Towering above the rainforest, Tikal, 68km from Flores down a smooth paved road, is possibly the most magnificent of all Maya sites. The ruins are dominated by five enormous temples, steep-sided limestone pyramids that rise to more than 60m above the forest floor. Around them are thousands of other structures, many semi-strangled by giant roots and still hidden beneath mounds of earth.
The site itself is surrounded by the Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected area of some 576 square kilometres that is on the edge of the much larger Reserva de la Biósfera Maya. The sheer scale of the place is overwhelming, and its atmosphere spellbinding. Whether you can spare as little as a morning or as long as a week, it’s always worth the trip.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife, when the forest canopy bursts into a frenzy of sound and activity. The air fills with the screech of toucans and the roar of howler monkeys, while flocks of parakeets wheel around the temples, and bats launch themselves into the night. With a bit of luck you might even see a grey fox sneak across one of the plazas.
According to recent evidence, the first occupants of Tikal arrived around 900 BC, probably attracted by its position above the surrounding seasonal swamps and by the availability of flint for making tools and weapons. For the next four hundred years there’s nothing to suggest that it was anything more than a tiny village of thatched huts. By 500 BC, however, the first steps of a modest astronomical stone temple had been constructed. Tikal remained a minor settlement during the latter years of the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 BC), while 50km to the north, towering temples were being built at Nakbé, the first city to emerge from the Petén forest.
In around 250 BC the first significant ceremonial structures emerged. A small pyramid was constructed in the Mundo Perdido, and minor temples were built in the North Acropolis, though Tikal was still a peripheral settlement at this stage. Dominating the entire region, formidable El Mirador was the first Maya “superpower”, controlling trade roots across Mesoamerica.
The sheer scale of the ruins at Tikal can at first seem daunting. The central area, with its five main temples, forms by far the most impressive section; if you start to explore beyond this, you can ramble seemingly forever in the maze of smaller, unrestored structures and complexes. Compared with the scale and magnificence of the main area, they’re not that impressive, but armed with a good map (the best is in Coe’s guide to the ruins, available in the visitor centre), it can be exciting to search for some of the rarely visited outlying sections. Don’t even think about exploring the more distant structures without a map; every year at least one tourist gets lost in the jungle.