Guatemala: Tikal

Templo II at Tikal

Templo II, Tikal

Tikal is easily is the most famous of all Mayan ruins. It is the prototypical dramatic-ruins-inside-a-jungle that is in everyone's dream. Due to its location, accessibility etc., visiting Tikal still feels like an adventure rather than a trip to Disneyland. The ruins are situated deep inside Peten jungle, about an hours drive from the nearest airport, Flores (which in turn is an hour of flying time away from the capital). The site is open to visitors between 6 am to 6 pm and if you can stay near the ruins (there are exactly three ways to do that), you can take advantage of the long hours and be there before and/or after the crowd. Due to its distance from Flores, bulk of the crowd does not arrive until 10 am and the bulk leaves by 3 pm. Having the site to yourself is quite an amazing Templo V, Tikalexperience - the closest city dwellers like me can come to being in the shoes of its initial discoverers.

El Mirador, a site now being unearthed a few hundred miles deeper into the jungle in the north of Tikal is being tipped to be the cradle of Mayan civilisation. Tikal started rising around the time El Mirador started to go down and probably was found by one of the groups from El Mirador. Tikal had contact with sites as far away as Teotihuacan (near present day Mexico City) and probably acted like its vassal state. Tikal was at constant war with its neighbours and its primary adversarySpider Monkey was Calakmul in Mexican Yucatan. Most of the buildings in Tikal was constructed as a tribute to its victories over Calakmul.

The heart of Tikal is its Grand Plaza, flanked on either side by two pyramids. The 44m tall Templo I (aka the Temple of Jaguar due to a jaguar figure carved on its lintel), the most iconic of Tikal's pyramids forms the eastern end of the Grand Plaza. Templo I houses the tomb of Tikal's greatest ruler, Hasaw Chan K'awil and it was built shortly after his death in 721 AD. At its west end is the 38m tall Templo II - whose top can be reached via 150 vertiginous wooden steps. The view of the plaza from the top of Templo II, especially late in the afternoon is quite dramatic. The Templo III, situated behind Templo II is pretty much in the same dilapidated state as it was on the day Tikal was discovered. 64.6m tall Templo IV is the tallest in Tikal and hence offers its most jaw-dropping view from its top. A 190 step wooden staircase and the view from its top will leave you literally and figuratively breathless. From the top of Templo IV, all of Peten jungle seems to stretch endlessly from right under your nose. The only interruptions in the jungle view are the tops of the Templos I, II and III jutting out of the canopy. The 58m tall Templo V is an impressive pyramid, but is rarely open to public for climbing. It is believed to have been built around 600 AD by the ruler Animal Skull. It is also the least understood of Tikal's pyramids. The last of Tikal's pyramids Templo VI is situated quite a bit away from its centre and attracts hardly any visitors.

Apart from the pyramids, the site has many groups of buildings - quite insipidly named as Complex Q, Group H etc. Most of them don't stick in your memory and the stelae that dot these groups are either heavily worn out or replicas. But these groups are still worth a visit at least for the opportunity to walk along the secluded jungle paths (which are devoid of people even during the peak hours) and to spot wild life - they are desolate and at the same time clear enough of vegetation (ideal for wild life spotting). The two most common sightings are the coatimundi (Central American Raccoon) and ocellated turkey (which apparently exists only in Yucatan Peninsula) apart from hoards of colourful birds. With a pinch of luck, you can spot the spider monkey, the fox and (or you can at least hear) the howler monkey.

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