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Sunday, 11 February 2007

Surviving the Mayan Ruins of Tikal

Written by Thomas Lera and Sandy Fitzgerald
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We had our first glimpse of Tikal on the TV reality show, Survivor – Guatemala. Seeing it in real life is so much more amazing! It is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and nature preserve. Many call it one of the most spiritually powerful spots on earth. Its towering temples loom out of the thick jungle canopy and are reminiscent of stoic sentinels. Like all unexplained mysteries, it is fascinating and so irresistible once there that you’ll find yourself wanting to stay just a little longer!

Getting there from our jungle camp in Belize was an adventure in itself. We piled into a rusty jeep with our local guide, Abel, and headed out immediately after a hearty breakfast – which proved to be not the smartest thing to do. The 1½ hour drive to the border of Guatemala, over what we in the States call “speed humps,” was enough to shake up even the strongest stomach. These mounds are a way of forcing cars to slow down when approaching a school, before entering a village, or when they occurred at unexplained interludes, just for the heck of it. They were merely a prelude to what lay ahead.

Pulling into San Ignacio, we slowly approached the border crossing…slowly because men, women, children, and dogs were milling around in confusion, due to the border guards. Suddenly Abel swerved to the right, stopped the car inches from a souvenir stand and jumped out. Like good explorers we did the same and followed him to a window in a nearby building, where a sullen man waited to examine our passports. borderWith a curt wave of his hand we were dismissed, at which point Abel told us to walk across the border to the Guatemalan processing center, and he would meet us with the car on the other side of that building. Another 10 minutes of passport inspection and stamping, and we were on our way to Tikal. The whole experience was a scene straight out of a Laurel and Hardy movie!


The best was yet to come, however. The paved road quickly gave way to a dirt washboard with ruts three to six inches deep. Hut-like houses clung to the edges of both sides of the road, like mud on the sides of shoes. Children, in various stages of undress, wandered unattended from open doorways, occasionally directly into our path, causing much swerving, breaking and gasping on our part.

Twice we were forced to stop completely for several minutes while cattle were herded up the center of the road or chickens strolled casually across with chicks in tow. On our round trip we came across no fewer than four dead horses beside the road, lying on their backs, legs extended skyward stiff as boards, after apparently having committed suicide by running directly into the on-coming path of heavy transport trucks.

Then there were the roadside signs warning of mowing ahead. The 4-foot international yellow diamond-shaped signs were illustrated with a black figure of a man holding a machete high overhead. And sure enough, up close and live around the next corner, there was the crew of 5 swinging their machetes cutting the grass.

In an effort to relax us after nearly two hours on this leg of the trip, Abel stopped at a friend’s restaurant in a 7-house village, where we were treated to an incredible feast of eggs, steak, goat cheese, fruits, vegetables, homemade tortillas, and rich, strong coffee. Well sated, we set out for our day in Tikal, with one additional person - a wizened nut-brown little man named Louis Gongalez. We did not know what a gift had been bestowed upon us until we discovered, over the course of the day, Louis knew more about Tikal then all the guidebooks put together.

Tikal National Park

Nestled in 222 square miles of surrounding jungle, this majestic archaeological gem fans out from a ceremonial plaza located at its center. Established by the Guatemalan Government in May 1955 as the first National Park in Central America, Tikal National Park became a National Monument in 1970. Excavations, which began in 1877, continue today, but nearly 80% of the ruins are yet to be exposed. Out of the sites that have been excavated, only 30 percent have actually been “mapped” within the park.

The park is a sanctuary for hundreds of wild orchid species and more than 30 hardwood species. It is one of the best bird watching areas of Central America, with over 410 exotic species, including scarlet macaws, parrots and toucans (yes, the character on the Fruit Loops cereal boxes). Howler and spider monkeys, white-lipped peccary, brocket deer, coatimundi, ocelots, and even, rarely, the jaguar can also be spotted, particularly when you have an eagle-eyed guide to point them out deep in the bush.


