Northern Guatemala’s Petén Province holds one of the major sites of Maya civilization in its Maya Forest. Accepted as a World Heritage Site in 1979, Tikal National Park’s 222 square miles protect some 54,610 acres of rainforest home to a diversity of flora and fauna including more than 200 tree species, 5 cats including Jaguar and Puma, and over 300 bird species among countless others, in addition to the innumerable Preclassic Period (600 B.C.) architectural and artistic remains of Tikal – which was once a major Pre-Columbian political, economic and military centre until its eventual decline and abandonment around 900 AD. The ruins would be rediscovered in 1848, and beginning in the 1950s – though only a fraction have been uncovered or restored – restored to their state today.
The majority of the massive temples were built at the height of Tikal’s reign as the greatest Maya city, sometime around the eighth century AD when the city held roughly 100,000 inhabitants. Covering 6 square miles, the central centre alone has 3,000 buildings.
Traveling from the Visitors Center, a network of trails guides visitors around the ruins. An approximately 1-mile walk southwest brings you to the site’s Grand Plaza, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces and ball courts. There, the imposing Temple of the Grand Jaguar, rising some 164 feet from the east, and the Temple of the Masks – whose stairs are much safer to climb than those of the Jaguar temple from which many have fallen to their death, its summit also affording extensive panoramic views – stand in eternal face-off on opposing ends. Also dotting the plazas and terraces are several stelae, or stone pillars, with circular altars, lined in rows and bearing markings that immortalize important dates and deeds of Tikal’s rulers.
Six miles of walking minimum is necessary in order to see all the major building complexes. Back near the Visitors Center, you will find hotels are conveniently located as well as a camping ground.