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Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 84,398
Marty Offline OP
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The first time you hear them, your heart skips a beat.

As black shadows move effortlessly through the trees above you, their ferocious howl can be heard up to 20 miles (32 km). Howler Monkeys are just one of the many flora and fauna that you'll experience at the ancient ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala.

Tikal Background

Tikal is one of the oldest sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It was also one of the biggest, housing as many as 90,000 Maya inhabitants.

Agricultural evidence found in the area dates back to 1,000 BC; however, construction of the ruins didn't begin until 400 to 300 BC, and didn't finish until 810 AD.

Tikal covers 220 square miles (570 sq km) and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Getting There

Tikal National Park is located in northern Guatemala, 69 miles (110km) from San Ignacio near the Belize boarder. Tour buses and flights can be booked from most major cities in Belize.

Flores is a small lakeside town located just 40 miles (64km) outside of Tikal and has several restaurants and accommodations for tourists visiting Tikal. Mini buses leave from Flores to Tikal daily in the morning.

Before entering Tikal National Park, you'll be required to purchase a park pass for USD $20 (150 Q).

Know Before You Go

Unless you're an archeologist, one day is sufficient to see all of Tikal's ancient ruins. It's best to visit the ruins early in the morning.

Guided tours are available in the morning and are well worth the extra money. The guides are very knowledgeable about the ruins, animals, plants and speak English well.

The distance between ruins is significant and climbing the ruins is strenuous and disorienting as they are very steep and without handrails. Wear comfortable shoes and loose clothing.

Bring a small backpack with sunscreen, a hat, camera, water, snacks and binoculars to get some great photo shots at the top of the ruins.

Tikal's Ruins At a Glance

While the exact number of its ruins remain unknown, but at least several thousand have been accounted for. The main ruins have been excavated and are all connected by a dirt path, lined by thick jungle.

As you make your way from the parking lot to the first ruins, you'll pass the giant Ceiba Tree which is the National Tree of Guatemala. It's one of the largest trees within the park at a towering 223 feet (70 meters). After you pass the tree there are several choices your guide might take you.

Here's a general overview of each of the main temples.

Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar): A funerary pyramid completed between 740 to 750 AD. It stands 154 feet (47 meters) tall and faces Temple II with a large grassy area in-between. Temple I is not climbable.

Temple II (Temple of the Mask): This temple is slightly shorter than Temple I at 125 feet (38 meters), though equally impressive. Temple II was built around 700 AD and contains a wooden stair case which you can climb to the top.

Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest): This was the last temple to be constructed (around 810 AD). It stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and – for safety reasons – is not climbable.

Temple IV (Temple of the Inscriptions): This temple towers above all the other temples at 230 feet (70 meters) tall. It has a wooden stair case leading to the top of the ruin that looms above the jungle canopy. It's a wonderful place to listen to the jungle noise and watch colorful toucans fly around.

Temple V: Is the mortuary pyramid, is 187 feet (57 meters) tall and was completed around 700 AD. It's not climbable.

Temple VI (Temple of the Inscriptions): Was built in 766 AD and has a 39 foot (12 meter) roof-comb.


Tikal is home to incredible wildlife including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, toucans, tarantula spiders, and more.

In Conclusion

Tikal is a very worthwhile experience while exploring Central America. It provides an excellent background on Maya culture and is one of the few ruins you can still walk on. In other words: get there while you can!


Darcie Connell is the CEO of, a customized travel site that finds travel ideas based on your life. She is also the co-founder of

Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 84,398
Marty Offline OP
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In Guatemala, the lost world of Tikal

Deep in the Guatemalan rain forest lie the remains of the ancient Maya city of Tikal, a sprawling metropolis of temples, palaces and pyramids.

The woman in the shorts shrieked, grabbed her ankle and crumpled to the ground as though she'd been shot.

And in a sense she had.

"A bullet ant," surmised Jos� Elias, our unflappable guide. "If they sting you, the pain will last 24 hours. Take care."

We left the stricken woman to her friends and plunged deeper into Guatemala's steamy jungle. Birds sang madly, chaotically. Emerald billed toucans alighted in the treetops. The spooky cry of a howler monkey echoed through the forest.

Elias plucked a fragrant leaf, crushed it and slipped it under my nose.

"Wild allspice," he said.

I skittered around a watermelon-sized termite nest, then caught a glimpse of something enormous looming through the canopy.

We were approaching the heart of Tikal, a sprawling metropolis of temples, palaces and pyramids deep in the misty rain forests of northern Guatemala. Once a vibrant city-state of 100,000, Tikal now lies empty, partly buried beneath moss, ferns and vines.

"You are coming to the cradle of Mayan civilization," Elias said. "The city has collapsed, but the Mayan race has never disappeared."

Just a few hours earlier I had been aboard a small prop plane from Guatemala City streaking low over volcanoes and deeply forested mountains toward a green carpet stretching to the horizon.

