Friday, June 17, 2016

Tikal National Park, northern Guatemala

17 June 2016

On Thursday, we headed up to Tikal, the (to date) largest Mayan city in Guatemala.  This archaeological site is the reason we’re here in the northern section of this country.
WOW this was an amazing place to visit!  And so much information!  

We splurged a bit and had a private tour, just the two of us with a driver (Alberto) and a guide (Vinciente).  So I could ask all of my questions, and stop along the way if we wanted to.  
On our way to Tikal, we stopped at a little group of shops where the artisans made a scale model of the Tikal complex.  It was amazing!  The little buildings are carved of wood, and show all the major temples, the residences of the royalty, and most of the outer buildings.  The common people - the farmers, builders, artists and artisans, etc. - all lived outside the complex in thatched huts made of wood.  But the buildings inside the Tikal complex are made of limestone that was removed from various quarries on the site.  (The quarries were then smoothed out to form ponds to collect water, and still hold water to this day.)

We also saw a replica of a burial found at Tikal.  There were numerous burials found in one area of the main square, and archaeologists dug tunnels under the buildings to find as many burials as they could.  But since the pyramids are solid limestone brick, eventually the tunnels gave way and the entire pyramid structure sank into the ground; it has been estimated that this pyramid is now about 20 to 25 meters (60 to 75 feet) lower than it was originally!

Anyway, the burial we saw was found below the foundation base below Temple I, also called the Temple of the Jaguar.  The skeleton is about six feet tall (1.8 meters), and was buried with about 43 lbs (almost 20 kg) of jade!  Plus all those ceramic jars around him?  They were full of cacao and other chocolate products!  This was obviously a king, possibly the king who had Temple I erected.

After looking at the model and the burial, we got back in the car and headed north - you can see the route on the map at the end.  We arrived at Tikal and decided to have lunch (and buy water) before heading in.  On our way into the national park, there were all kinds of signs telling people to drive slowly, these were animal crossing areas.  My favorite, of course, was the sign for the jaguar crossing!

We also saw spider monkeys drinking out of one of the former quarries turned into a pond!  And another spider monkey in a tree!  I tried to get his photo, but of course he jumped to another branch just as I clicked, and all I have is a jumble of branches, plants, and maybe a monkey tail.

Okay, here’s some background info from the brochures we picked up:

“The Tikal National Park, in the province of El Petén, was created in May 1955 and regulated in September 1957.  In 1979 it was declared a World Cultural and National Heritage Site by UNESCO for the exceptional value by combining extraordinary natural and cultural richness.  The park occupies an area of 576 square km (222.4 sq miles), and its sides are 24 km (14.5 miles) long. It is considered one of the most important natural and cultural reserves of the Republic of Guatemala and the world for the great variety of fauna and flora species as well as for the numerous remains of the Maya civilization located there.  In 1848, Colonel Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut, Governor and Mayor of El Petén, respectively, carried out the first official survey of the site.

"The area of the archaeological site is 16 sq km (6.2 sq miles), where more than 4,000 structures and buildings of various kinds are located.  The earliest evidence of occupation of the site dates back approximately to the year 800 BCE, a period of Mayan history identified as Middle Pre-Classic.  The last found constructions correspond to the Late Classic period, approximately 900 years CE.  These 1,500 years of consecutive occupancy gave it a high cultural, artistic, architectural, urban, mathematic, astronomic, agricultural, and commercial development, which has motivated the international admiration and scientific interest."

Okay, that might sound a bit exaggerated.  But here's a timeline comparing the Mayan era to what was going on in the rest of the world:
Yes, people were living at Tikal, the city we visited, from the period of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and Babylonian Empire, through the Greek and Roman Empires, and up until the Middle Ages in Europe.  One civilization lasting through all of those other civilizations.  The only known culture that lasted a little longer were the series of dynasties in China.  Kind of puts this history into perspective, doesn't it?

(There's a better timeline, but it's difficult to fit in the blog and make it legible.  If you google "Mayan timeline" you can find more information and compare the span of dates with other world civilizations.)

We rode on the open-air truck to the back of the central part of Tikal - it was over 90 F (30ish C) and humid, with rain clouds gathering, so we wanted to get inside as quickly as possible.

We entered right near Temple I - this is called the Temple of the Jaguar because the original door on the top of the pyramid has a carving of a jaguar, often used to show the strength and power of the king.  This temple faces the sunrise, and is directly opposite Temple II, which has a carving of a mask.  It is believed that these two temples were built by the same king, and Temple I was where he presided over the various rituals held in the little house atop the pyramid.  Temple II, it is believed, was for the queen, where she would do the various rituals.  And this temple faces the sunset.  The two temples are on a perfect east-west line, part of the Mayan tradition of orienting buildings according to astronomical calculations.

I of course asked about the rituals.  Not a lot is known, but it is believed that the king (or queen) would be accompanied by a priest (or priestess) and an astronomer (who might be male or female).  Certain elected members of the aristocracy would be allowed to view or participate in the rituals, although the little upper buildings are fairly small so numbers were limited.  But this is where the rulers would be closer to their gods, on top of the pyramids.  After the rituals, the king or queen would tell the others of whatever the result was (perhaps instructions or decisions regarding the city), and then word would spread out throughout the city.  As I said, no one is exactly sure what the rituals were, but archaeologists are certain that this is what occurred on top of the pyramids.  Also, the rituals most likely occurred during special astronomical events: solstices, equinoxes, full moons, eclipses, etc.  All the kinds of events found in the Mayan calendar.

