
- Photos of Tikal - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Tikal, Guatemala
Below is a location map and aerial view of Tikal. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.