There is plenty to explore in this vast Mayan city that once harbored thousands of people, and you could easily spend several days here taking it all in. The ruins in evidence today are representative of the latter years of Tikal’s existence, as the Maya built on top of existing temples and palaces. Most of the major structures you’ll see were built after the time of Tikal’s resurgence in the late 7th century.

View of Tikal from Temple V. Photo © Al Argueta.

View of Tikal from Temple V. Photo © Al Argueta.

The Great Plaza

Tourist brochures and posters can never adequately convey just how large and impressive Tikal’s temples are.Most visitors to Tikal head straight from the park entrance to the Great Plaza, and if you are crunched for time, this is probably the best approach. A path from the ticket control booth leads you to the plaza in about 20 minutes. You’ll gain an appreciation for the site’s elevated setting as you walk uphill toward the heart of the ceremonial center. The view from the back of Temple I as you approach the Great Plaza is always impressive at first sight, as it gives you an idea of the sheer size of the monuments erected by the Maya. Tourist brochures and posters can never adequately convey just how large and impressive Tikal’s temples are.

The path continues alongside the temple, and you are at once greeted by the magnificent Temple II, which faces Temple I, as you enter the large, grassy plaza. Also known as “El Gran Jaguar” (The Great Jaguar), Temple I rises to a height of 44 meters (144 feet). The imposing structure was erected to honor Hasaw Chan K’awil (Heavenly Standard Bearer), the ruler who successfully led Tikal to victory against Calakmul. It was built to harbor his remains and was completed shortly after his death in AD 721 by son and successor Yik’in Chan K’awil, probably with instructions from his father.

Temple I at sunrise. Photo © Al Argueta.

Temple I at sunrise. Photo © Al Argueta.

The tomb was situated at the temple’s core and contained the ruler’s remains surrounded by jade, stingray spines, seashells, and pearls, which were typical of Mayan burials. It was believed the instruments would aid the person in his journey into the underworld. This journey is depicted on a bone fragment, also found in the tomb, showing a royal figure in a canoe rowed by mythical animal figures. Tikal’s museum harbors a reconstruction of the tomb, known as Tumba 116. Carried off to a museum in Basel, Switzerland, is the door lintel found at the top of the pyramid depicting a jaguar from which the temple gets its name.

It was once possible to climb Temple I, but this has not been allowed for several years now. The view from the top was truly spectacular, with Temple II in the foreground and the roof combs of Temples III and IV protruding from the jungle behind it. The structure was closed to climbers partly because of damage caused by a chain aiding in this activity, though the death of at least two visitors after tumbling down its steep steps certainly put the final nail in the coffin. The view from the top was popular in tourism posters and brochures from the early 1980s, and you can still sometimes see them in unexpected places.

Across the plaza stands the slightly smaller Temple II, built to honor Hasaw Chan K’awil’s wife, Lady 12 Macaw. Also known as the Temple of the Masks for the large, severely eroded masks flanking its central staircase, it is thought to predate Temple I by a few years. About 10 years ago, a staircase was constructed on its side to allow access to the top, though you could once climb directly up its central staircase. The view from the top is still as good as ever, with a frontal view of Temple I and the North Acropolis off to the side. Temple II probably once stood at the same height as its counterpart when its roof comb was intact, though its restored height is 38 meters (125 feet).

Travel map of The Ruins of Tikal in Guatemala

The Ruins of Tikal


Tikal’s two museums are oddly in different parts of the park. The first of these is the Museo Lítico (9am-noon and 1pm-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-4pm Sat. and Sun., $2.50 for both museums), housing stelae and carved stones from the archaeological site with a scale model outside showing what the city probably looked like around AD 800. There are some interesting photos taken by explorers Alfred Maudslay and Teobert Maler showing Tikal’s temples overgrown by a tangle of jungle vines and branches as they looked when they were first discovered.

The Museo Tikal (also known as Sylvanus G. Morley Museum, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-4pm Sat. and Sun., $2.50), across the way next to the Jaguar Inn, has some interesting exhibits, including the burial tomb of Hasaw Chan K’awil found inside Temple I. Some of the ceramics from this museum have been moved to the newly completed Center for Conservation and Investigation of Cultural Heritage, across from the visitors center.


In addition to exploring the ruins, there are a variety of recreational opportunities in and around Tikal National Park.

Canopy Tour

You have a choice of two zipline trajectories between raised platforms in the jungle at Canopy Tours Tikal (tel. 5615-4988 or 4262-0813, 7am-5pm daily, $30, at the national park entrance). The first of these includes 11 platforms with ziplines ranging in length 75-150 meters while you dangle 25 meters over the forest floor. The second, more adrenaline-inducing option, includes ziplines up to 200 meters long hovering 40 meters above the safety of ground level. There are also 400 meters of hanging bridges for a more leisurely look at the forest canopy, or there’s horseback riding if you prefer to explore from the ground level.


Specialty tours for bird-watchers can be arranged by contacting La Casa de Don David (tel. 7928-8469 or 5306-2190) in El Remate. The lodge’s knowledgeable staff can connect you with good English-speaking local guides who know the park and its birds. Another recommended outfitter is Guatemala City-based Cayaya Birding (tel. 5308-5160).

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.