The Mystery of Tikal

Tikal was one of the major metropolises of the Mayan civilization and one of the biggest in the world. Located in the wilds of Tikal National Park about 200 miles north of Guatemala City in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, it was settled as early as 600 B.C. 

People often see pictures of Tikal and assume that it’s just a handful of temples scattered around. That couldn’t be further from the truth! The ruins of Tikal are actually what remains of the ancient city of Tikal. While its main temples soar into the sky and dominate the Tikal skyline, a visit here will lead you through plazas, houses, and shops that were once home to one of the greatest cities in ancient Mayan civilization. At its height, Tikal was estimated to have a population of more than 100,000 people and was one of — if not the most — powerful kingdoms in the entire Mayan Empire. Some of Tikal’s skyscraping temples, which rise through the tops of dense jungle canopy, were the tallest buildings in the New World until the 19th century. 

Temple IV is the most famous of the five temples, mainly because there is no better place to catch the sunrise over Tikal than from the top of it. Go for an early wake up in the morning (sometimes as early as 3 AM) to get to Tikal before the sun rises. This is well worth the sacrifice of a few hours of sleep. Few experiences in my life have been as amazing as walking through the ancient city in the dark, climbing the steps up to the top of the temple and watching the fog lift over the land as the sun began to rise proudly over Tikal. 

Howler monkeys litter the rainforest and as the sun begins to rise, they begin to howl as loud as they can. If you listen closely enough you might find the sound to be oddly familiar. That’s because the howls of the monkeys were used to voice the sound of the T-Rex in original Jurassic Park movies. Don’t worry, though, there won’t be any dinosaurs to chase you through this rainforest.

Tikal’s Grand Plaza is magnificent, and as the heart of ancient Tikal there’s no better place to end off your visit than here. Home to Temples I and II, the Grand Plaza is the perfect place to admire ancient Mayan architecture. And, it’s hard not to admire the effort even more when you realize the wheel wasn’t invented or used during the Mayan period.

photo Tatjana Dimitrijevic, OC
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