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Where to go and what to see?

      Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent.  It is Guatemala's most famous cultural and natural preserve.  Tikal possesses a certain magic... Like all puzzles without answers it fascinates everyone and we dare say... Tikal is so irresistible once you are here, you'll find yourself wanting to stay just a little longer!

      This majestic archaeological gem comprises 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center.  It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover about 10 square miles of structures at Tikal.  However, much of it is still left to be unearthed.  So, do take some advice...  Don't try to see all of Tikal in one day, even if you are in excellent shape!

     Tikal remained a mystery for centuries, after being abruptly abandoned by the Maya over 1000 years ago and overgrown by a relentless jungle.  Only a legend survived among the Itza Maya people of a lost city, where their ancestors had achieved high cultural development.  In 1848 the legend faded, giving way to an exciting era of discovery. It was a serendipitous discovery made by Ambrosio Tut, a gum collector or chiclero. 

      He saw the temples' roof combs in the distance.  He ran to the island city of Flores to inform Modesto Mendez, then Governor of the Peten Province, in northern Guatemala.  When they arrived at the site the impressive temples, the open plazas and the several-story buildings, where priests and kings once lived, stood in front of Governor Mendez' and Ambrosio Tut's very eyes... They visited the site with an artist who recorded some of the carvings at Tikal.  Their findings were published by the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1853.  It was only a matter of a few years before curious scholars started traveling from all corners of the world to see for themselves what they had discovered.

      Allow us to take you on a journey through time as we explore the Tikal National Park.  As you land in the Mundo Maya International Airport you will be offered transport to the park. Prepare for a one-hour drive and start getting your bearings.  As soon as you enter the park's grounds, you'll notice the forest becomes a deep green everywhere.  Your shuttle-driver will leave you at the beginning of the trails over 12 miles from the park's entrance gate.  First walk up to the giant ceiba, or kapok tree.  The Ceiba -Guatemala's national tree- was sacred to the Maya, its roots point to the four cardinal points. There you'll find three trails. 

      Take the middle one, and continue until you see a sign that says Group F. Group F was a market place, and gives you an idea of how Tikal must have looked before early explorers and archaeologists arrived, as its structures are still mostly covered by dense jungle. Go straight through to the main plaza as this is where our journey will end, completing a full circle. Beyond the plaza is Temple III. This is the only temple whose lintel is in Tikal (although it is at the museum's warehouse).  Lintels were elegant thresholds on the temples' doors. In Tikal, lintels were carved out of sapodilla, a hard wood, which is also the tree from which sap to make chewing gum is obtained. The Maya carved these magnificent wooden-slabs over one thousand years ago, so each lintel is an authentic treasure. The original lintels were removed from the other temples in 1877, under Botanist Gustav Bernoulli's orders and taken to Europe, to the Völkerkunde Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Two fragments of Temple I's lintel, taken with permission by the English pioneering explorer Sir Alfred Percival Maudslay, are housed at the British Museum's warehouse in London. In front of Temple III there is another interesting feature. You'll see an altar in front of a stela and if you look carefully, you'll see a long-nosed God which depicts an ancient ceremony on the left bottom side of it. Observe the mat carved next to it. This was a symbol of power among the Maya, whose kings sat on thrones covered with them. You'll see two trails that originate at the base of the temple.

      Do you see one of them leads to the “Mundo Perdido” or Lost World? We'll leave that for later, so carry on walking on Tozzer's Causeway, which connects Temples III and IV.  One of its most important buildings is the Bat Palace, also known as Structure 5C-13.  The Bat Palace is a two-story palace full of stepped vaults and interconnecting rooms. 

Aerial view of Tikal's Main Plaza from just above and behind Temple V, with the North Acropolis in the background… This picture of Tikal was made in 2008 with permission from IDAEH, the Institute of Anthropology and History, issued by the Director Salvador Lopez who was flying from El Mirador to Flores with us by helicopter and made an aerial inspection of th site. Our company, Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, collaborates very closely with this noble government institution, in charge of preserving our cultural and natural heritage sites and archaeological treasures.

