Tikal National Park, located 63 kilometers from Flores, is the most famous and frequently visited of Petén’s archeological sites. The combination of its gargantuan temples, diverse wildlife, and historical significance make it a must-see for any visitor to Guatemala. The remnants of a great Mayan kingdom dating from 800 BC to 900 AD, Tikal was discovered in 1848 by officials from the Guatemalan government. A century of excavation and investigation followed before the park was fully opened to the public in 1956. Not long after, UNESCO declared Tikal a World Heritage site in 1979. Tikal’s name is derived from the Mayan Ti ak’ al meaning ‘in the lagoon’, but the site is also known as ‘the place of spirit voices.’
The iconic Temple I peaks through the jungle canopy at the center of this gigantic park’s 575 km2 of protected land, an area that serves as a hopefully important step towards the further conservation of Petén’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Inhabited by numerous species of birds, monkeys, and even jaguars, the cacophonous rainforests surrounding Tikal have gradually succumbed to the onslaught of relentless loggers and looters. Numerous unexplored ruins lay hidden in the jungles surrounding the site, and only time will tell if these important pieces of history will be protected like Tikal or exploited for material gain.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Tikal’s location was selected by its initial settlers around 800 BC for its position above the flood table and access to hardy flint for the fabrication of weapons and tools. Tikal grew slowly and steadily before the birth of Christ; its first modest structures were completed in what are now the El Mundo Perdido Complex and the North Acropolis by 90 AD.
By 250 AD Tikal had become an economic powerhouse and spiritual center for the Petén region. Its Great Plaza was more or less established by the time of King Yax Ehb’ Xok, the first of a familial dynasty of rulers that governed Tikal until its demise in 869 AD. Tikal’s early history was closely tied to the non-Mayan civilization of Teotihuacán in present-day México. In the 4th century, Teotihuacán sent the warrior Siyak K’ak’ (Born of Fire) to help Tikal crush its nearby rival of Uaxactún. Using the imported atlatl throwing spear, the forces of King Great Jaguar Paw surrounded their foes and killed them without getting their hands dirty. Uaxactún defeated, Tikal’s regional dominance was established for the next two centuries. The aid from the north did not come without a price, however. King Great Jaguar Paw was killed in a coup and replaced by a Teotihuacán royal named Curl Nose.
Tikal grew steadily throughout the 5th and 6th centuries thanks to the marriage of King Curl Nose into its ruling family. By 553 AD Tikal had a territory of 33 km2, a population of over 100,000, and lucrative trade routes from Yaxchilán in the west to Copán in the east. Simultaneous to Tikal’s surge was the rise of the kingdom of Calakmul to the north. Calakmul established vassal states surrounding Tikal and allied itself with King Yajaw Te’ Kinich of the powerful Caracol civilization in southwestern Belize. In an attempt to weaken Calakmul, Tikal attacked Caracol in 556 AD but thoroughly underestimated the latter’s strength. Just six years later, Caracol walloped Tikal on its own turf and proceeded to destroy many of its records and tombs. Tikal remained intact despite the loss, but for the next 130 years the languishing city struggled to re-establish itself as a regional power.
Tikal’s Return to Glory and Decline
Perhaps Tikal’s most important ruler, Hasaw Chan K’awil (Ah Cacao), shrugged off Caracol’s influence and began fortifying his military as soon as he came to power in 682 AD. In order to eliminate the threat of Calakmul’s nearby vassal cities, he declared war on his rivals and trounced them in 695. By 710, Tikal’s regional dominance and prosperity was fully restored, and there was nothing else to do but leave a lasting legacy of its power. Over the next century, Hasaw Chan K’awil and his son constructed Tikal’s six largest temples. When the 9th century rolled around, climactic changes began to devastate Mayan civilizations throughout the region, and Tikal began to fade into obscurity. The last record of the once-powerful kingdom was made in 869 AD, and by the 10th century it was totally abandoned. For the next 800 years, the dense jungle slowly reclaimed Tikal’s temples and palaces.
It is likely that the Itzá people of Lake Petén Itzá both knew of Tikal and used its impressive temples for traditional ceremonies between 1200 AD and the arrival of the Spaniards. Records from Spanish missionaries indicate that the early conquistadors witnessed or at least heard of lost jungle cities in the region. Due to the hostile climate, however, they were not motivated to explore any further. In 1848, the Guatemalan government sent Colonel Modesto Mendez and Ambrosio Tut, along with artist Eusebio Lara to Tikal to investigate. Thirty years later, Swiss explorer Gustav Bernoulli paid Tikal a visit and returned to Switzerland with the carved wooden lintels of Temples I and IV in tow.
In 1881, purposeful scientific study of the ruins was begun by British archaeologist Alfred Maudslay, who was followed by Teobert Maler, Silvanus Morley, and Alfred Tozzer, among others. In 1950, a small airstrip was built to facilitate access to the site, and ongoing restoration and excavation efforts were led by the University of Pennsylvania, the Spanish Cooperation, and the Guatemalan Institute for Archaeology and History. Although Tikal is one of the best restored Mayan ruins in Guatemala, its sheer size means that new findings and nuanced understandings of this ancient civilization are inevitable.
Check out the travel guide for even more information on this can’t-miss Guatemalan treasure!