Hello, and welcome back to my travel blog. For this trip, I’m going to talk about Tikal National Park in Peten Department, Guatemala. Guatemala is a tropical landscape that has been inhabited for millennia. Some of the most famous denizens of this region are the Maya, whose city-states ruled over a large swath of Mesoamerica. The Mayan Civilization may have ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, but they will never be forgotten thanks to the mighty ruins they left behind in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and portions of Honduras & El Salvador.
The main attraction of Tikal National Park are the ruins of the ancient Mayan city-state of Tikal. Tikal was one of the largest sites of the Mayan Civilization; sprawling over 16 square kilometers with 3,000 or so structures. At it’s height, Tikal was home to almost 90,000 people. Tikal is actually a modern name; possibly meaning “at the watering hole,” given to the city by the ancestors of the former inhabitants. It was most likely called Yax Mutal by the people who lived in it during its hey day.
The area that comprises Tikal was inhabited for hundreds of years before the founding of the city, and the city’s temples first rose from the jungle floor in the early first century A.D. Tikal was a thriving city whose rule spanned from the 1st Century until the late 800’s A.D. During this time, Tikal endured much war and fighting with other city-states of the region, but was fully abandoned by the 9th Century. Not because of conquest, but most likely due to drought, over population, and deforestation. The unsustainable consumption of natural resources and lack of rain did what Tikal’s enemy’s could not. An empire was forgotten but thankfully its ruins were re-discovered in the 1800’s; in essence bringing this ancient civilization back to life.
Work started around the mid 1800’s to map and explore the ruins of the ancient city which culminated in the restored area being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal National Park is now a very popular tourist destination, and parts of the ancient city has been featured in such film franchises like Star Wars and the James Bond series.
The tops of temples jut out above the jungle canopy. These temples provided the backdrop for a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A rebel oversaw the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin 4 as it flew over the temple tops.
When visiting the site, one must be prepared to walk through miles of humid jungle. Distances between structures can range anywhere between a few dozen feet to a few hundred yards but the total amount of structures to see will lead you to walking a much greater distance than you’d expect. I recommend hiring a tour guide at the park’s entrance, because they will be able to describe everything to you, and make sure that you see the best sites as the place is massive.
Also, keep a close eye on the jungle canopy above you. One of the first things that you’ll notice as you walk around the site is that there is a distinct howling noise throughout the park. These are Howler Monkeys. They are generally safe to be around, because they stay in the canopy and you stay down on the jungle floor. Be warned though, that this arrangement seems to benefit you, but it does not. You may find yourself trying to film large monkeys climbing through tree limbs above you in search of that perfect shot, only to be surprised by a sudden rain of monkey droppings. Hopefully, you will know of their presence before you walk underneath a troop of them. Often, you won’t even notice them until you hear them rustling in the leaves above you, howling, or dropping their waste through the canopy.
Can you spot the monkey? It’s in the center of the picture. They disappear in the shadows.
Once you pay admission and make arrangements with your tour guide, you’ll start off into the tropical rain forest in search of whatever you imagine ancient ruins will look like. You will be unprepared for what you’ll discover. The sheer size of the structures and the materials used will astound you. To realize how they were built, with what tools were used, and when they were built will take you further aback.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of amazement you’ll have once you happen upon your first structure. You’ll be at a loss for words.
Most structures have been excavated and restored while others still remain hidden under the buildup of centuries worth of dirt, roots, and vegetation. Other structures have only been partially revealed, and work is still being conducted to bring these once hidden structures back to life.
Seeing these structures from a distance is one thing, seeing them up close is another. The craftsmanship it took to piece these structures together is nothing short of awe inspiring considering the time period they were built and the tools the people had available to them. Many appear to have been built upon over and over as new rulers wanted to make their mark and reach ever higher for the stars.
Most structures are off limits to walk upon, but some of the better restored ones are available to climb. These climbs are often strenuous and almost near vertical, so it is not for the faint of heart. If you do manage to climb to the top of a structure, you will be met with views that you’ll never forget.
Another aspect is the decor. The structures aren’t plain. They were once painted and very ornate. The paint may be long gone, but some of the stucco decor as well as other stone carvings have survived.
At the core of Tikal is the Great Plaza. This area houses many of the restored structures and is a great place to cap off your tour of the park. There, you will find the most iconic temple that comes to mind when people imagine what Mayan ruins look like. Temple I or the Temple of the Great Jaguar.
That wraps up our tour of Tikal National Park. There are many things to do in Central America, and visiting one of these majestic ancient sites should be near the top of your list. Sites such as these tell the story of mankind that will resonate for millennia to come. We were here, we lived, and this is our mark.
All content and images are owned by Paul Russell Parker III. Copyright 2018. All Rights Reserved.