Ceiba Trees

When first approaching the temples of Tikal, you notice a slight rise in elevation as the path meanders through the sub-tropical jungle. Howler monkeys roar in the trees, adding a strange sense of intrigue as you near the Great Plaza. The day we visited, the heat was stifling and the thundering clouds above warned of the torrential afternoon downpours that constantly douse the region during the rainy season. Cockatoos and other birds with bright plumage create their music in homage to the wonders that hide in the jungle.

ceibaWe soon came to a clearing dotted with giant, interestingly designed, trees standing like sentries who had carefully staked out their territory. Although their heads are 100 feet above in the clouds, the massive roots of Ceiba trees are firmly anchored in the ground. Sacred to the Maya, their roots reach out purposefully in the direction of the four cardinal compass points, supporting trunks that may reach a diameter of 10 feet.

Pausing for this photo opportunity, we were lucky enough to be greeted by a touring troupe of coatimundis, tails held high as they paraded in front of us. These seemingly friendly little fellows appear to be a slimmer, longer-legged relative of the raccoon. We picked up the trail on the opposite side of the clearing and continued up the incline to where the trail ends at the edge of the Great Plaza, with little hint of the magnificence to come.

The Great Plaza

We were to begin our tour here in the central Great Plaza, in which the emblem hieroglyph from which Tikal derived its name is located. glyphArcheologists believe it was the first city-state to have an emblem glyph, a practice later adopted by others much the way modern states have flags and companies have logos to differentiate themselves.

The Great Plaza was where the ruler Ah Cacao, alias King Chocolate, built the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) and the Temple of the Great Jaguar (Temple I), and was later buried about 700 AD. The day we visited, tourists were picnicking, sharing tidbits with the multi-hued ocellated turkey, as king vultures soured overhead then came to roost on top of Temple I, 145 feet above the Plaza floor.

altarLocated between Temple I and II is Altar 5. If you look carefully at this flat stone, you can see two priests officiating over an altar on which a human skull rests upon a stack of femur bones. The priests’ are clad in garments adorned with feathers, ribbons and jaguar pelts, their heads decorated with a serpent’s head, and they are holding a sacrificial knife and lance.

Louis told us that typically the soaring temples were built upon piles of earthen rubble. Each stone was painstakingly cut and added to the rising structure using a unique blend of burnt limestone and water as mortar. The construction of the enormous temples is even more spectacular considering the Maya used no beasts-of-burden, no iron tools to cut stone, and no wheels for transport! Imagine the huge numbers of laborers needed to erect such massive edifices. Looking out onto the Great Plaza, you sense the spiritual nature of such a place during the peak of its once-thriving society.

We spent time here just breathing deeply and fortifying ourselves with the ancient air of Tikal, absorbing its mystical powers before we moved on. Exploration is not strenuous, if you are not adventurous enough to climb the temples, as the manicured paths are the only way to explore the area. It is impossible to move anywhere off the path without a machete, and after seeing a 5-foot wide swath of army ants crossing the trail, we really had no desire to do so!

Temple IV

Farther away from the complex of the Great Plaza and Temples I and II, is Temple IV, built by Ah Cacau's son around 741 AD. It was the tallest structure in North and Central America before the construction of skyscrapers in the late 1800's, looming 212 feet above the jungle floor. While we hadn’t ventured up the first two temples, we couldn’t let this one go by unexplored. It’s an exciting climb to its top on primitive, yet solid, wooden ladders and well-established protruding roots.

In less time than we thought it would take us, we arrived at the top in a grand sweat, downed a bottle of water, wiped our faces and prepared to observe the view we’d climbed up to see. Looking out over the dense canopy from the top of Temple IV was awe-inspiring. viewIt was possible to see the Great Plaza from here, and the jungle seemed to stretch in every direction, as far as the eye could see. The view is ethereal; no doubt the intention of the builder. It was easy to imagine the majestic sight of all of the temples lit by torches at night in this ancient city. The daytime views are still mystical and worth more than a cursory visit, and we sat on the top ledge for a good half hour, enthralled by Louis’s tales and legends of the Mayan.

