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The Silk Route - World Travel: Tikal, Guatemala
americas asia & far east africa & middle east europe

Guatemala: Tikal
May 2012

Tikal: the Grand Plaza

 

Tikal is an extensive site and has some of the most famous Mayan structures including pyramids and a wonderful Grand Plaza with towering temples. Climbed up to see temples poking through the jungle canopy for the first time.

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Cabin in the jungle
spider monkey Tikal
Spider Monkey

From the fabulous Stelae and Zoomorphs of Quirigua Mario drove us to the Rio Dulce where we were met by our new driver Miguel, saying goodbye to Mario who is an absolutely first-rate guide.

Though we hadn't had lunch we weren't hungry so just picked up water, Pringles and canned pineapple drinks to have in the car as it was to be another four hours before we would arrive at Tikal. It was still extremely hot so the air-conditioned cars were much appreciated!

Arriving at the Jungle Lodge around 6pm we checked in and walked down to our cabin surrounded by jungle, with spider monkeys running through the treetops. We had dinner (not particularly good!) and an early night. As the power goes off at around 10:30, and there are lots of insects, we cocooned ourselves in the mosquito netting on the bed and listened to the noises of the jungle while drifting off to sleep.

model of Tikal
Model of Tikal looking west: lower right are Complexes Q and R, centre is the Grand Plaza with the Great Temples I and II, on the western edge Temple IV, the south western corner the Lost World and Great Pyramid and southern edge Temple V.

The following morning Miguel returned to start our tour of Tikal at 8a.m.

This is one of the great Mayan sites. Traces of settlements from around 600B.C. have been discovered and by 300 B.C. major buildings were being constructed, and 600 years later Tikal was a major force in the region.

Chak Tok Ich'aak I, also known as Jaguar Paw, ruled in the  fourth century and his name is recorded on stelae at Tikal. It was at the end of his reign that the strong influence of the Teotihuacán culture, originating from a region near present-day Mexico city, became dominant, shown by decorative effects on the buildings. Jaguar Paw may have been defeated in battle - Tikal was constantly at war with other city states. Teotihuacán influence was declining by the end of the sixth century and there followed a century of conflict with Calakmul and Caracol during which Tikal suffered serious defeats. Hasaw Chan K'awil led the city back to prosperity and Tikal flourished independently for another 150 years before the decline which affected many Mayan cities and settlements.

grey-necked wood-rail Tikal
Grey-necked Wood-Rail - adults and young

Miguel gave a very good tour, beginning at the large model of the site to give us an overview of the extent of the city and its many buildings. The large area we explored is the hilltop site of the important ceremonial, religious and political buildings with a few palaces. At its height Tikal covered 100 sq km with the main ceremonial buildings clustered together around a number of plazas connected by causeways.The homes of the ordinary people lay outside this area, at a lower elevation.

Mesoamerican civilisation is divided into pre-Classic upto about 300AD, Classic until 800-900AD and post-Classic from then up to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. Much of what we see of Tikal today was constructed in the Late Classic period.

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The restored eastern pyramid of Complex Q

Having skirted the crocodile pond and passed a swampy area populated with water birds we approached a group of pyramids known as Complex Q and Complex R. Learning I was interested in all aspects of the environment as well as the great city, Miguel pointed out birds and anything interesting along the way.

Both these groups were erected to mark the completion of a Katun, one of the Mayan measurements of time equivalent to about twenty years (more info on Mayan time measurement at Quirigua). This type of group is found virtually only at Tikal. Complex Q marked the end of the 17th Katun of the particular Baktun in 771 A.D. and Complex R to mark the completion of the 18th Katun in 790 A.D. and both were built during the reign of Yax Nuun Aylin II, the 29th ruler of Tikal.

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The north building of Complex Q

Each group is arranged in a north-south, east-west set of four buildings, a flat-topped step pyramid east and west and a rectangular building north and south, the positions relating to the mythology and astrology of the Mayans.

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The healed diagonal cuts are where the liquid latex was extracted from this rubber tree.
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The stela and drum stone in the north building of Complex Q

The eastern pyramid is in the position of the rising sun. In Complex Q there stands a row of stelae and drum stones on the west side of the eastern pyramid. Flat-topped pyramids were perfect for the performance of rituals with only the most important people such as priests or the ruling elite allowed on the top of the pyramid with attendants taking part on each of the levels. The Mayan ceremonies must have been very colourful and gaudy sights, perhaps chilling too, depending on their purpose.