      The splendid edifice has built-in benches and beds, and low-lying windows, looking west from some of the interior spaces, or rooms. You'll probably want to spend some time here and breathe a little of Tikal's air preparing for the exciting walks ahead. A few steps further you'll see Complex N, between the Bat Palace and Temple IV.  Complex N is one out of seven twin pyramid complexes found in Tikal.  Its northern enclosure holds reproductions of Altar 5 and Stella 16, which are among the finest monuments that survived being exposed to the elements for hundreds of years.  The originals may be appreciated at the Tikal's Visitor Center. You may observe that the outfit belonging to the individual on the stela is rich in illustrated information on Late Classic fashion. The elaborate glyphs on the circular band around the altar tell us something about the ritualistic trends of the time. Finally, we've made it to Temple IV!  Temple IV is the tallest structure in Tikal.  It is 72 meters (230.98 feet) tall! It’s an exciting climb on wooden ladders and protruding roots. The temple's crest is not overgrown, so from the temple's roof comb you’ll enjoy a magnificent view of the surrounding area and the other temples in the horizon. The jungle seems to stretch in every direction, as far as the eye can see.

      Most of the city's causeways are named after the pioneers and explorers who first discovered or studied Tikal. Take Sir Arthur Percival Maudslay, for instance, whom we've mentioned before in connection to Temple I's lintel. His were the first drawings and architectural plans ever to be sketched of Tikal's main plaza. He was also responsible for clearing the forest in the plaza, which covered Temples I and II.  Maudslay took the first pictures ever to be taken at Tikal, which were published in England in a famous series of the day entitled Biologia Centrali Americana. Maudslay visited Tikal twice, in 1881 and 1882. The Maudslay Causeway connects Temple IV to Complexes P and M, and Group H. This is truly one of the best hikes around the park. Both sides of the causeway are flanked by jungle, where you might be able to spot some wildlife, but only if you're very quiet... The whole area is called the North Group, too. Except for Temple IV, discovered at an earlier date, the North Group wasn’t discovered until 1937, although it is estimated it was built around the year 700. This architectural compound, particularly structure 3D-43, has the largest interior rooms in Tikal, with walls painted with graffiti.

You may enjoy another breathtaking view from Complex P's tallest structure, provided this becomes permitted again in the future and long vertical ladders don’t easily scare you.The group's best preserved carved monument (Stela 20) and its accompanying altar (#8) stand on the northern enclosure of Complex P.  The whole area is a quiet place for meditation and great for recovering energy before going on to the rest of your exciting adventure around the Tikal National Park.  Getting from the Northern Group to the Main Plaza is also an exciting hike.  You will first descend a steep incline.  You'll pass by an astonishing rectangular outcrop of limestone, twelve by twenty feet, protected under a yellow vinyl canopy.  This sculpture was probably an important landmark on the Maya’s Causeway, which has been renamed after another of Tikal’s early explorers: Teobert Mahler. Teobert Mahler was a German working for the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.  His works resulted in magnificent drawings and superb photographs.  He also drew a map of the site, which he refused to turn in out of his own professional zeal.  The museum was forced to field another study to produce a new map.  It was led by one of the greatest Mayanists of all times, Alfred Tozzer.  In 1911, the museum finally published a joint Merwin-Tozzer report.

      The Causeway named after Mahler is narrower than Maudslay's.  It will bring you straight into a crossroads.  To the right, you may continue on to the East Plaza, right behind Temple I. To the left, you may exit the site if you are too tired, and go take a break before you go on.  If you do decide to hang a left, you’ll find Complex Q, a twin pyramid complex that covers 5 acres of land.  A superb example of Late Classic sculpture may be observed within the enclosure beyond the Maya arch.It is Stella 22 where an individual whose hand appears to be scattering water or corn is honored.  His name was Chi'taam, and what he is doing is practicing a blood-letting ritual.  His royal outfit and the glyph text give a detailed description of this ruler's past, his ascension to the throne as well as the dates when the compound as a whole was built.  On Altar 10 you may observe a bound captive who may have been taken prisoner by Chi'taam.  On the altar's rim there are other individuals.  They are shown sitting down with interspersed mat designs on each of the cardinal points.  Lord Chi’taam’s story, which most tour guides share with you here, is a remarkable passage of Maya history. Later, you may trace your steps back to the crossroads. 

