Situated in the heart of the jungle of northern Guatemala, the pyramid temples of Tikal rise above the tree tops of the rainforest giving a glimpse of the once powerful Jaguar clan of the Mayans. The temples signify one of the most important Mayan cities that dominated much of the Maya world politically, economically, and militarily for centuries.
After Tikal was abandoned and swallowed by the jungle, the Mayan city remained unknown to outsiders for almost a millennium. In 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés passed within a few dozen miles of the place without learning of it. The first official expedition to the Tikal ruins wasn’t until 1848 while major excavation work started during the 1960’s. Today, many ruins are still covered by jungle, while the impressive temples lie scattered around the area. This, in combination with its remote location creates a mysterious atmosphere that few other Mayan sites possess.
“Tikal” is a relatively recent name, derived from the Mayan word ti ak’al, meaning “at the water hole”. In ancient times the city state was called Mutal.
Temple I and the Central Acropolis buildings in Tikal. Photo by Dennis
History of Tikal Guatemala
Major construction at Tikal was already taking place in the Late Preclassic period, first appearing around 400–300 BC, including the building of major pyramids and platforms, although the city was still dwarfed by sites further north such as El Mirador and Nakbe. As these two cities declined in the 1st century AD, Tikal was rapidly developing into one of the most dynamic city in the Maya region.
On January 31, 378 a lord from Teotihuacán named Siyah K’ak’ (Fire is Born), arrived at Tikal. It is probably no coincidence that the 14th king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ich’aak I, known as Jaguar Paw, died the same day. After this defeat, the next rulers of Tikal were foreign, vassals of Teotihuacán, although their descendants were rapidly Mayanised. Tikal became the key ally and trading partner of Teotihuacan in the Maya lowlands. Smaller towns in the region, were either absorbed or became vassals of the kingdom of Tikal. In 526 Tikal installed a Mayan ruler in Copán in the southeastern portion of the Maya region.
As Tikal’s power grew it came into conflict with another Mayan superpower, Calakmul. Each of the two Mayan cities formed their own network of alliances directed against each other. Calakmul would attack first in 456 AD following a century long period of battles. In 562, Lord Water from Caracol teamed up with Calakmul, in a war against its arch-enemy. Tikal suffered a terrible defeat and its king, Double Bird, was captured and sacrificed. Although the city was not sacked, its power and influence were broken.
In 648 Dos Pilas, a new military outpost of Tikal, was attacked by Calakmul and soundly defeated. The ruler of Dos Pillas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was captured but instead of being sacrificed, was re-instated as a vassal of his former enemy. B’alaj Chan K’awiil, probably still counting his blessing, attacked Tikal in 657, forcing the king of Tikal, Nuun Ujol Chaak, to temporarily abandon the city. To make things worse, Dos Pilas had the nerve to use Tikal’s emblem glyph, calling itself in effect “New Tikal”.
In 682, Nuun Ujol Chaak son Jasaw Chan K’awiil erected the first dated monument at Tikal in 120 years, initiating a series of new constructions. Victory over arch-enemy Calakmul was finally achieved on August 5, 695. A drawing on a building in the Central Acropolis shows Jasaw carried in triumph into the city on a litter, leading his captive, perhaps the defeated lord of Calakmul, by a rope.
After this Tikal reemerged as the most powerful Maya city and its population grew to about 90,000 Mayans. Calakmul never again erected a monument celebrating a military victory. Dos Pilas however continued to defy Tikal and maintained its presence in southwest Petén.
The last dated stela at Tikal was put up in 869 AD. By that time, Tikal was already starting to lose the majority of its population and central authority seems to have collapsed rapidly. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted, although a remnant population may have survived among the ruins. After these last Mayans left the rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years and Tikal’s once great power was little more than a memory.
Map of Tikal Guatemala
|The map shows the location of Tikal. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.|
Tikal Ruins Highlights
The Great Plaza is probably the most spectacular part of the Tikal ruins, surrounded by stelae, carved altars, ceremonial buildings, palaces and a ball court. It contains the famous twin pyramids, Temples I and II.
Rising 154 feet (47 m) high Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil (nicknamed Ah Cacao), who was entombed in the structure in 734 AD. The pyramid was completed about 10 years later. At the top of the pyramid is a temple with three rooms and a corbel arch. Temple I can no longer be climbed.
Built around 700, Temple II or Temple of the Mask was the first temple to be completed by Jasaw Chan K’awil. It appears to be a monument to his wife, Lady Twelve Macaw, although no tomb was found. The pyramid stands 125 feet (38 m) high and faces the rising sun. Temple II can still be climbed for some impressive views of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.
Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent, is Tikal’s tallest pyramid standing 230 feet (70 m) high. It was built in 740 AD by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son Yik’in Chan Kawil and is built to commemorate his father.
Constructed around 810 AD, Temple III or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal. It stands 180 feet (55 m) tall and contained an elaborately sculpted but damaged roof lintel. Archeologist believe the temple may hold the remains of Lord Chi’taam, Tikal’s final ruler.
The second largest pyramid at Tikal, Temple V was constructed around 750 AD and is 187 feet (57 m) high. It is the mortuary pyramid of an as yet unidentified ruler.
Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, was dedicated in AD 766. It is notable for its 39 feet (12 m) high roof-comb, which contains one of the longest inscriptions found at Tikal with 186 glyphs each two feet (0.6 m) high and three feet (0.9 m) wide.
Visit Tikal Guatemala
Flores is the nearest gateway city to Tikal. The San Juan Travel Agency has a virtual monopoly on the minibuses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores in the morning. The trip takes about 1¼ hours.
Staying overnight is a great way to enjoy the sunrise at Tikal and the sounds of birds and nature of the park. Unfortunately the park options are not the cheapest, and demand often exceeds supply. Many stay in Flores and take an early shuttle bus to the park. There are also several cheap lodges lakeside in El Remate, where your hotel can arrange a shuttle pick up for you.
The entrance fee is US$7.