The south building referenced the underworld and had nine doors representing its nine levels.

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I think this is a fire ant - it was huge whatever it was!

The north building was associated with the highest point of the sun in the sky and through its arched doorway there is a carved stela and drum stone. These drum stones are often called altars and may have been used for sacrifices or for placing offerings or incense burners. The stela here shows Yax Nuun Aylin II and the stone has carvings of bound war captives - captives were often sacrificed to the Mayan gods so this may well have been a sacrificial altar.

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Entrance to food storage pit.
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Temple IV

Here and there Miguel showed us holes in the ground which led to food storage pits. These would  have been cool and dry and a very good way to store grain and other food basics. At its peak the population grew to maybe 100,000 people so it was essential to maintain a substantial food supply year-round. The city also had to preserve water and used huge reservoirs to store excess water which ran off the hill in the wet season along paved canals. The plazas were also tilted so that rain water drained into the water system.

From Complexes Q and R we made our way through the jungle to Temple IV. In this area lie also Complexes O and P which are of the same type as Q and R.

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Temples I, II and III from the top of Temple IV

 

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At 70m high Temple IV is the tallest building at Tikal. It lies at the western edge of Tikal at the end of one of the Mayan roads - the Tozzer Causeway. Also called the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent it was built in 745 A.D. by the ruler Yik'in Chan K'awiil, son of the great ruler Jasaw Chan K'awiil, in the eighth century and he may be buried here. The actual temple or shrine part of the structure is a building on top of the stepped pyramid - the pyramid itself usually only provides imposing height. At Tikal the shrine was often a long low building of three chambers.

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Moths with eggs on the bark of a tree

We climbed to the shrine at the  top - not so difficult as there is a wooden stairway which also serves to protect the stonework. From the top there is a wonderful view over the jungle canopy with the tops of the bigger pyramids rising through the trees.

Back down there was a very conveniently sited "bar" with cool drinks!

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Green parrots
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View from Temple IV, left to right: Temple I and Temple II face each other across the Grand Plaza; Temple III, and on the extreme right the Great Pyramid of the Lost World Complex. The mound in the centre is the South Acropolis and the top of Temple V can just be seen rising behind it on the left.
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El Mundo Perdido
Tikal
Talud-Tablero style

From Temple IV we made our way south east to el Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Complex and its Great Pyramid. This is part of an astronomical grouping of buildings which were extremely important to the Mayans and is the oldest part of Tikal to be investigated.

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We climbed another steep set of steps on a temple in the complex to view the Great Pyramid through the trees. This temple has been called the "Talud-Tablero" Temple because of the distinctive architectural style, almost certainly due to the influence of the Teotihuacan people of central Mexico. It is characterised by a platform, or series of platforms, on a slope. The temple had a shrine and roof comb on its summit, both now collapsed.

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"Talud-Tablero" Temple in el Mundo Perdido
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The Great Pyramid from temple steps in el Mundo Perdido

The Great Pyramid is a 30m high, square, flat-topped structure with steps on all four sides and masks lining the steps, though these are hardly recognisable. It would again have been perfect for ceremonial purposes. The Great Pyramid is built over four earlier structures dating back to 600 B.C. If a building was very important the Mayans preserved it within the shells of newer buildings. The Great Pyramid dates from about 250A.D.

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The Great Pyramid
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The Great Pyramid
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The area is called the Lost World in reference to the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

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A small overgrown platform with carvings in el Mundo Perdido
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On the lower walls of a small platform to the west of the Great Pyramid we saw some stone carvings which must have extended all the way around the building. The design was repeated: two round "eyes" above a geometric "mouth", the style again probably due to Teotihuacan influence.

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The Temple of the Skulls
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Temple III

To the east of the Great Pyramid is a long platform topped with a number of small buildings three of which were used for solar reference: the northern marked the rising sun's position at the summer solstice, the middle at equinox and a southern at winter solstice.

Also located here is the Temple of the Skulls which is another structure that went through several manifestations. The current building has been restored and incorporates a small room with a niche decorated with three small sculpted skulls.

As we made our way round to the Plaza of the Seven Temples we could see the roof comb of Temple III rising through the trees to the north. It was one of the last temples to be built, around 810A.D. and is about 60m high.

The Plaza of the Seven Temples must have been a busy place. It had building activity for most of the life of Tikal, though the current buildings mostly date from 600 to 900 A.D. - quite late in Tikal's history but during the height of its importance. The large space is now invaded by young trees.

