Mayan Ruins in Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Deep in the Guatemalan rain forest lie the remains of the ancient Maya city of Tikal, a sprawling metropolis of temples, palaces and pyramids.
Once a vibrant city-state of 100,000, Tikal now lies empty, partly buried beneath moss, ferns and vines. Once the cradle of Mayan civilization, the city has collapsed, but the Mayan race has never disappeared. The Great Plaza holds the Temple of the Giant Jaguar which rises 170 feet with a steep staircase ascending to a doorway crowned by a mammoth limestone block bearing the faint image of Ah Cacao surrounded by serpents. In 1962, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacao under the temple along with 16 pounds of jade ornaments now in the park museum. Temple II, directly opposite, may conceal his wife’s grave.
As grand as it now, Tikal dazzled in its heyday. The city has been called the Manhattan of the Maya, and from 600 BC to AD 900, the city was a major force throughout Central America. Temple pyramids were painted blood red and bore massive faces of kings. Today’s overgrown plazas were covered in smooth white plaster. Raised causeways connected the city. There were ball courts and bustling markets. Ultimately, drought, famine and warfare may have caused Tikal’s collapse.
Tikal has 3,000 sites across a 220-square-mile park and far more lying beneath. The major attractions are within a 6.2-mile area and can be explored in a two-day visit. Since there are few signs its recommended that you hire a guide which can be obtained for about $20 a day — otherwise, you’ll most likely get lost. Important sites are often given boring names such as Complex N, Complex P or Complex Q. A guide will be able to point out the names and meanings behind the particular sites.
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