Tikal: a mighty ancient city

Guatemala is home to some wonderful ancient Mayan sites. Tikal is probably the most visted in the country and was definitely a must see for me!

Flores is the main travller base to visit Tikal and other sites (including the huge Mirador, that´s on the cards when I come back with Dante). It is a little island connected by a bridge. It is quite pretty; cobblestoned streets, cute cafes and little churches.

Personally I didn´t feel like it lacked something, maybe some character or a nice vibe. Unfortunately, scam artists (called ´coyotes´) are rife here. It was the only time I´d encountered such behaviour. I had been warned about buying tour and bus tickets from people on the street. I´d also been warned about people that will get on your bus as you´re coming into town and sell you tickets. You pay a price which sounds pretty good, but the service or part of the service isn´t delivered. I met a few travllers who had this happend to them. When we arrived into town, we were made to change to a different bus even though we would stop 500 meters later. This is when the coyotes tried their tricks, but thankfully we all picked up on it straight away.

Anyway, I was very keen to see Tikal and no coyote was going to get in my way!

I really enjoy visiting ancient ruins. The Mayan culture, history and well preverved ruins were big factors in my choice to visit Central America and Mexico. I like to imagine myself back in those days, a thousand or more years ago. What was it like? What were people wearing? Talking about? Excited for? Scared of?

So very early one morning I joined some others from my hostel to the site. It was about an hour drive and we arrived before 6am, the gates weren´t even open.

Some Tikal fun facts to start:

– it’s set in lush jungle in the north eastern area of Guatemala, not far from both the Belize and Mexican borders

– spans over 16sqkm, comprising of over 3000 structures

– it’s a UNESCO Wold Heritage Site

– the city peaked roughly between 200 and 900 AD

– estimated to have a population of up to 90,000 at its peak

– was a powerhouse of the pre-Columbian Mayan world


Our tour included a guide who took us through the most interesting and uncovered structures of the site. Only  about 20% of the structures have been uncovered and restored. The rest are under trees and vines. These look like huge mounts in the jungle. Amazing what else could be under there!

The pyramids are mainly solid structures which were used for many purposes. The big pyramids were usually for ceremonies including animal and human sacrifices to the gods. Often the priest (who was also the King apaparently), would climb to the top of the pyramid and speak to the people, often sharing insights from the gods. Some of the pyramids were tombs, other dedicated to family members (wives, sons).

It’s important to note that no one is actually sure exactly what went on back there. The theories are based on piecing together what evidence is available and making some assumptions. Each Mayan site I’ve been to, I’ve heard slightly different perspectives and ideas.

Only the ‘noble’ people lived in the main city area. The ‘common’ people lives in huts in the outskirts of town.

The placement of each structure was very specific, based on astronimical calculations. Our guide explained the complex mathematics of the Mayan calendar (one of the calendars, apparently there were many) and how the structures were built to represent this order. It had a lot to do with the seasons (90 days in each) and the months (18, 20 days each). For ancient civilisations, they sure knew a lot about the world!

During  our tour, we had time to explore each area and climb to the tops of pyramids. The steps were so steep and it was a workout getting up! Climbing to the top of the tallest pyramid, we had a wonderful view of the jungle, the tops of some of the structures poking out from the treetops.


It it seems that during the city’s occupation at the Tikal site, most of the jungle had been cleared. One theory is that this disruption of the natural environment caused drastic changes in weather and atmosphere. Some suggest this impacted on water supply (among other thungs) and may have contributed to the exodus of the city. Other reasons for the fall of the city include warfare and overpopulation.I guess we will never know…

The Ceiba tree – Guatemala’s national tree. It holds great significance to the Mayan people.

Tikal wraps up my time in Guatemala. It has been a wonderful few weeks!

Now I’m jumping over the border to Belize!






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