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Looking north on the Plaza of the Seven Temples from the Seven Temples platform; the two mounds are all that remains of two of the three ball courts.

On its north side are the remains of three ball courts - this triple ball court is unique in the known Mayan world but very little remains to be seen of these.

The west side of the plaza backs onto the eastern platform of the Lost World Complex.

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The west side of the Plaza of the Seven Temples

 

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All that remains of the central palace on the south side of the Plaza of the Seven Temples
TikalA Coatimundi

On the south side of the plaza were three palaces and again very little remains of these to give any idea of their original grandeur.

The seven temples line the east side of the plaza. The central temple is the largest and in front of it stands a plain stela and drum stone.

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The Seven Temples
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Temple V - each of the seven levels is four metres high
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Rounded corners on Temple V

By this time we had been exploring for three and a half hours but the most amazing structures were still to come.

Exiting the Plaza of the Seven Temples at its south-east corner we skirted the South Acropolis and very quickly came to Temple V, 58m high and quite steep. Constructed some time between 600 and 700 A.D. it was the first pyramid temple to be built at Tikal and faces north, marking the southern point of the central area of the city. What I really liked about this temple were the rounded corners on the stepped levels, something I hadn't noticed anywhere else. It has only one room in the shrine at the top and could be a mortuary temple, though of whom is unknown.

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Grand Plaza: Temple II from the North Acropolis

Finally from Temple V we entered the Grand Plaza and were suitably mind-blown! Possibly the greatest of all remaining Mayan plazas it has been restored to give a wonderful impression of the grandeur of the Mayan cities. It is especially effective if you are not travelling in a  group and can wait for all the tour parties to depart!

The Grand Plaza is one of the places where Mayan ceremonies are still allowed to be performed.

Temple I, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, is on the east, Temple II, the Temple of the Masks, on the west. North is the North Acropolis and south the Central Acropolis.

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Grand Plaza from Temple II: Temple I with the North Acropolis on the left

 

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Carved lintel from Temple I showing Jasaw Chan K'awil in victory pose after defeating Calakmul. He is seated on a throne and behind can be seen a jaguar, the protector deity of the defeated city.
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Temple I
The circular depression in front of the stelae and drum stones is a ceremonial fire pit.

 

Temple I was built as the mortuary temple of the ruler Ah Cacau, also known as Jasaw Chan K’awil, who died in 734. At 47m high and topped by a massive roof comb it is an awe-inspiring building. It originally had a sculpture of the enthroned king in front of the roof comb but this is now difficult to make this out.

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Jaguar deity on the lintel from Temple I
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Temple II with Temple III in the background
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Climbing a temple in the North Acropolis

The Mayans used wooden lintels above windows and entrances and often these were intricately carved. Though none remain in situ at Tikal we learned that finely carved lintels had been taken from the site and were now in the Ethnographic Museum in Basel so on our return we sought these out. Only one lintel from Temple I was on display but it is indeed in very good condition. The panel is very important, bearing inscriptions recording how the city of Tikal and its ruler Jasaw Chan K'awil defeated the city of Calakmul in 695 A.D. thus returning Tikal to its status as the dominant Mayan city of the region.

Temple II is slightly smaller, its original height was around 42m, built at around the same time as Temple I. It rises in three massive stepped levels, the uppermost supporting a stairway to the shrine, flanked by badly degraded masks. The temple may have been dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil.

It is possible to climb Temple II on a wooden stairway and the view of the Grand Plaza from the top is fantastic.

The burial of a ruler in Temple I broke with a centuries-old tradition of royal burials in the North Acropolis. Here burial monuments and buildings are built upon earlier mortuary structures creating a layered archaeology which has been intensively studied.

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The North Acropolis seen from Temple II
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A huge mask, about 3m high, of the rain god Chaac on Temple 33

We climbed the steep temple steps on the temple at the east end of the Acropolis to get a closer look at the various structures.

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North Acropolis: the remains of Structure 5D-33; the thatched roof with a fence around it protects the mask of the earliest temple
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North Acropolis with stelae and drum stones

A structure designated Temple 33 is very interesting being three superimposed temples. The lowest, and therefore earliest, has a huge mask of the Mayan rain god Chaac on its wall and gives a good idea of how impressive masks on the other temples must have been. This temple is said to be the burial place of the powerful ruler Siyah Chan K'awil, also known as Stormy Sky, who died in 457.

