The greatest Maya city of Guatemala fascinates tourists as much as it does archaeologists. The former explore the jungle-tangled temples and acropolises jaw struck, while the latter tirelessly pursue their research into the lifestyle and reasons for the fall of the capital of this once powerful kingdom.
From lost world to vanished civilisation and abandoned city – there are no lack of melodramatic expressions which conjure up the distinctive atmosphere and fate of Tikal, one of Central America’s most spectacular Maya sites.
To get there, you will first need to go to the Petén department, a flat expanse in northern Guatemala known for its humid climate and thick selva (forest). From the capital, Guatemala City, a short (less than 60mins) flight takes whisks you off to Flores, the regional capital. Another 50min-bus ride and you are on the doorstep of the site. Try and imagine your arrival…. The climate is hot and humid as you walk through the jungle, which echoes to the shrieks of the spider monkeys hanging from the branches of the ceiba (kapok tree) and you see the occasional glimpse of the high-pointed tail of a coati. Suddenly the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the burial place of the sovereign Ah Cacao (deceased 734), rises before you at an amazing 148ft/45m high.
The Bat Palace, the Temple of the Great Jaguar…
Facing it and separated by the Grand Plaza lies the Temple of the Mask, no doubt dedicated to Ah Cacao’s wife. Deeper in the ruins lie even more pyramidal temples such as the Palace of Windows or the Bat Palace and the Temple of the Jaguar Priest…The foundation of the latter, the last built in Tikal in 810 CE, is entirely engulfed in earth and vegetation. It has been purposefully left alone for fear that attempting to unearth it would weaken its fragile foundations.
From acropolises as causeways to reservoirs built as platforms, the nearly 16km²/9mi² of Tikal’s ruins are home to some 4,000 registered edifices, the main attraction of which is the legendary Two-Headed Serpent Temple. Nearly 65m/98ft high, it is the highest lookout point over Tikal, whose stone temples are surrounded by thick forest. A memorable reminder of a civilisation born in 5C BCE, which mysteriously disappeared around 900, long before the Conquistadors arrived.
The first national park of Central America
Tikal has been titillating the interest of archaeologists for decades, even centuries. Despite traces of Spanish missionaries who ventured this far in the 17C, one must wait for the journey of an English scientist in 1881-1882 and then another excursion led by an Australian in the early 20C for the site to attain the rank of a genuine archaeological marvel.
In 1955 that the Guatemalan authorities decided to create the Tikal National Park, the first national park in Central America and a year later archaeological research began in earnest. Teams from the University of Pennsylvania carried out digs up until 1970, uncovering not only the architecture of the city but also its social organisation, with the nobility residing near the temples and the villagers relegated to the suburbs, devoted as they were to agriculture and water management.
An 80m/262ft-long dam
Following the site’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Guatemala launched its own mammoth project, through its Institute of Anthropology and History (part of the Ministry of Culture). The latter provided the impetus behind the restoration of Mundo Perdido and its 32m/104ft-high pyramid, which was the heart of the city between the 3C and 5C.
In 2005, a team from the University of Berkeley, California, conducted a digital mapping project of Temple IV, to explore its inner architecture and facilitate the archaeological digs. It wasn’t until 2009, however, that a team from the University of Cincinnati unearthed the site’s oldest dam (80m/262ft long). This major discovery confirmed that the Maya stored (inside huge reservoirs), strained (through beds of sand) and used (thanks to canals) rain water to meet the needs of a population that would have reached almost 60 or 70 thousand people at the city’s height, around 700 CE. A feat that is nothing short of remarkable given the environmental challenges they would have faced, including frequent droughts.
The Maya would appear to have been truly environmentally conscious. True, they regularly cut down trees from the forest to make space for farmland, but they were also careful to farm under the canopy to preserve the forest. Why then did Tikal collapse? It wasn’t until 2014 that an international team of researchers (including those from the University of Cincinnati) answered some of the many hypotheses surrounding the site. After careful study of the former inhabitants’ cultural mores and various plants, their answer was two-fold: repeated natural droughts and intensive, if partial, forest clearing. The latter would have naturally dried out the surrounding land which led to a lack of water and therefore, food.
Restored Temples I and III
Despite the “mystery” of Tikal, the political heart of one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms, having been revealed, the prospect of archaeological digging continues to mesmerise scientists and researchers. A series of international missions led in sites in neighbouring kingdoms have replaced the city in its original environmental context. A Franco-Guatemalan team led by the CNRS’ Archaeology of the Americas Laboratory has been carrying out research in Naachtun, about 60km/37mi north of Tikal, since 2010. Its area of study is the taking of Tikal by Calakmul (Mexico) in 378 CE and the complex game of alliances that then ruled the two kingdoms until their fall.
Work also continues at the foot of Tikal’s temples. At the end of 2017, the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History was working on strengthening Temples I and III, while a team from the Japanese University of Kanazawa was still awaiting a green light from UNESCO to begin digs on the northern acropolis and the western square. Tikal is still far from having revealed all its secrets.
Getting there ?
You can fly direct (providing you are flexible about dates) to Panama from most European cities (avg. 11hr-flight), from where you will need to take a Copa Airlines flight (2hr20mins) to Ciudad Guatemala. Starting at €540/£480 return.
Ciudad Guatemala to Tikal flight (50mins) (€200/£180 return, plus Quetzals 20 tax).
Entry ticket to the site is Quetzals 150 per person (around $21/€16/£14).
Finding out more
visitguatemala.com - official tourist website for the country.