The Mighty Maya City of Tikal

Tikal, in northern Guatemala, was once one the largest and most powerful of the Maya cities. Today it has been most taken over by jungle.

Tikal Mayan Ruins and Morning Mist

There’s a deep, guttural growl coming from somewhere out in the misty darkness of the jungle. Then there are more of them. And they’re loud.

We’re still hours before dawn, but it’s already hot and muggy. All around us is jungle. There’s only four of us–three of us, plus our guide. We’re armed with nothing more than flashlights and cameras. We’re on a rocky, unpaved track with moss-covered rocks that are slick from the overnight rain that is only now starting to let up.

A ways back along the trail we’d come across two guards sitting silently in the darkness, shotguns across their laps. The State Department warns that violent attacks have occurred in the Tikal ruins “particularly during the early morning sunrise tours of the ruins.” Without the guide there’s no way for us to get our bearings in the dark.

Jaguars and pumas call this jungle home. But thankfully, the source of these roars isn’t a pride of big cats with an appetite. They’re howler monkeys. They sure don’t sound it, but they’re harmless, if mischievous. Signs at the entrance to the park warn that one of their favorite ways to entertain themselves is by defecating on people walking below.

We’re walking in the dark to one of the largest of several pyramids that are part of this ancient city. We climb the steep wooden steps to the top. There, we sit and wait and listen.

Star Wars fan? Tikal was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in the original Star Wars movie (A New Hope). In the shot where a Rebel lookout watches the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin was taken on top of Temple IV looking east; you can see the tops of Temples I, II, and III poking up above the trees.

All we can see is thick mist. But we can hear the jungle waking up. The howler monkeys are joined by other, less fearsome-sounding cousins. Toucans flitter in the tops of the trees. UNESCO lists 54 species of animals and 333 species of birds here, contributing to a rich, and thankfully protected, biodiversity region.

As the dawn adds more light and the mist starts to lift ever so slightly, we start to be able to make out the treetops far below. We can see troops of spider monkeys, with their spindly limbs and tail, swinging from tree to tree.

In the midst of this rainforest, the ruins of the Maya civilization at Tikal have the kind of atmosphere one imagines of these ancient, mysterious places. It’s a far cry from the much more sanitized and trampled atmosphere of places like Chichen Itza or Tulum.

Somewhere out there in the mist is a whole city, long since abandoned. Huge pyramids, once painted bright colors, tower above the surrounding treetops, giant pedestals for kings and holy men to be that much closer to God than anyone else.

Tikal, in northern Guatemala in the trunk of the Yucatan Peninsula, was once one of the largest and most powerful of the Maya cities when it was inhabited between about the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD. The impressive stone pyramids and other structures are ample evidence of that. But in the thousand years or so since the city was abandoned, the jungle has swallowed the city. In some areas–but by no means all–archeologists have dug into the mounds of earth and trees to expose the stone buildings underneath. The pyramids served royal and religious purposes, but there are also residential quarters nearby to wander through. And if you know what to look for and how to read them, there are numerous stone steles around that pay tribute to important people and events, telling the story of this remarkable city.

In a few hours, this place will be teeming with tourists. But for now, we’re alone in this ancient Maya city.

