Central America is full of Maya ruins, but hidden in the Guatemalan jungles, is one of the largest sites. The ruins of Tikal are a vast complex, composed of thousands of buildings. So what was this lost city like when it was still populated?
Who were the Maya?
The Maya were an indigenous group of people who lived throughout Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico and Central America). Evidence dates early settlers in the region back to around 7000 BC, simple hunter-gatherer tribes. Over the millennia, they became gradually more civilised, and reached their apex, the Classic Maya Period, around 250-950 AD. By this time, they numbered around 2 million people, had built large cities throughout Mesoamerica, and developed a culture distinct to their fore-bearers.
The Maya were advanced people, who studied maths, astronomy, architecture, and visual arts. They developed their own calendar, based on the stars, and used farming methods such as irrigation and terracing. Religion was an important aspect of their lives too, as they built huge temples to their gods. They also carried out complex rituals, sometimes involving human sacrifices! The Maya were literate, having developed their own hieroglyphic languages. Different city-states had their own rulers, so this wasn’t one united empire, and there were wars amongst them. However, they were all united by language and ethnicity. And, for centuries, this civilisation thrived and learned and advanced.
Archaeologists believe that the Maya settled in the Peten jungle, and started building Tikal around 900 BC. They would then live here for almost two millennia! Over these years, the city grew into a site of great importance, and home to perhaps between 10,000 – 100,000 people. It covers a vast area in the forest, of over 575 square km, and consists of thousands of buildings built from limestone. There is a central core city, but also many other rural residences and water reservoirs spread throughout the area. Over time, Tikal became the ceremonial, cultural, and commercial centre of the Mayan empire. The city was ruled by the same dynasty from the 1st century AD, with over 33 recorded rulers. They were kings of a sort, chosen by the gods, and who could communicate with them.
At that time, the Maya would have only had access to primitive technologies, making the construction even more impressive. The structures include grand temples, palaces, and plazas, as well as smaller ball courts, terraces, and residences. The temples, built around the 8th century, are square pyramids, each level smaller than the previous, creating stacked terraces. There is also evidence of roads through the city, and an irrigation system. And, while the city is built for practical use, the Maya also decorated many surfaces. There are stone carvings, painted murals, and hieroglyphic writings throughout!
Fall of the Maya
The collapse of the Maya Empire, over 1000 years ago, remains a mystery to this day. Most of their cities fell into decline and were abandoned by the end of the 9th century. Historians have suggested many reasons for this, such as war, famine, drought, and overpopulation. The Maya didn’t die out though, but instead moved to rural areas and lived in farming villages and new, smaller cities – such as Tulum. The whole truth behind their fall may never be known for certain!
The region was later colonised by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century, whose own capital was (eventually) Antigua. But they didn’t drive out the Maya completely either! There are still people alive today who are distant descendants of the Maya. They number around 6 million, and still speak various Mayan languages, as well as Spanish, and keep some of the ancient traditions alive.
After being abandoned, Tikal was forgotten about for centuries. Nature soon took over, covering this once thriving city in a blanket of green, hidden by trees and earth. Even when the Spanish invaded, they didn’t find the ruins. Despite the fact that Hernán Cortés passed within a few miles of them! Instead, they went unnoticed, disguised by the surrounding forest. Later, stories of a lost city in the jungle persisted, but it was still never discovered.
In 1848, the Guatemalan government sent out an expedition to search the jungle, and discovered the ruins. Archaeologists from Europe came to help clear the debris, and began studying the city. Over the course of the next century, they slowly uncovered more and more buildings. The Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History took on the work, alongside the University of Pennsylvania. The government made the area a National Park in 1955. The name ‘Tikal’ is a Mayan word meaning ‘at the waterhole’. It was chosen after the city was rediscovered, and the former residents likely called it something else.
In 1979, UNESCO officially declared the Tikal ruins a World Heritage Site. Then, in 1990, the area became part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, to protect the Peten jungle from deforestation. Now, the site is a source of national pride for Guatemala, and a symbol for the country. Yet, despite their efforts, thousands more buildings still remain hidden in the earth. It would take centuries more to uncover it all. For now, we can only estimate and imagine the total size of this incredible city!
The six pyramids are the most impressive structures in the city, each of them a burial chamber for one of Tikal’s rulers. Central to the city, Temples I and II stand opposite each other in the Great Plaza, at around 47m and 38m in height. The first is the Temple of the Jaguar, dedicated to one of Tikal’s great rulers, Jasaw Kaan K’awil. The second is the Temple of Masks, for his wife, Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’.
Temple III, the Temple of the Jaguar Priest, was the last of them to be built, standing at 55m. It is believed to house the remains of King Dark Sun. To the west stands Temple IV, the Two-Headed Serpent Temple, which is the tallest, at 65m. Built by Yik’in Chan K’awiil, this is the largest pre-colonial structure in America! Sunrise is a popular time to climb Temple IV, looking to the other temples to the east, and the view was even used in ‘Star Wars’! Temple V is second tallest, at 57m, housing an unknown ruler. The most recent to be unearthed is Temple VI, the Temple of Inscriptions, which contains hieroglyphics about Tikal’s history.
Just north of the Great Plaza lies the North Acropolis, used as a burial site for the city’s earliest rulers, with richly decorated chambers. The Central Acropolis is where the palace is located, south of the Plaza. It is a five storey structure, with many courtyards, and overlooks a ball court. The oldest part of Tikal is thought to be the Lost World Complex, south west of the Great Plaza, designed in harmony with the stars. The Pyramid here is around 30m high, and built atop older structures that date back to 600 BC.
You’ll also see the ruins of many other residences, and causeways link areas together. There are nine smaller twin pyramid complexes across the city, designed in line with the Maya calendar, but some are damaged or still underground. Look out for the large mounds of earth, which are actually buildings that haven’t yet been uncovered. The National Park also has a museum and visitor centre near the entrance, including a model of what the city once looked like. The model has thousands more buildings that are still hidden under the ground!
Tikal National Park is also home to hundreds of animal species. They roam free in the jungle, protected from the perils of hunting and deforestation. Keep your eyes peeled during your visit and you might spot some of them!
Howler monkey swing through the trees, and you’ll hear their loud cries before you see them. They were actually recorded as dinosaur sounds in ‘Jurassic Park’! You’ll likely see coatimundis too, raccoon-like creatures with long tails, who calmly wander past visitors. The park is also home to spider monkeys, tapirs, and five species of cats, including jaguars and pumas. Among the 300 bird species here, look out for woodpeckers, toucans, hummingbirds, and parrots. The most striking birds are the wild turkeys, whose electric blue feathers are easy to spot as they roam the temples!
Entry: 150 quetzales, free for children under 12. To enter before 6am, for a sunrise tour, is 250 quetzales.
Opening hours: Daily, 06.00am – 17.00pm
Museums, 08.00am – 18.00pm. Closed on national holidays.
It is possible to camp inside Tikal National Park, putting you much closer to the site than any other nearby towns. This is an especially good option if you plan to get up to watch the sunrise!
Have you visited Tikal, or any of the other Maya ruins? Leave a comment about your experience!