Updated: Oct 10, 2022
by Columbus Luxury Travel
The Department of El Petén occupies approximately a third of the country, yet its population represents only about 4%. This huge expanse of tropical rainforest, swamps and savannah forms part of an untamed wilderness that stretches into the Lacandón forest and collects Maya cities from late pre-classic and classic period (400 B.C. to 900 A.D).
The most striking feature of Tikal is its towering, steep-sided temples, rising to heights of more than 44m, but what distinguishes it is its jungle setting. Its many plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, its temples uncovered and partially restored, but as you walk from one building to another you pass beneath a dense canopy of rainforest amid the rich, loamy aromas of earth and vegetation. Much of the delight of touring the site comes from strolling the broad causeways, originally built from packed limestone to accommodate traffic between temple complexes. By stepping softly you’re more likely to spot monkeys, agoutis, foxes and ocellated turkeys.
The ruins of Tikal, located within the Department of El Petén, were not officially discovered until 1848, after Spanish friars had written about the spectacular city hidden amongst the Guatemalan jungle of El Petén. The Guatemalan government then sent out an expedition to carry out the first official survey of the site. Following this survey, a group of European and British archeologists came to clear the site from the forest and study the remaining structures.
In the 1950’s and 60’s the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History restored about 17% of the site’s structures to the condition that they are currently seen today. In 1979, the area of Tikal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tikal National Park is a protected area about 576 square kilometers on the edge of the large “Reserva de la Biósfera Maya” and is considered to be one of Guatemala’s most treasured cultural reserves, due to the vast remains of the Mayan Civilization found in the city.
The earliest evidence of the site’s occupation dates back to approximately 800 B.C. , which is described as the Middle Pre-Classic period in the Maya’s history. The latest construction recognized by the archeologists date back to the Late Classic period, about 900 A.C. Therefore, it is thought that the archeological site of Tikal was occupied for 1,500 consecutive years, making the location a scientific mystery and an international wonder. With deep roots in cultural significance, mathematic, astronomic, architectural, commercial, and agricultural developments, the site is sure to peak the interest of just about anyone.
With so little of the site restored the tropical forest continues to occupy much of the area. The national park is home to several species of wildlife including the jaguar, toucans, parrots, parakeets, howler and spider monkeys, wild turkeys, agouti, and numerous other animals.
“Temple of the Great Jaguar” or “Temple of the Grand Jaguar”
Obtaining its name from the image of a jaguar carved into the wooden support beam of the temple’s main entrance, is a ceremonial necropolis for the then reigning Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, also known as Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate), Señor A. Built in approximately 700 A.D., the 47 meter high temple sits on the East end of the Grand Square. The pyramid served as Ah Cacao’s mausoleum and was used for many Mayan ceremonies and rituals, as the temple was considered to be a door to the Mayan underworld. The temple’s nine tiers correspond to the underworld’s nine levels. Believed to be one of Tikal’s greatest rulers, Ah Cacao’s skeleton was adorned with jade as he was surrounded by other precious offerings of pottery and shells and pearls from the Caribbean coast.
“Temple of the Masks”
Approximately 700 A.D. the ruler Ah Cacao built Temple II to honor is wife, Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. This structure is also known as the Temple of the Masks due to the giant stone masks lining the pyramid’s stairway. Almost as tall as Temple I, standing at a height of 38 meters, the Temple of the Masks offer a wonderful vista of the Grand Plaza and the North and Central Acropolises. This pyramid is one of the bested preserved temples in the site of Tikal.
“Temple of the Jaguar Priest”
Standing 55 meters high, Temple III is thought to be the mortuary ceremonial temple for King Dark Sun built in 800 A.D. The pyramid continues to boast its original wooden lintel with its carved image wearing a jaguar pelt. Stella 24 and Alter 7 reside in front of this temple.
At 57 meters high, Temple V is the second highest pyramid in Tikal. Located on the South of the Central Acropolis, the structure’s North façade has been restored with excavations putting the original construction at between 550 and 650 A.D. Temple V is funerary pyramid for a still unidentified ruler. The dating on the ceramics found around within the temple date the structure during rule of Nun Bak Chak.
The ceremonial labyrinthine complex, located on the north of the Grand Plaza is the North Acropolis. From the excavation of the North Acropolis, evidence shows that the area was the dynastic tomb of Tikal's rulers for numerous centuries. The rulers’ sepulchers and the stelae (monumental stone pillars) outlined the Grand Plaza at the fore end of the acropolis permitting the city's historical events to be illustrated in unmatched detail. These numerous structures depict ceremonial characters and masks of the Temple 33 (5D-33), which is a funerary temple centrally located in the North Acropolis.
The residential complex, located on the south end Grand Plaza is the Central Acropolis. The administrative and residential buildings boasted many rooms with several stories, such as the Palace of Siyaj Chan K’awill II, the Five-Story Palace, and the Maler Palace. It also bordered the water reservoir for the palace’s water.
Found around the city of Tikal, especially throughout the Grand Plaza and its surrounding terraces, several stone pillars can be found. Theses pillars, called stelae (singular stela), are made of tall, sculpted stone and typically paired with a circular stone altar. Considered to be a trademark of Classic Mayan Civilization, stelae and their altars are found in nearly every Maya kingdom’s ceremonial center, with the earliest dated stela discovered in Tikal. Carving of the monuments throughout the Mayan Civilization occurred during the Classic Period. The carvings and glyphs were associated with commemorating important dates and divine kingship. Many stela are upright, usually limestone, slabs carved with one or more faces and figures as well as hieroglyphic text