Drawing by Gustavo Valenzuela Copyrigth

      The Mahler Causeway will become a steep incline, which will take you across the workers' campground and lead you into Tikal's Main Plaza.  The park personnel worked for years on the restoration of Temple I.  They used the same material the Maya did in its construction more than a thousand years ago.  To the right you'll see a ball court.  To the left are the Central Acropolis and the Five Story Palace.  Both are an absolute must for serious bird watchers.  Try to find the palace’s lateral stairway, which is overlooking the ravine that divides the Central and South Acropolis.  The view from above the canopy at sunrise and sunset is simply one of the best.  Temple V in the distance is a superb backdrop for the park’s beautiful birds...

      The Main Plaza is a great place to spend some time. Climb Temple II and check out the great mask, theory said it belonged to the Rain God Chaac, within the walls of the Northern Acropolis.  New interpretations say it is the Mythical Vucub Caquix (an important character in the Popol Vuh, The Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya people), a vain macaw that claimed he was the Sun himself!  Can you imagine the grandeur back when these rooms were all occupied by savvy priests and fierce warriors?  See the stelae and altars, and pick a nice spot to sit and inspect your map or read your notes.  If you still don't have the urge to start clapping, see if you can get yourself to do it anyway and go ahead!  If you see some park guides doing it do not think they are crazy.  They are trying to demonstrate how this ancient acoustic amplifier worked.  The Maya had all this very well thought-out. High priests could be perfectly heard during ceremonies due to the enclosed architecture of the plaza.  Even the lateral stairways on Temple II were there for musicians to enhance the atmosphere during the ceremonies that where held on the main platform.

      Now, you are ready to proceed to the Lost World...  The Lost World was built before the Main Plaza.  Oddly enough, it was the last bit of Tikal to be excavated.  Don't miss the pyramid at the Lost World, as it is a great spot for bird watching, whether you have a telescope or not.  However, people who have a zoom lens and a tripod will deeply appreciate the 360-degree range of observation, right at the forest canopy's level.  Just a few steps behind is a fabulous place called the Plaza of Seven Temples. Another trail will lead you from this plaza into the South Acropolis and the imposing Temple V, now under restoration. Keep going on that trail and you'll come right on to Group G, which seems like a magical garden.  Enter the mysterious tunnel, which was meant to be the mouth of a serpent...  The long incisions on the walls were possibly made on purpose to collect water.  The interior rooms once housed a noble family. From Group G, The Mendez Causeway may be accessed.  It will lead you to Temple VI or Temple of the Inscriptions.  However, the inscriptions may be better appreciated early in the morning, so you may decide to leave something for tomorrow... Tikal is a fabulous spot for adventure.  Having some information on what you are looking at can make a world of difference.  Guidebooks may be purchased at the local hotels and restaurants as well as from park personnel at the entrance or at the Sylvanus Morley Museum. 

      Coe's guide to Tikal is popular as it is concise and includes a map. Other books offer more information on Maya history, see our recommendations on the book and article section in tikalpark.com or search the web for more resources. If you decide to take a guide, make sure he or she is qualified in the subject matter you are most interested in. Take plenty of water, mosquito repellent and a good pair of hiking boots. Discover Tikal and enjoy the largest ceremonial center in the Maya World. Don't forget to visit the museums. The Morley Museum is a small building, close to the parking area where some of Tikal's most valuable ceramics and objects are kept. In the Visitor's Center there is another museum, which houses the Stelae of Tikal.  It is a good idea to stay overnight or even for a few days to fully enjoy Tikal. There are three hotels and a camping ground in the park, as well as a number of restaurants and small coffee shops, which provide some comfort for visitors. Should you be lucky enough to visit Tikal on a full moon, do not hesitate and ask for a special permit to visit the park after hours at the Administrator's office beyond the Morley museum. You'll find the administration helpful; they will issue a permit immediately by stamping the reverse of your ticket, which should be purchased daily at the park’s entrance or the booth close to the trails.


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