Between Temples I and II is the large grassy square.  On one side (maybe the north?) is the sunken temple, and a series of stele with carvings marking various important events that occurred either here in Tikal or as part of the larger Mayan civilization.  However, because the stelai are limestone, much of the carving has been eroded by wind and rain.  Not much is left, although a few of the carvings are still visible.  These stelai with carvings have little thatched roofs built over them to help protect what little carving is left.

Opposite this is the huge living quarters.  Not exactly a castle, much lower to the ground.  But I guess it qualifies as a palace, because this structure has hundreds of rooms, and this is where the royalty lived.   

There's a new altar in the center of the main square, where people still come and perform the traditional Mayan rituals.  Roughly 65%, or two-thirds, of the Guatemalan population are of Mayan descent, many being fully Mayan, not mixed with the Spanish or other ethnic groups.  While generally Catholic, their beliefs are mixed with traditional Mayan culture.  Tikal was an important site, and is still used for certain rituals and celebrations.

Temple I is about 150 feet tall (close to 50 meters).  Temple II is about 120 feet tall (40 meters).  At one time, people were allowed to climb the steps on all the temples, but Temple I's steps are in pretty bad shape so no one is allowed up now.  People can climb Temple II, though the stairs are on the back side.  But we headed to Temple IV, which is the tallest pyramid here.

Actually, Temple IV is the tallest Mayan (or even pre-Columbian) structure still standing in all of the New World!  (There's one structure, a pyramid of the sun in Mexico, that may have once been taller.)  This temple, built about 740 CE, is 212 feet tall (64.6 meters).  Much of the temple is still buried under dirt, debris, and trees and plants growing on it.  But the top section rises out of this mini mountain, and soars above the forest canopy.  What an amazing view from on top of the jungle!!!!

We climbed the wooden stairs that go up to the top of Temple IV.  Slowly slowly, taking periodic stops to catch our breath, because this really is straight up for 200-something feet.  And then we see over the tree tops, and reach the top of the pyramid.  Looking across the jungle, we can see the tops of Temples I, II, and I guess III also standing above the canopy.  Temples I and II sort of line up and look like one temple, but it really is two of them.  And I don't know how many miles into the distance, but it really feels like we're standing on the top of the world.

I kept expecting to see monkeys playing in the tops of the trees, but maybe we were too high.  The occasional birds flew by, and there were also butterflies fluttering around up there.  

We just sat there, watching the changing light on the pyramid tops and the forest canopy, as the darker rain clouds moved in and thunder rumbled in the distance.  The site has that peaceful aura of many ancient ruins, exuding some sort of feeling of wisdom and sense of peace.  

I always try to imagine what life was like for the people who lived here.  At the height of Tikal's existence, there were some 130,000 people living here.  Sitting on the top of Temple IV, I could picture the activity of this ancient city, with people hurrying about their daily lives - the farmers, the market women, the builders constantly building larger and larger temples so that each new king could stoke his ego knowing his temple was bigger than the previous king's.  And the priests and priestesses, the astronomers, all trying to understand the world around them, and explain it to the satisfaction of the king and the people.

When the rain started sprinkling, that was our cue to walk back down.  We took a few narrow trails through the jungle, and I kept looking around to see if there were monkeys, or hopefully a puma or jaguar.  Nothing, of course, just bird calls and occasional butterflies.  But we made it back to the central square just in time to see the coati mundies running around, looking for food.  They're very cute and almost friendly, walking carefully around us and digging for insects.  They look sort of like thin raccoons, but auburn colored.  Very cute, especially the younger coatis.

The sky kept getting darker and darker, and of course I had to photograph the white limestone temples in this dramatic lighting.  

Then back to paths through the jungle, walking downhill and past huge lumps that are obviously more buried buildings, just waiting to be uncovered.  Our guide hurried ahead to see if he could get the car closer to where we would emerge, so we wouldn't get caught in the rain.

So Richard and I continued walking, hearing howler monkeys growling at each other in the distance.  Bolts of lightning streaked across the grey-blue sky, and thunder shook the ground, it was so loud directly overhead.  It was all very elemental, very ominous, and I could imagine being an early Mayan and thinking there must be an angry deity in the sky sending us warnings about something.

Despite the approaching storm, there were hordes of people still entering the site and trying to find their way to the temples.  We kept hurrying along, and found our car heading to look for us.  So we hopped in, and headed out.  Into torrential rain on our way home.

I kept looking for the big cats, but they didn't show up.  Richard said he heard one young man saying he saw the paws of a puma as it rushed by, but we saw nothing that exciting.

There's a museum at Tikal, but we were tired and getting chilled, and wanted to avoid the worst of the rain.  Plus the best artifacts that were found at Tikal are in the museum in Guatemala City, so we have that ahead of us.

It was a wonderful day.  Had we stayed at one of the hotels right outside the park entrance, I might have visited the museum another day.  Or maybe explored a bit more of the site.  But a single long day at Tikal was also good.  My inner archaeologist is satisfied.

It really is an exceptional site for monumental architecture.  Which always makes me admire the ingenuity and creativity of humans, as well as feel small and insignificant in the history of the world.


  1. Just a note - I may have confused the directions of Temples I and II - I'm not sure right now which one faces sunrise and which faces sunset. They definitely face each other, so one is sunrise and the other sunset. For some reason, most of the maps of the site are oriented with north at the bottom of the map. Totally confusing!

  2. Second note - Star Wars fans may recognize the view of the temple tops that extend above the tree canopy. Yup, this view was used in the Star Wars movie where the Ewoks party at the end of the movie. Just a little bit of Tikal trivia!