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If one of the world’s major cities was abandoned one day and then taken over by jungle, it would look something like Tikal.
In this dense jungle of Guatemala, large ferns fold over each other, solid cedar and mahogany trees seem to create impenetrable walls, and long vines wind their way around it all.
But amongst it all are the enormous temples and pyramids of Tikal, an ancient city that was found more than 2500 years ago. The sturdy public buildings of this once-great metropolis have resisted the encroaching nature.
And, most strikingly, many of the monuments are so large that they rise up above the canopy of the jungle like ancient stone skyscrapers reaching up into the sky.
It’s fitting that Tikal still looks like this. After all, this used to be the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Ancient Maya.
On my tour through the Mayan world with G Adventures, I have been to many impressive Mayan ruins. Each of them was an important city in their time. But none of them could live up to the majesty of Tikal in Guatemala.
The Mayan ruins in Mexico are often the ones you hear about because the country gets more tourists and they are easier for visitors to access. But once you are in Guatemala, Tikal is not hard to visit and you’ll quickly realise how much more impressive it is.
Tikal National Park
While it may be the ruins of this ancient civilisation that bring most people here, they’re not the first thing that you’ll see.
The manmade part of the site is just a small fraction of the protected area. Surrounding the old temples and monuments is Tikal National Park, an enormous natural reserve with incredible biodiversity.
In total, Tikal National Park consists of almost 60,000 hectares of wetlands, savannah, tropical broadleaf, and palm forests.
As well as the monkeys that I have now become accustomed to seeing in the jungle, there are five types of cat here – including jaguars and pumas (although I sadly don’t see any of them).
You get a sense of this as you arrive and drive in down the long entrance road, with tall trees all around. In fact, there are more than 200 species of trees in Tikal National Park and 2000 other types of plants.
Even once you have arrived at the main visitor centre, there’s still a 15 minute walk through the jungle until you reach the first collection of ruins (although the rangers do have a truck which will drive you up, if you’re unable to walk).
As I stride through the foliage, I can hear monkeys in the branches above me several times. And, on the ground, I come across a group of coatimundis, an animal I have never seen before.
These raccoon-like animals move around in large groups and forage food from the ground, digging up insects or small reptiles and finding fruits that have fallen from trees.
When I do finally get to the ruins of Tikal, it’s the impressive Temple I that I see first. Also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, it’s the most iconic image of Tikal.
Temple I is made of limestone and has nine stepped levels, perhaps representing the nine levels of the underworld because inside the structure is the tomb of a ruler who died in the 8th century.
On the other side of the central plaza is another tall temple with a similar design. This is Temple II, where the ruler’s wife has her tomb. It is known as the Temple of the Masks.
Both of these temples were built towards the end of Tikal’s apogee. But the Maya began their first constructions at Tikal in the 4th century BC.
For the next 1500 years, the city grew – both in size and power. At its peak, it’s estimated there were about 100,000 people living here. But Tikal should not be judged on its population, but by its influence on the rest of the Mayan world.
Tikal was an important part of the trading route that passed through this part of the Americas. And, as one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities on that route, it was able to spread its own cultural and political hegemony.
The art and architecture you can see at other major Mayan ruins would have been affected in a major way by the rulers of Tikal.
I climb up to the top of Temple II and look out across the central plaza. On one side is the North Acropolis and on the other side is the Central Acropolis.
When I climb back down, I go to explore them a bit more. They were mainly used for tombs but there are also pieces of art still here as well as ‘stelae’, the carved pieces of rock that tell us a lot about the history of Tikal.
But there are also other temples, palaces, and other royal buildings. One of the highlights is a three-metre-high mask carved into a wall.
How many of the great rulers of Tikal left their mark here in some way?
Tikal Star Wars
Leaving the central plaza, I walk through more jungle towards another collection of ruins.
The paths here would once have been grand avenues connecting the various temples and pyramids. Now they are mostly overgrown with plants, a reminder of how long it has been since people walked through this land for more than tourism.
At the end of the path, I come to the base of an enormous temple, that slowly reveals itself from behind the trees as I get closer.
This is the famous Temple IV of Tikal.
If you’re a trivia nerd, you may be interested to know that Temple IV is significant because it was used as a filming location in the 1977 Star Wars movie Episode IV (A New Hope).
The Tikal Star Wars connection is often referenced by guides here and I think it’s quite cool. But, in reality, there was not that much from Tikal that ended up in the movie. The most famous shot is when a rebel oversees the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin 4 as they prepare to attack the Death Star.
The shot is filmed from the top of Temple IV and you can see the jungle and the top of Temples I, II, and III.
I climb all the way to the top and stand in the exact same spot, looking out at the view myself. I don’t do it because I have particular interest in the Star Wars movies. I do it because this is one of the best views in Tikal.
Temple IV is the highest of the buildings here at Tikal, at 65 metres. In fact, it’s considered to be one of the highest structures in the Americas from before Europeans arrived (most experts say it’s the third-largest).
I sit down and look out for a while, taking in the vista and the moment. This enormous incredible temple was built about 1300 years ago by one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world.
Sometimes, in all the rush of exploring, you need to take a few moments to think about the significance of it all.
I seem to spend most of my time at Guatemala’s Tikal going up and down temples. Each is different and each deserves its own exploration. But it’s also the views from the top.
Looking out over the canopy of the jungle, seeing the other ancient skyscrapers surge out from the greenery, it never gets tiring and each temple offers a different perspective.
The last one that I go up is in a section to the south of the site, called Mundo Perdido.
Translated into English, it’s the Pyramid of the Lost World that I’m now standing at the top of. The name seems apt.
No matter how much I am told by guides about the Mayan World, no matter how much I read myself, I feel as though the Ancient Maya are still quite hard to grasp.
We can talk about how advanced they were – demonstrated by the temples at Tikal, for example – but I find it hard to get a picture in my mind’s eye of what they were really like as people.
I can imagine how a Roman city would have looked, or how the Egyptian pharaohs may have lived, but the Maya are still fuzzy to me.
But here in Tikal I get the closest to seeing and understanding the Maya that I have reached so far this trip. With these towering buildings, I can see a link between my world and this ancient one.
It feels like a city… albeit an abandoned one. And the power of the Maya in Guatemala is unmistakable.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.