Guatemala: All You Need to Know about Tikal

Fun Facts About Tikal, The Mother of the Maya Kingdom

By Rebecca Mayoll

Templo 2 Gran Plaza at Tikal, Guatemala
Templo 2 Gran Plaza at Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal is an isolated destination in north Guatemala, the mother of all Mayan complexes to have been unearthed throughout Central and Southern America. Swathed in a forest of 550 square kilometers, isolated from any modern day civilization, a visit to this ancient archaeological site is almost as authentic as its first discovery in 1848.

Not only of historical importance, Tikal is also treasured thanks to its natural wonders, an untouched jungle inhabited by many rare Central American species. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 ensures the protection of the entire ‘Parque Nacional Tikal’ and its insight into a World of our past. One way to get to Tikal is to rent a car in the capital and drive.

Now for some things you might not know…

Mayan Predictions

Lago Peten Itza El Remate
Lago Peten Itza El Remate

Mayan predictions did NOT depict the end of the World, just a change in peoples’ perspective.

The Maya dynasty comes across as an all knowing, ancient and important civilization which is why so many of us chose to believe that their calendar was able to predict the end of the world on December 21st 2012. Caught up in the flurry of our dramatic impending doom the general public failed to relate to the actual intent of the Mayan predictions, that at this time mankind would experience a shift in their thought processes.

The climax might have been a ‘disappointment’ but it did highlight how our own perceptions of time have been dictated by Mayan discoveries. It was they who closely watched the sun, the night sky and the movement of shadows to determine equinoxes and eventually create a calendar hauntingly similar to today’s, with 364 days depicting a single year.

The Maya divided these days into 18 segments, each of them 20 days long, with a surplus of five days reserved for celebration at the closing of the year. Alongside a calendar the Maya also used the rotation of our sun and moon to determine a farming cycle, planting crops based upon a prediction of the upcoming season.

The name ‘Tikal’ is not the real name of this ancient Maya city. The Maya kingdom, known Worldwide as Tikal, was actually called Yax Mutul. Its Tikal name originated from a Guatemalan newspaper who first made coverage of the site when inscriptions had yet to be distinguished. The word stuck as a true representation of the city and the surrounding jungle.

The Place of Voice

Tikal originates from the Mayan word ‘ti ak’al’ meaning ‘the place of voice.’ It is believed this phrase was originally used to describe the site due to either the sound of the jungle that surrounded the temple or from a unique aspect of the monuments themselves. A loud clap made directly between Templo I and Templo II (who face one another) in the central plaza releases a specific echo, a sound resembling Guatemala’s iconic national bird, the Quetzal. Bizarrely, this species is not actually found in the region of Tikal as it resides in the highlands in the south.

Sunrise over Tikal
Sunrise over Tikal

Whether the surprising echo is a coincidence or a work of art of the Mayan’s we do not know. The famous Mayan site in Mexico, Chichen Itza, was designed so that on the equinox the angle of the sun leaves a serpent shadow along the length of the staircase. It is not impossible that Tikal’s central plaza also has some mysterious form of art but if so, we have no idea how it was achieved.
There is a chance you will see wild Jaguars in Tikal’s National Park.

People who camp at the park or take the 4am tour do have a chance of seeing a wild Jaguar in Tikal’s extensive National Park. “The jungle,” our guide proudly announced “is Central America’s answer to the Serengeti. It has never been logged, one of the only untouched jungle in the World.”

The day prior to us a group had barely entered the park before a Jaguar cub ran out into the road, only a wise remark concerning that its mum must be nearby kept tourists from pouring out of their van.

Only 10 percent of Tikal is uncovered.

When the Maya disappeared from this great city the jungle and earth engulfed their empire, an empire that archaeologists have slowly uncovered since the mid 1800’s. To this day only 10percent of the central quarters have been unearthed and are available to visitors. Rather than pushing for more and more excavation attention is now focused upon protecting the natural surroundings.
Mayan cities became wiped out from…?

Years of through research has left us with no definite answer to this question but there have been leading theories. It is well known that cities within the extensive Mayan empire fought within themselves, usually over resources, or lack of them. A continual need for water encouraged the development of, and use for, a rainwater catchment system. Nevertheless, water continued to be in demand, especially as populations overwhelmed the supply and it is theorized today that this basic of necessities is the reason Mayan’s raged tribal wars and numbers declined.

Crowds at Tikal shouldn’t be expected.

side view of temple 5c
Side view of temple 5c

Waking up at three, hiking through the temples under a black sky and watching a sunrise from the parks most westerly and highest point is one way to ensure a crowd free visit. But, we were surprised to discover that even by 11 am, after we had heard the sounds of the jungle roar to life from a deep silence we were still relatively alone.

I know that the crowds do come to Tikal but during this peak season day the park felt isolated, our attention drawn to exotic animals instead of fellow tourists.

Paired toucans bounced between the dense forest canopy, flying head down due to their weighted beaks, bands of howler monkeys screeched at the blue sky, while spider monkeys, coati’s and bush turkeys made a silent scavenge for food. A visit to Tikal will not only quench a thirst for temples but also for wildlife.

How to Get To Tikal

Situated in Guatemala’s far north Tikal is a 9 hour bus drive from Guatemala City.
Adrenalina Tours run two buses per day that leave at either 10am or 7pm.

Templo 1 Gran Plaza
Templo 1 Gran Plaza

Due to the weaving and winding roads and occasional road blocks many people choose to fly this route. Between the airlines Tag and Avianca 4 flights a day depart Guatemala City for Flores, the flight takes 1 hour. You can also rent your own car and drive, stopping along the way since it’s a long route from Guatemala City.

Where to Stay in Tikal

Three major places offer accommodation close to Tikal: Flores, El Remate and 3 lodgings within the National Park.

Flores, in the heart of Guatemala’s Lake Lago Peten Itza, is the most convenient place to stay if arriving by air as it is only 20minutes away from Mundo Maya airport. Numerous accommodation options to suit any budget can be found on the island as well as plenty of restaurants and tour offices. Flores is 65km from Tikal so expect to wake up extra early if booking a sunrise tour.

32 km from Flores on the road to Tikal sits the placid village of El Remate. This is much quieter than Flores although there are still several places to stay and a few restaurants to choose from.

El Remate is loved for its idyllic sunset location on the shores of Lago Peten Itza, its closer proximity to Tikal and its budget accommodation options. Most hotel owners sell tours and onward transport.

TripAdvisor can assist with accommodation options for both Flores and El Remate.

Within the boundary of the National Park 3 non-budget accommodations options are situated 1km from Tikal’s famous pyramids. These isolated resorts are surrounded by jungle and offer sunrise and sunset tours of Tikal.

Rebeca Mayoll is a freelance writer and photographer from England whose travel writing has been featured in Wanderlust and Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine. She is the co-founder and author of straightondetour.com, a travel website with the mantra ‘find your own adventure.’ Promoting lesser-known destinations, independent travel and giving a humorous insight to the World of travel is what Becky does best.

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