As rain buffeted the plane, I flicked through William Coe's classic "Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Mayan Ruins," savoring the royal cast of characters: Stormy Sky, Jaguar Paw and Ah Cacao, or Lord Chocolate.

Growing up in Ohio's dreary Rust Belt, I spent countless nights immersed in stacks of World Book Encyclopedias reading of exotic lands and vanished empires.

My favorite volume was "M" for Maya, where I lingered over photos of fierce stone gods, elaborate hieroglyphs and lurid depictions of human sacrifice.

Now I was walking wide-eyed into the Great Plaza, stopping before the Temple of the Giant Jaguar as it rose 170 feet, its steep staircase ascending to a doorway crowned by a mammoth limestone block bearing the faint image of Ah Cacao surrounded by serpents.

In 1962, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacao under the temple along with 16 pounds of jade ornaments now in the park museum. Temple II, directly opposite, may conceal his wife's grave.

I now understood Coe when he wrote that superlatives, "however florid," are justified when describing Tikal.

As grand as it now, Tikal dazzled in its heyday. The city has been called the Manhattan of the Maya and from 600 BC to AD 900 was a major force throughout Central America. Temple pyramids were painted blood red and bore massive faces of kings. Today's overgrown plazas were covered in smooth white plaster. Raised causeways connected the city. There were ball courts and bustling markets. Ultimately, drought, famine and warfare may have caused Tikal's collapse.

I climbed the Central Acropolis, poking in and out of empty rooms and imagining reclining nobles, adorned with macaw feathers, drinking cups of spiced chocolate.

It was July, black clouds gathered and there was a mighty crack of thunder. I took shelter beneath a thatched hut and came face to face with a giant stucco mask of Chaac, the rain god. Fittingly, a torrential downpour followed.

A soggy middle-aged Frenchman sidled up beside me and lighted a cigarette. We watched the storm drench the temples below.

"It is magnificent, no?" he asked quietly.

Tikal is like an iceberg, with 3,000 sites across a 220-square-mile park and far more lying beneath. The major attractions are within a 6.2-mile area and can be explored in a two-day visit.

Signs are few so hire a guide for about $20 a day - otherwise, you'll walk around in a daze. Important sites are often given ho-hum names such as Complex N, Complex P or Complex Q. I spent one day with a guide and the next on my own.

Wandering through a monkey-filled jungle and stumbling across mossy palaces and monstrous faces of rain gods pretty much defines adventure for me. All that was missing was a golden idol and guys with blow guns. Guatemala is beguiling that way. It is home to dozens of Maya ruins, but scientists say entire lost cities are waiting to be found.

The rain stopped and I headed down a dirt path, serenaded by thrumming cicadas. Brilliant yellow orchids and scarlet bromeliads sprung from sapodilla trees. The heady aroma of Spanish cedars flooded the forest.

A helpful sign warned that howler monkeys liked to defecate on the heads of visitors "to show their presence and scream loudly."

I emerged into Complex Q with its twin, flat-topped pyramids. Centuries ago, priests stood atop them, recording the movements of the heavens. When Venus appeared in the morning sky, scholars say, the Maya sometimes launched wars against other cities.

The Maya calendar is so precise that some believe it predicts that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.

I asked Douglas Quinones, a Guatemalan expert on Maya cosmology, about that. He declared it "nonsense."

"Some scholars say there is a glyph that shows the time the world will end, but there is no glyph tied to the end of the world," he said. "Additional writings found recently at Uaxactun show the Maya calendar extending out at least another 5,000 years."

I walked through an arched doorway to a stone stele bearing the image of Chitam, ruler of Tikal about 771. A bound captive was etched into the altar in front. He may have been decapitated or his heart may have been torn out on this very spot. A chilling thought, made more so by the fact that I was alone except for a curious coatimundi, a long-nosed relative of the raccoon, and a solitary turkey. Jaguars roam here, but I didn't see any.

I explored the Palace of the Windows and climbed Temple IV for spectacular views of pyramids piercing the jungle. As the sun faded, I grabbed the last seat in a crowded minivan for the 45-minute trip to my hotel. Villagers sold tortillas and coconuts along the way. Guatemalan soldiers toting Israeli assault rifles patrolled the road to deter robberies.

Like most visitors to Tikal, I stayed in Flores, a tranquil island in Lake Pet�n Itz� with pastel-colored hotels and houses. In 1697, it was Tayasal, the last Maya kingdom to fall to the Spaniards.

After showering off layers of Deet, I headed up a cobblestone street to a radiant white church overlooking the lake. A cool breeze rippled the water. Maya women in woven purple skirts sipped beer under orange trees.

I had dinner that night with Al Stenstrup and Maria Ghiso of the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of rain forests. Mayrena Morales Puga, a local teacher and conservationist, joined us.

They told me this region, the Pet�n, was part of the Maya Biosphere, the largest continuous rain forest north of the Amazon. It is home to ancient cities such as Yaxha, Uaxactun and remote El Mirador. When the Maya ruled, it was more savanna than jungle.