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Stela 40 - front

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Stela 40 at the North Acropolis was dedicated by the ruler K'an Ak, son of Stormy Sky. Inscriptions give the date of Stormy Sky's death and the accession of his son to the throne fifteen days later on the 24th August 458; the dedication date of the stela is given as the 20th June 468.

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Stela 40 - side

The temple over this earliest one also had fine carvings on its walls, much eroded today, depicting a monster with snakes coming out of its mouth. This is identified as a representation of Snake Mountain, the origin of human civilisation.

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Remains of the "Snake Mountain" mask on Temple 33

The last was a temple built by Jasaw Chan K'awil in the late seventh century to honour his father, Nuun Ujol Chaak, also  known as Shield Skull, who had guided Tikal out of a period of decline, dying in battle in 672. When the North Acropolis was first investigated this temple stood over 30m high and it would once have been the dominant building on the Grand Plaza. It was in a very poor state, however, and mostly dismantled.

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Stela 10 shows Kaloomte' B'alam co-ruler in the early sixth century with the Lady of Tikal.

In front of the North Acropolis and Temple I are a number of Stelae and drum stones (also called altars). These depict past rulers and record important events.

Stelae 10 and 12 are a pair recording the co-rulership of Kaloomte' B'alam and the Lady of Tikal in the early sixth century - female rulers were not unknown.

Though mostly in rather poor repair compared to those at Quirigua, and nowhere near as impressive, it is still fascinating to look at these powerful images of long ago rulers.

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Palaces of the Central Acropolis between Temple I on the left and Temple V rising above the forest behind

To the south of Temple I lie the palaces of the Central Acropolis. As with the temples of the North Acropolis new palaces were built on old resulting in a many-layered architecture, mostly from between 550 and 900 A.D.

Between Temple I and the North Acropolis is a small Ball Court - easily viewed from the palace complex!

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Small Ball Court south of Temple I
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Beautiful trunk of a massive ceiba tree growing to over 30m at Tikal. It is sacred to the Maya who believed it connected the underworld with the Mayan world and the overworld.

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This grasshopper was easily 7 cm long!
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Howler Monkey in relaxed mode

We had now been over four hours walking and were tired an hungry. At12:30 it was also extremely hot so the iced towels at our lunch stop were one of the most welcome things on our whole trip!

Around the Jungle Lodge there is a lot of wildlife so later that afternoon I wandered around to see what I could find: spider and howler monkeys, lots of bird and massive insects! We saw quite a few turkey vultures in flight - rather large birds lazily riding thermals.

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One group of spider monkey were having a lot of fun chasing each other in the trees outside our cabin - very noisy but a lot of fun. They really use their thick tails as an extra limb, seemingly stronger than their arms or legs. They crahse around chasing each other and bringing down lots of leaves and one big branch of a palm.

Later we walked to Group G and saw more wildlife along the way including an enormous grasshopper.

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Grand entrance into the interior court of a palace in Group G
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Group G is one of the major palace-type complexes of Tikal, possibly built for Yik'in Chan K'awiil, son of Jasaw Chan K'awiil, in the eighth century.

It was late in the day and we were alone at this complex. It was very quiet and mysterious. Most of the structures have been only partially cleared and the jungle looks set to reclaim the buildings if given half a chance.

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Turkey Vultures
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Spider monkeys playing in the trees.

We'd been warned that some areas of the park could be dangerous, especially Temple VI wher robbers are said to congregate, so we didn't linger too long here.

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Late in the day the monkeys are all out in the trees - the Spider Monkeys ahving fun, the Howler Monkeys making a horrendous noise!

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Howler monkey in full howl mode.
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Tikal

Copy of a serpentine (face), jasper (ears and lips), shell and obsidian (eyes) and jade (ear flares) burial mask dating from 527 A.D. from a noble's grave in Tikal which we had seen in the museum at Quirigua

The following day we had a five hour drive so our guide met us at 7:30 to ensure we made it in good time to Bethel for the Usumacinta River ferry  to Fontera Corozal in Mexico. The final two hours were very uncomfortable, on unmade roads.

To break the journey Miguel made a detour so that we could see the island of Flores in Lake Petén Itzá. It's a lovely spot in great contrast to the surrounding jungle.

So we left Guatemala to continue our journey in Mexico, but there is so much to see here, including the Mayan city of El Mirador which we'd heard a lot about, that we really feel we need to return.

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