Tikal is a fabulous spot for adventure. We spent another couple of hours following the meandering paths, sometimes re-crossing ground already covered, but never minding. We came across an active dig by the University of Pennsylvania, where they were carefully excavating the bones of what they believed was a Mayan woman. That story had yet to become part of Louis’ repertoire - we can’t wait until our next visit.


As our day was ending and we approached the parking lot, the coatimundi came wandering out of the bush to bid us goodbye. No doubt they will be there to greet new visitors the next morning.

Having information in hand to help decipher what you see can make a world of difference. If you aren’t lucky enough to have Louis or Abel along, guidebooks can be purchased at the local hotels and restaurants, as well as at the park entrance. William R. Coe’s Tikal, A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins is popular, as it is concise and includes a map.

There is no real town in Tikal and no stores other than the colorful souvenir market at the Visitor’s Center. The park entrance is located 16 kilometers before the Visitors Center and parking lot. The entrance fee is Q50.00 (quetzals) and, if you arrive after 3 PM, tell the ticket salesman you are going to the park mañana and your ticket will be stamped for the next day. You need more than a couple of hours, or even a day to fully enjoy the ruins. Take plenty of water, mosquito repellent and a good pair of hiking boots, and don’t try to see all of Tikal in one day, even if you are in excellent shape!

The Visitors Center itself is sometimes referred to as “Tikal Village”, as there are three hotels, a post office, campground, the Park Administration Offices, souvenir handcraft shops, and three local restaurants. The Morley Museum, a small building close to the parking area, houses some of Tikal’s most valuable ceramics and objects. Within the Visitor's Center, another museum showcases the ancient Stele of Tikal.  A third smaller but good museum is located 300 meters away near the Jaguar Inn Hotel.

Where to Stay

Tikal National Park is located within the 6,000 square mile Maya Biosphere in the northern part of Peten, Guatemala, 63 kilometers from Flores, the capital of El Petén Province. About half an hour from the entrance of the National Park, with paved road access, it serves as a gateway to exploration of the area.

floresFlores is a tidy Spanish colonial village crowded onto an island hill in Lake Petén Itzá. Complete with paved streets, colonial buildings, craft shops, economical hotels and hospedajes, tiny cafés and restaurants with lakeside views, it is connected to the mainland and the town of Santa Elena by a half-kilometer causeway. Santa Elena is a wreck of a place, with dirt, rubble-strewn streets frequented by roaming cattle, pigs and chickens.

Any time I am in the Flores/Tikal area, I make a point of seeing the sun set over Lake Petén Itzá. The best place seems to be the Sunset Cafe, but the Casona and Hotel Peten 9 (Tel: 926-1692 Fax: 926-0662) aren’t bad. There is something wonderfully eerie about watching the lake darken as lights slowly come on from the other side. It is particularly poignant after a hard day exploring ruins.

Tikal visitors looking for hotels with air conditioning and hot water should stop at Hotel and restaurant La Casa De Don David in El Remate about 15 miles from the park entrance. Don David has lived for over 30 years in Peten. The lodge has 15 nice rooms with private baths. Reservations are $18- $26 per person with dinner or breakfast.  They offer great tips on how to get the most from your day in Tikal or on trips in the Tikal and Flores, Peten area. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 502-7928-8469.

Where to Eat

The Jaguar Inn, inside the park, ( is a favored restaurant. Keep in mind, however, none of the eating places in the area are "fast food" restaurants, so be sure to allow enough time for a leisurely meal.

How to Tour


Good licensed guides normally cost $40 for 1 to 4 persons, $10 for each additional person to a $75 maximum for a 3 ½ to 4 hours tour. Make sure your guide is fluent in your language and it wouldn’t hurt to have bought and at least scanned the guide book (mentioned above) on your flight over.

© Thomas Lera and Sandy Fitzgerald, 2006



Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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