Having visited quite a number of wonderful Mayan sites in the Yucatan region of Mexico and most recently Copan in Honduras, I was intrigued to see what more Tikal had to offer. The answer is simple. Its size. Tikal is vast. The site lies in the tropical rainforest of Northern Guatemala and much of it is still buried by the jungle. But what has been uncovered is hugely impressive and it’s not too hard to lose the crowds and experience its quiet wonder.
To start with its actually a bit daunting to strike off away from the main crowd as there’s a definite sense that it would be easy to take a wrong turn and find yourself lost in the undergrowth. So the best first stop is the Great Plaza which while busy is a good place to orientate and to see some of the largest ruins on the site.
It was the centre of the ancient city and is surrounded by four structures, including Temple I, the huge pyramid that’s synonymous with Tikal. Like many Mayan pyramids it was built to house the tomb of a great ruler, in this case Hasaw Chan K’awil, who was greatly revered for defeating an enemy state. Directly opposite is Temple II, built for the same ruler’s wife and a slightly smaller fatter version of Temple I with a wide staircase.
While these two are the largest structures in the plaza, arguably the most impressive is the North Acropolis which runs along one whole side. There are 12 temples visible but because the complex was built and rebuilt on top of itself there are remains of something like 100 other structures underneath. It’s incredibly to stand up there with the two pyramids either side and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday.
Moving on from the Great Plaza there is lots more to explore, not least Temple IV, the tallest structure in Tikal. It’s believed to have been built by Hasaw’s son as his own burial monument but his tomb has yet to be discovered. The temple isn’t restored, but there is a wooden stairway to the top where you can see the Tikal site laid out before you with the roofs of temples poking out of the forest. It’s a pretty tiring climb in the heat and definitely not for vertigo sufferers but the views are the reward.
The other two temple complexes I’ll mention are the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) and the Plaza of the Seven Temples because this is where the crowds melted away and the site took on a quite different atmosphere. It was almost like discovering a second site, with the Mundo Perdido featuring another large and impressive pyramid which sits on top of four earlier versions.
Just along from here the Plaza of the Seven Temples still has restoration work under way and includes a triple ball court, while a trail from one corner leads to the fully restored Temple V. This one is really fabulous and evidence suggests it was the first of Tikal’s temples to be built, having been started back in 600 AD. They are dates that are hard to get your head around, but walking around a site like Tikal it’s entirely possible to imagine what life must have been like when this magnificent Mayan city was at his height of power.
Some travellers visit Tikal on a day trip from Guatemala City, which is possible if you’re short on time and prepared for an early start and a long tiring day. If you prefer to do it at a more leisurely pace there are a couple of options.
There are hotels at Tikal itself which not surprisingly are pretty costly, but if you’re there for the wildlife as well as the archaeological site and want to do a dawn or dusk walk then they are probably the best choice. Otherwise I’d recommend Flores as a really nice place to spend a night or two. It’s a tiny town sitting on an island on Lago Petén Itzá and connected to the mainland by a causeway. The airport is a couple of miles away in Santa Elena which is sometimes referred to as Flores, but the place to stay is definitely on the island as many of the hotels are around its perimeter and have lovely lake views.
I stayed at Hotel Casazul a pretty colonial style converted house painted in shades of blue and white. The rooms were large with air conditioning and a ceiling fan and one of the only ones of the trip that had a fridge. All important factors after a hot day walking around Tikal. Our room led straight onto a large shared veranda with lots of comfortable seating and most importantly a lovely view of the lake. And all this for just $50 a night for a room for two.
Just along from the hotel are some excellent places to eat and drink including Terrazzo in Calle La Union, which has a large upper deck overlooking the lake and serves up excellent pasta. It’s also a good spot for enjoying an early evening cocktail while the sun goes down. A few doors away another good food choice is Villa de Chef, which also served up the best glasses of wine we’d had for a while and in proper big wine glasses! The ones we’d drunk wine from in Mexico and Guatemala so far had been an interesting mix! Both of these places are also good for evening drinks, but there are plenty of others too including the Sky Bar, though the Mojitos were a lot too heavy on the mint for our taste.
If you do stay in Flores getting to Tikal is pretty easy as every hotel can book you on the San Juan Travel shuttle buses that run up there from early to mid morning. Despite the company’s patchy reputation I found that for Tikal they were cheap and reliable and do pick up from hotels, though that means it can take a while to get out of town and on the way to Tikal if you happen to be one of the first hotels on the route. You don’t need to book on a particular bus back, but it’s advised not to leave it to the last one and to turn up 15 minutes or so before your chosen bus due to leave to make sure you get a seat.
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