The ancient Mayan city of Tikal consists of 3,000 buildings which were hidden away in the dense Guatemalan rain forest until 1848 when the settlement was discovered by a team of explorers sent by the Guatemalan government. Shortly afterwards European archeologists began to study the site. Tikal National Park covers an area of 575 square kilometres and is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve which extends into Mexico and Belize and exceeds two million hectares.
During the 8th century AD Tikal was home to a population of possibly up to 100,000 people during which time most of the huge temples were constructed. The city went into decline and was more or less abandoned at the end of the 9th century. Nobody is quite sure why although assumptions such as famine and wars have been made.
Tikal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and excavation work continues to this day. It is believed that even now, only around 1% of the Mayan structures have been uncovered.
We were taken on a 3 hour tour of the site by a knowledgeable guide who has worked closely with some of the archeologists still working there. He explained that the site was buried for hundreds of years and when first discovered the temples were buried in so much vegetation they resembled hills thus taking many years of excavation to uncover them. Each of the great pyramid temple structures has a name but they are shortened to ‘Temple I’, ‘Temple II’ etc.
As Tikal is set in the midst of the rainforest and to enable you to climb some of the temples it is advisable to wear hiking boots or sturdy shoes. Temple II has a wooden staircase at the back (as above) to prevent tourists from destroying its steps at the front. From the top you get superb views of the Great Plaza and the jungle. The other picture above is of ‘Chaac’ the Tikal God of Rain.
Tikal also contains rich and varied wildlife and plants something our guide was also passionate about. He explained there are jaguars, howler monkeys, tapirs, snakes and over 400 different bird species. With his keen eye he pointed out several throughout our tour including a toucan, woodpeckers and hawks. We also saw several coaties in the park.
There are many day trips from Flores (Guatemala) and San Ignacio (Belize) however we chose to spent a night in the Tikal National Park staying at the Tikal Inn. There was no air conditioning but fortunately the open slatted windows had insect guards. With its rainforest setting and the open windows it was wonderful to hear many different birds, frogs and animals throughout the night including the loud howler monkeys.
You can either book a sunrise or a sunset tour. We opted for a sunset tour which began at 3 pm. While it was too cloudy for a sunset we did have the advantage that most of the day trip visitors had gone and the guide and ourselves were the last people still to remain in the park at 6 pm.