We have spent the past two days exploring the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. It is the largest of all the Mayan sites I have been to. It has six large temples and hundreds of smaller buildings. Two days is just barely enough to see it all. We still did not see every building.
The Mayan ruins are within Tikal National Park which protects not only the ruins but the jungle and the animals. This is a great thing because most of the jungle is being destroyed at a rapid rate by clear-cutting for farms and the animals are being killed for food and just for the fun of it. On a peninsula in Lake Petan Itza the monkeys have all been shot.
The park was created in 1956 and is 575 sq km (222 sq miles) in size. It was declared to be a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1979. If you get a list of the UN World Heritage Sites and go to them all, you would be seeing the best and most interesting places in the world.
The first thing that I noticed was how tame the animals were. We saw Oscillated Turkeys and packs of twenty of so Coatimundi (a racoon-like animal) wandering among the tourists without fear. Spider Monkeys are also fairly common and tame. There is not supposed to be any hunting in the parks and protected areas in Mexico but there the laws there are not enforced. We saw people hunting in Calakmul in Campeche.
The entrance fee is expensive at 150 quetzals per day. This is more than $20. With between 150,000 and 350,000 per year coming to Tikal, that is a lot of money for Guatemala. Perhaps it is a fair price and the ones in Mexico are too low. With more money, the sites in Mexico could make a lot of improvements that I saw here in Guatemala such as tourist information booths, plentiful signage, several restrooms and other conveniences for tourists. The park opens at 6 a.m. to the public. Organized tours can enter at 4.30 a.m. to watch the sunrise from the top of the pyramid. Mayan sites in Mexico do not open until 8 a.m. Many people come here as much to see the birds and other animals as the ruins. The birds and birdwatchers raise early. A 8 a.m. start is late for bird watching.
Tikal was started about 500 BC. Work on the large temples began about 200 BC. The population ranged between 50,000 and 500,000 and covered an area of about eleven square miles.
Tikal was often at war with Caracol, just across the border in Belize. Tikal attacked Caracol in 556 and captured several of its nobles. It was Mayan custom that prisoners taken in war would be sacrificed to their gods. But in 562, Caracol struck back and captured and sacrificed the king of Tikal. Then they destroyed much of Tikal’s stela and written records and tombs. For the next 130 years, no new inscriptions or stela were erected. Tikal gradually recovered and in 695 they attacked Caracul and executed its king. The five main temples of Tikal were built in the following 100 years after regaining their dominance over the area.
Temples and monuments were still under construction in 869 which is the last recorded date at Tikal inscribed on stela #24. By 900, the city was in decline and by 1200 was abandoned. The reasons for the abandonment remain a mystery.
As you enter Tikal today, after paying your 150 quetzals, the first thing you come to is a group of buildings known as Groups Q and R. Each of these group sites consists of two small pyramids and two other small buildings. There are seven of these four-structure group sites at Tikal.
The Mayans did not use the word year. Instead, each 360 day period was called a cycle. Twenty cycles was called a katun. These small pyramids were built to celebrate the passing of a katun.
Of the two small pyramids in Group Q, one is half uncovered and the other is still completely covered by more than 1000 years of jungle growth.
In front of the pyramid in Group Q are several stela with round altars in front of them. The altar was a place to worship the person or god depicted on the stela.
In one of the small buildings at Group Q, which is actually just a roofless compound, is stela #22. This stela was erected to commemorate the new king. His name was Chitam and he became king in 768. His likeness was carved on the stela complete with an enormous, flowing headdress that almost reached the ground. Stela are dated and I learned to read the hieroglyphs on the stela that indicate the year and the name of the person. A bar represented five years and a dot represented one year. Thus ..I (two dots and a bar) was a seven, the first number in the year. It is something like Roman Numerals but with different symbols.
The second pyramid at Group Q has been left uncovered. It was decided that some of the structures should be left uncovered for future generations to restore and explore and also because it is very expensive to uncover, clean and restore them.
After leaving Groups Q and R, we turned left and came to the rear of Temple One. Walking around Temple One to the front will bring you to the central plaza. This was the heart of the city. Standing in the centre of the plaza, you will have Temple One on one side, Temple Two on the other and Acropolis Norte to the north and Acropolis Central on the other side. An acropolis is a grouping of small buildings and temples. The Acropolis is large but individual structures within it are fairly small compared to the main temples. With all this surrounding you, it is very impressive. I can just imagine the plaza being paved with stones, the temples being new and brightly painted and all the people coming and going as in the heart of any large city.