Photos of Tikal

Tikal Mayan Ruins
A group of tourists in the Main Plaza in front of the Temple of the Masks, or Temple 2. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Partially Restored Building
A partially restored building. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Maya Ruins Temple I and Northern Acropolypse
Temple I and North Acropolis. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Maya Ruins Templo IV Jungle Mists
Sunrise, taken from the top of Temple IV. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Restoration in Progress
A worksite that’s part of the restoration. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Do Not Feed the Crocodile
Can’t fault this advice. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Main Plaza with Temple 1
Temple 1, also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar or Temple of Ah Cacao. You can see scaffolding on its side. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hotel Tikal Inn Sign
Hotel Tikal Inn Sign. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Temple 3 Pyramid
Looking up from the base of Temple 3. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Teotihuacan Embassy
A small structure known informally as the Teotihuacan Embassy. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Panorama of Tikal's Main Plaza
At right is Temple 1, also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar or Temple of Ah Cacao. In the center of the frame is the Main Plaza. At left are some of the residences of city officials and dignitaries. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Temple 2 and Jungle
The top of Temple 2 (Temple of the Masks) is framed by the thick jungle trees. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Maya Ruins Templo IV Jungle Mists
On the left side of this photo is part of the top of Temple IV, the tallest of the pyramids at Tikal. At the right of the frame, the rising sun illuminates the mists over the jungle canopy. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins top of Temple of the Jaguar Priest
View of the Tikal Maya Ruins and the jungle canopy from the top of Temple IV, the tallest of several pyramids at the site. In the frame is the top of Temple 3 (Temple of the Jaguar Priest). From this vantage point, one can watch and hear howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and many birds moving through the treetops. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Main Plaza and Temple of the Great Jaguar
Temple 1, also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar or Temple of Ah Cacao. At the left of the frame is the Main Plaza. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Pyramids and Surrounding Jungle
View of the Tikal Maya Ruins and the jungle canopy from the top of Temple IV, the tallest of several pyramids at the site. From left to right, one can see the tops of the Temple 1 (Temple of the Great Jaguar), Temple 2 (Temple of the Masks), and Temple 3 (Temple of the Jaguar Priest). This view might look familiar to Star Wars fans (here’s the movie shot). Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Crocodile Warning Sign
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Mossy Stones
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Temple 2 Pyramid
Temple 2, also known as the Temple of the Masks. At the bottom in front is a stela that once held commemorative inscriptions that have since worn away. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Overgrown Jungle
An unrestored section of one of the buildings. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Archeological Work Site
A section of the base of Temple 4 (the top can be seen at top of the frame behind the trees; it is also known as the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent) is currently undergoing restoration work by archeologists. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Restoriation Pyramid
A closer view of the work-in-progress on the base of Temple 4. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Templo V
Temple 5. At about 187 feet high, it is the second tallest of the buildings at Tikal and is a mortuary pyramid. It is believed to have been built around 700 AD. The section at the top was once covered with detailed artistic carvings and the whole structure was painted.Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Temple 5 Pokes Through Jungle
Another view of Temple 5. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Pyramid Temple of the Masks
The Temple of the Masks, or Temple 2, in the Tikal Maya ruins in northern Guatemala, now enclosed in the Tikal National Park. In the foreground is a series of stela on the Main Plaza that once held commemorative inscriptions but that have since worn away over time. Visitors can climb wooden steps at the left of the pyramid to near the top. The section at the very top of the pyramid was once decorated in giant carved masks, only parts of which are still visible, and the entire pyramid would have been painted in bright colors.Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Tikal Mayan Ruins Building and Stela
One of the smaller surviving structures. In the foreground is a stela that has fallen over and is now protected by a small roof. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com

What to Know Before You Go

Tikal is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, not just for its human history but also for the biodiversity of the region. You can read more about the significance of the region here.

You will increasingly see it written as Tik’al, a more recent orthographical convention.

Take a hat, sunscreen, warm-weather rain gear, water, and a torch (flashlight). Facilities on-site are limited, although there are a couple of small shops at the park entrance.

This area is mostly tropical jungle and much lower altitude than the mountains of south-western Guatemala like Antigua and Guatemala City. Malaria and Dengue Fever are both in the area, so take mosquito repellent, any antimalarials your doctor recommends, and the usual precautions for such regions. Check the current CDC advice.

The State Department and British Foreign Office travel advisories both warn that there have been violent attacks against tourists on the roads to and from Tikal and within the National Park itself. Read the current advisories here and here.

The most convenient access point to the region is Flores, which has a small airport with flights from Guatemala City. There’s also an overnight bus from Guatemala City.

To do the sunrise or sunset walks you’ll have to be staying at one of the lodges within the park itself.

The ruins are not well signed and quite spread out. You’ll get much more out of it with a knowledgeable local guide. The lodges and hotels can usually arrange one, or get in contact with a travel agent in the area.

Take good walking shoes. The paths are uneven, muddy, rocky, and slippery.

Before you go, here’s a fun resource for virtually exploring the site.

Map

Where to Next?

David Coleman / Photographer
by David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »