Tikal: Most Majestic of the Mayans Ruins

The limestone structures of Tikal

The limestone structures of Tikal

I love exploring ancient civilizations. It takes a lot to impress me. I’ve seen the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico City; I’ve seen the Egyptian pyramids at Giza and the ruins of Karnak and Luxor; I’ve seen the Athens Acropolis, Roman Colosseum and Stonehenge in England; I’ve seen numerous Mexican Mayan ruins, including Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Mayapan, Xcambo, and Izapa.

And yet, I was definitely impressed with the sheer height and majesty of Tikal, shrouded deep in the lush 180’ high jungle canopy of northern Guatemala, guarded by myriad creatures such as howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, deer, ocelots, wild turkeys, and the occasional jaguar.   Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated with the metropolis… According to “Rough Guides,” Tikal “is possibly the most magnificent of all Maya sites.”

The tops of two pyramids peek out from the rainforest in Tikal

The tops of two pyramids peek out from the rainforest in Tikal

Tikal was once an affluent metropolitan area housing as many as 100,000 residents and the base of the great Jaguar clan lords. It is the largest excavated site on the American continent, and considered by some archaeologists as the capital of the Maya.

Pennsylvania University headed the excavation and restoration of the site from 1956 through 1969. Six impressive limestone temple pyramids pierce Tikal’s skyline, the highest 230 ft. in height from which Mayan astronomers and priests studied the movements of the planets and calculated dates for their ritual calendar. The site also lays claim to many stone carvings and hieroglyphics.

Some records date Tikal as far back as 400 BC. The earliest monument was constructed in A.D. 292, but the history of Tikal spans the entire “Classic Period.” The metropolis reached its height in the eighth century A.D. when the pyramids were constructed, all within roughly a fifty-year span of time. Mysteriously, a century later, like other Mayan communities, Tikal was abandoned and consumed under a thick layer of encroaching jungle growth.

Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, led an expedition in 1525 very close to Tikal, but because of the thick growth, did not see it. The reason for Tikal’s decline remains a mystery, but disease, famine, overpopulation wars, and draught have all been speculated as possible causes.

Tikal’s rulers built six “temple” pyramids which marked the burial place of a ruler.

Temple I -- the most recognized of the Tikal meetropolis

Temple I — the most recognized of the Tikal metropolis

Temple I, The Temple of the Grand Jaguar Temple I, built for the 26th ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, stands sentry over the eastern portion of the plaza.

Ladders, stone steps and roots to climb Temple I, Tikal

Ladders, stone steps and roots to climb Temple I, Tikal

A stone stairway leads up the pyramid’s nine stories, symbolizing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. Due to the injuries and deaths that resulted from falling off the 20-story pyramid, climbing is now prohibited.

Temple II, Tikal

Temple II, Tikal

Temple II, The Temple of the Masks, faces off with Temple I on the opposite side of the Great Plaza, a large courtyard encompassing terraced stone palaces by terraces and the ubiquitous Mayan ball courts.

Carved stone masks, Tikal

Carved stone masks, Tikal

Temple III was the last large structure built at Tikal. It is speculated to contain the burial of Chi’taam, the last major ruler at this sit, although his tomb has not yet been found.

Temple IV, towering above the canopy at 212 feet tall, is not only the tallest structure in Tikal, but the whole Mayan civilization. It was built by Yax Kin, who began his rule on December 12th, 734 A.D, and is believed to be buried here. There is a series of stone steps, wooden ladders, roots, and protruding stones leading up to the top.

Temple V is the second tallest pyramid at Tikal. It is yet to be determined who may be buried here.

Temple VI is said to contain the most extensive hieroglyphics in the Mayan world, depicting the history of the Tikal civilization.

Other structures include “Mundo Perdido” or Lost World Complex, the Palace, and North Acropolis.

Lost World, Tikal

Lost World, Tikal

The residential area of Tikal covers around 23 square miles, much of which has not yet been excavated.

At the top

Here I am, at the top, while it was still allowed.


Star Wars fans may recognize Tikal as the hidden rebel base used by filmmaker George Lucas for the 1977 Episode IV: A New Hope.

Today, the fascinating ruins of Tikal is a great source of pride to Guatemala and attracts archeologists from all over the world, It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.


  1. I agree that Tikal is truly a remarkable place and worth the trek to get there. Your photos are wonderful and really portray its amazing scale and beauty.

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      The Mayans were quite amazing in what they accomplished without the technological advances we enjoy today.

  2. We have visited a number of ruin sites in Mexico, Central and South America, but Tikal still ranks as number one of all sites (for me way ahead of Machu Picchu, which was also built later!). We actually recommend, if possible, to spend a night near the sight and visit it with less tourists – the experience is even more enthralling! Early morning, before the buses arrive, is a magical time.
    Juergen | dare2go recently posted…11 Bus Stops with Vibrant Mosaic Art near VicuñaMy Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Juergen, I have a friend who said it was the most spectacular sunset he’d ever seen! Very interesting about Machu Picchu — that’s the one I haven’t been to yet, and was expecting that it would be even better.

  3. I would love to visit Tikal – have not been to Guatemala yet but definitely want to tour around Central America at some point in my travels. I just visited Teotihuacan last November and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Susan Moore recently posted…Montserrat Day Trip – Wildflowers Along the Hiking TrailsMy Profile

  4. What a remarkable place to visit! I hope to get there someday~
    Irene S. Levine recently posted…Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A novel set in ChinaMy Profile

  5. It still amazes me what people were able to achieve – without technology. The Mayans are prime examples.

  6. Yet another reminder that no civilization lasts forever. I’ve been to quite a few Mayan ruin sites, but Tikal is still on my l “must see” list. It’s kind of amazing to realize that much of it still has not been excavated.

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      What has been excavated is truly fascinating. Unlike Chichen Itza, a lot of the Mayan ruins are still covered with earth. It will be exciting to see what they discover at Tikal and other sites.

  7. I share your interest in ancient civilizations and have seen most of Mexico’s famous pyramids. Loved visiting Tikal with you.
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers recently posted…Great Sleeps: Dalhousie Castle Hotel, Bonnyrigg, ScotlandMy Profile

  8. Tikal has long been on my list of “musts” for Central America. Your photos are amazing! So impressive – and sobering – when we think of the lost worlds.

  9. Very interesting post. We have yet to head down to South America but this could well make the list of stops. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Looks like a great place to explore and imagine the past. How did you ever get the photos of the pyramid tops?

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Irene — I climbed to the top of one of the other pyramids (see photo at bottom). Fantastic views from up there, although definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights because there are no barriers or rails along the edges.

  11. I’ve been to Chichen Itza, but Tikal looks much more impressive! I’ve watched a movie about it, and I admit – the Mayan culture certainly is fascinating. Thanks for sharing all those amazing photos!
    Jolanta aka Casual Traveler recently posted…The Rocky Coast of Peniche, PortugalMy Profile

  12. Mexico is wonderful.
    Pretty photos. Congratulations!

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