There are 12 small temples in Acropolis Norte but they have been severely damaged. I have included some photos from a model city at the visitor centre so you can compare the structures in their original condition to how they look today.
In front of Acropolis Norte is a row of stela that depict the elite of the city. Most of them have a round altar in front of it. When a new king or priest came to power, he often defaced the stela of his predecessor to make sure that the dead person no longer had any power over him.
Temple One is closed to the public. You can climb Temple Two but not on the original steps. A set of wooden stairs has been build to one side of the temple. There is a nice view of the centre of the city from there.
The central plaza is a great place to sit for a while and admire the temples and think about the great Mayan civilization that once existed here.\
Going past Temple Two, you next come to Temple Three which has been left unrestored. Just the top of the structure is visible sticking out of the jungle.
Going past Temple Three, you will come to Temple Four. This is the tallest of the six large temples in Tikal, towering 210 feet above the jungle floor. It was finished in the year 741. The temple itself is under restoration and is not much to see. One side is covered in plastic and the other side is still covered with trees. But you can climb the temple for a suburb view of Tikal. You can’t use the original stairs which are being restored and are under plastic, but there is a set of wooden stairs to go up. It is quite a climb but worth it. From the top you can see Temples One, Two, and Three sticking out of the jungle. When the city was occupied, there were probably not many trees at the centre of the city and you would have a clear view of the whole city with all the colours and the people going about their daily duties.
To the south of Temple Four you come to an area that is now known as the Lost World. Here there is a pyramid and many other structures. You can see by the model of the pyramid how beautiful the structures once were.
Next to Lost World is the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Here there are seven small temples in a row. This must have been a very religious civilization. There are temples everywhere.
After the Seven Temples you will come to Temple Five and Acropolis South. The Spanish government paid to have Temple Five uncovered, or at least the front of it. Three other sides and the enormous base remain under the jungle. Clearing 1500 years of jungle growth from the structure is a huge and very expensive job. I remember the guide in Calakmul telling us that it took 500 men several years to clean the front of one pyramid and the plaza in front of it. Temple Five is not as tall as the others, but with its magnificent, wide stairway, it is the best looking one. Standing at the bottom of the stairway you are not really at the bottom of the structure. The whole temple is built on a huge base platform. This is not apparent at first because of the jungle growth but if you look behind you, you would see that the ground drops away steeply to the jungle floor. See the photo of the model. The restoration was completed in 2003 and already the temple has a slight greenish-black look as jungle growth begins again. When the city was occupied, there must have been thousands of workers just to keep the buildings free of plant growth.
Next to Temple Five is Acropolis South which is still covered by jungle. You can see it in the model photo.
Temple Six is far from the centre of the city and is not really worth the long walk. It is small and not too interesting.
Between Temples Five and Six is a group of buildings known as the Palace of Acanaladuras although its exact use is unknown. There was a stairway leading to the entrance but it was also possible to enter through a tunnel which is still intact. We went through the tunnel into the plaza beyond. Most of the buildings are in ruins and some are still uncovered.
Back near Temple One is what is called the Mercado. This is a complex of small rooms. It might have been a shopping centre. They are not houses as they do not have beds. Beds were made on raised brick platforms and I have seen many of them in other Mayan sites.
We found one place where some excavation work had just begun. The workers dug a small tunnel into the side of a hill to reveal a structure within. It is very interesting to see how the structures looked when they were found in the 1900s after more than 1000 years of jungle growth.
I have now toured almost all of the main archaeological sites of Mundo Maya ( the Mayan World). Tikal was by far the most interesting and the largest but Chichen Itzan and Uxmal in Yucatan are wonderful also. There are two others that I did not see. One is El Mirador in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border, which supposedly is larger than Tikal. There is no road to go there. Getting there involves several days of walking through the jungle or renting a helicopter. There is one other large Mayan city called Copan in Honduras but I won’t be going there. I might visit one more Mayan site near the Guatemala border in Belize on my way back to Mexico.