We talked into the night about Tikal. Ghiso recalled being trapped in a hut during a storm as two guides hotly debated the Maya collapse.

But Puga saw something we didn't. We saw the remains of a dead city; she saw a mystery that was very much alive.

"They call Tikal the city of voices," she said. "I feel it's trying to tell me a story even if I can't always understand what it is."

I asked about those apocalyptic predictions. She said perhaps her ancestors were leaving a message tied to their demise.

"Maybe they felt if people used up the forest and water at the rate they did the world really would come to an end," she said. "Maybe it was a warning. Nobody knows."

Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the LA Times

Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 84,398
Marty Offline OP
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A Visit To Tikal

The day I cross the border from Belize at Benque the man hawking newspapers from a moped in La Maquina is shouting into his bullhorn that John McAfee has been extradited to Miami. La Maquina is a small Guatemalan town and no one seems moved by the news, the narrative of a single man's bath salt-fueled insanity paling in comparison to a couple of frenetic millennia that saw the ambitions of the Maya empire written in stone then eroded by a tidal wave of Old World Catholic violence.

The towns along CA13, which leads microbuses full of tourist to Tikal, sit in a rolling landscape cut into pieces by slash and burn farming. Men carry sacks of black beans on their backs and women carry laundry on their heads down to Lake Salpeten Macanche, which is on schedule to release its annual sulfurous burp in the next few weeks if dead fish are any indication.

This is exactly the sort of country that tourists never go through in that it is poor, rural, full of gun-toting military types and inside Guatemala, a country that is gaining a reputation as Mexico's Mexico. Travelers wander through here because this is how to get to Tikal and, by God, people want to get to Tikal.

The first thing I notice as our minivan drives up to the entrance to Parque Nacional Tikal is that the vaulted gate is profoundly reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The forest beyond is as well. As we buy passes no one will check from guards who look exhausted despite the fact it is just after nine in the morning, I watch a man with a distinctly Maya face slowly release a rope that allows a cantilevered weight to pivot the gate arm blocking our path. His eyes are narrowed and his stands with his weight held evenly between his feet.

I'm certain I couldn't knock him over if I tried, not that I had any urge to do so.

Looking up the two pyramids that dominate Tikal's Gran Plaza, it is impossible not to wonder how many men like the gatekeeper helped build this city, which dominated the region during the Maya's Classic period in around 300. The answer is, of course, lots. When it comes to archeology, estimates are expressed in ranges and when it comes to Tikal, the best estimates generally come at the top of the ranges. Miles of causeways once linked the clusters of temples and buildings here and may have penetrated deep into the forest.

The site is impressive not just because it is big -- it is large enough that I got lost for a good half an hour without running into any other visitors -- but because of the way its largeness interacts with the hugeness of its environs. The trees here, specifically the few remaining mahoganies, are massive. The noise of the howler monkeys is occasionally deafening. Ocellated turkeys crash through the underbrush.

The only way to take in all of this size is to climb Temple IV, the 230 foot testament to the successful rain of Yik'in Chan Kawil, otherwise known as Kawil, that darkens the sky. The view over the canopy from the top is so deeply embedded in our pop culture that a graduate student studying Meso-American Archeology told me after his tour he'd was excited to have seen "the Star Wars view." Specifically, he was excited to see the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope. As I sat at the top, a group of Guatemalan boy scouts posed for a seemingly endless number of pictures, this being their Mount Rushmore.

At around three, Tikal starts clearing out. Tourists not staying in the hostels of El Remate need to make it to the border before customs closes. The emptiness is both romantic and hazardous: Stepping into a dark room in Grupo G, I was confronted by a wall of sparrows who sent me skidding to the ground.

By four there are few non-Guatemalans left. The group I'd come over with was long since gone and local families -- boys in sleeveless shirts and girls in kitten heels -- massed around the visitors center to drink cappuccinos and chat. The only news here was the old news, the very old news, that the world would end on December 21 and that there would be a celebration at Tikal to send the planet off in style. Native Americans of many stripes are to arrive and intermingle, hopefully without the hostility of eons past.

If history does, in fact, end, the smart money is on Tikal's survival. Like history's great paperweight, these temples will stubbornly refuse to move. No amount of craziness can change that.

CLICK HERE for a slideshow....

VIDEO: Exploring Tikal with Amigos

Join us as we depart San Pedro for a day trip to Tikal with Amigos Jungle Tours. For more info visit online at

VIDEO: Belize and Tikal Adventure

2 amazing weeks with Gap Adventures in Belize and Guatemala. Ruins, adventure, jungle camping and beach r and r - this trip had it all!

Joined: Oct 2010
Posts: 143

That was great Marty. I visited two years ago and I am still freaked out about the whole adventure. I think the land is sacred and it had that presence on my visit.
Strange note: my guide was Berta Zapeda...sister of Vilma who worked at Rosie's restaurant on Caye Caulker. Berta sure knows her "stuff".

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