Travel in Guatemala: Tour the Ruins of Tikal

Tikal National Park is one of the few sites in the world that is recognized by UNESCO for both its cultural significance and incredible biodiversity.

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Temple I at Tikal

The park is spread out over 140,000 acres, made up of a combination of wetlands, savannas and forest, which is comprised of over 2,000 plant species, and home to over 400 different types of birds and mammals, including monkeys, big cats, and bats.

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a coati, or exotic raccoon, found in Tikal

Archaeologists suppose this is most likely why the Mayans chose to settle in Tikal, back in 600 B.C. With its abundance of natural resources in these fertile forests, and over 10 months of rainfall each year, their chances of survival were strong.

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panorama of Tikal’s lush grounds, viewed from Temple IV

When the Mayans settled here, the began to build flat-topped pyramids, which were used as burial places for their rulers. The pyramids typically had 9 levels, bisected by a staircase, which represented the 18 months of the Mayan Calendar.

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nine levels, bisected in two

As well, they placed flat, stone pillars in front of the pyramids, carved with the faces of important Gods, which were used as an offering place.

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stone pillars carved with the faces of the Gods

One of the most important Gods being Tlaloc, the God of rain.

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rain God at Tikal

Personally, that carving reminded me of the one from, Legends of the Hidden Temple. 😛

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Legends of the Hidden Temple – Mayan game show hosted by Nickelodeon

What I found interesting is that the Mayans here were actually controlled by the inhabitants of Teotihuacan, a powerful pre-Colombian city, located in central Mexico.

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Touring Teotihuacan in 2015

What I found ironic is that the pyramids which make Tikal so impressive, are actually the reason for the Mayan’s decline. In 900 A.D., after years spent destroying forests for the purpose of temple-building, this land began to suffer from deforestation and topsoil erosion. The Mayan’s crops were no longer growing, and the people were forced to abandon Tikal, fleeing to the highlands of Guatemala, where some still live to this day. Anyway, as a visitor, I chose to take a guided tour of Tikal. I made base camp in the neighboring city of Flores, where I ended up booking a tour at Los Amigos Hostel for 14 USD, which included round-trip transportation and bilingual guide.

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the colorful streets of Flores

Side note: Your options when touring Tikal are either a sunrise tour, early bird tour, day tour, or sunset tour. Now due to heat and humidity in Guatemala, I chose to do the early bird tour, where I would be visiting the ruins before the strongest sun of the day. The tour picked me up at my hostel at 4:30 AM, and we arrived when the park opened, at 6 AM, just in time to purchase our tickets (20 USD not included in tour price) and make our way to the entrance.DSC_1993My guide for the day was Llyod, a local Guatemalan who lives near this site. DSC_1991He began our tour by leading us on an unmarked path to a field of vintage vehicles.DSC_1996 Apparently, when the excavation of Tikal began in the 1950’s by the University of Pennsylvania, they used these trucks and tractors to help uncover the ruins. Soon after, UNESCO declared that all work must be done by hand, in order to avoid damaging the site, so the vehicles were abandoned. DSC_1999Next Lloyd took us to the east pyramid at complex Q. DSC_2006He told us that many of the excavated ruins in Tikal are reconstructed, while only a small portion are the original.

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left side: original; right side: reconstruction

He also told us how Tikal supposedly means, the mighty “City of Echoes,” which was obvious as soon as he began clapping. You could hear the noise echoing back.

We also heard some other noises while at this temple. We spotted numerous squawking parrots, heard spider monkeys rustling in the trees, and also howler monkeys screeching in the distance.

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spider monkey at Tikal
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parrot munching on fruit

Here’s a short video of the wildlife noises in Tikal. The howler monkeys sound almost like dinosaurs!

Anyway, we also spotted some unwelcome wildlife, so we decided to move on to the next site! 😮DSC_1990

From there we made our way to the most famous pyramid complex, home to Temple I and II, the most beautifully restored ruins in Tikal. DSC_2106

Temple I is the jaguar temple, and was the burial ground of Tikal’s most famous ruler, Lord Chocolate. Just see if you can spot me standing on this massive wonder! DSC_2091As well, from Temple II, the Temple of Masks, you have beautiful vistas of the pyramid complex, where you can see the numerous burial grounds, as well as, protected stone pillars, covered with thatched a roof. DSC_2102

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burial grounds and stone pillars

Aside from Temple I, visitors are able to climb all of the temples, where you can get an up-close-and-personal look at the beautiful Mayan carvings. DSC_2094DSC_2130What I liked is how the higher temples offered a spiral staircase, which was much easier to climb, and is less damaging to the temple facade. DSC_2109While we were at the site, we even saw of group of Mayans, that had gathered to bring an offering to the temple in the name of their ancestors. They can be seen here carrying burning incense, which is used as a way to better connect them with the Gods from above. DSC_2112Anyway, we ended the tour about 3.5 hours later, with the visit to the top of Temple IV, the highest ruin in Tikal.
DSC_2117From there, we were able to explore other ruins in Tikal at our leisure, and had the option of taking a shuttle back to Flores at either 11, 12:30 or 3 P.M. Plenty of time to explore the various residential ruins and ceremonial temples of Tikal.

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Lost World is an important ceremonial temple in Tikal

You’ll find that no matter how much time you spend, you’ll still only see a small fraction of the sites. In fact, over 80% of the ruins are yet to be excavated! Anyway, this park is worth a visit for both learning about Mayan history, and enjoying the natural beauty of Guatemala! Love! ❤G0795954_1493660308700_high

Getting there:

To get from San Ignacio, Belize to Flores, Guatemala, I first took a shuttle (1 USD)to the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen. I then proceeded to walk to the Belize immigration office (30-minutes), where I paid an exit fee of 20 USD. From there I walked to the Guatemalan immigration office, where I got a passport stamp which enables me to travel for 90 days in the four countries of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Lastly, I caught a small shuttle van to Flores for 4 USD.

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shuttle to Flores

Side note on currency exchange: The currency in Guatemala is Quetzales. The options for money exchange at the border are slim. I was able to exchange a small amount with a man on the street corner (kinda sketch), just enough to get me to Flores, before I could exchange a larger amount at the bank.

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mall in Flores with a bank for currency exchange

Anyway, up next I’ll be exploring the jungles of Guatemala, where I found some of the most beautiful natural pools I’ve ever seen! Stay tuned to hear all about it. Until then. 🙂

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8 thoughts on “Travel in Guatemala: Tour the Ruins of Tikal

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