Journey to Belize: Tikal Part 1

This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize, participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. More specifically, it details a brief side-trip to Guatemala. The rest of this series is located in the Travel category of this blog.

The North Acropolis at Tikal, viewed from on top of Temple II.

On the morning of June 16, 2017, I awoke in Flores with a start. My first night back in ‘civilization’ had not been restful, haunted by the knowledge that I must eventually return to Northern California. Fortunately, the day was about to improve dramatically. We were going to Tikal.

Tikal is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the Americas. Encompassing 57,600 hectares, Tikal is the largest excavated site in the New World (UNESCO, 2018; Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, 2015). It was initially settled by the Maya in 800 or 900 BC; grew to one of the most important Mayan cities during the 8th Century AD; declined during the 9th Century, and was abandoned during the 10th Century AD (UNESCO, 2018; TikalNationalPark.org). According to TikalNationalPark.org, “Tikal is to Guatemala what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt.”

Tikal’s magnificent reputation is well-earned. Seen here is the top of Temple IV, which looms above everything else at Tikal.

At the time, however, I knew none of this. I had barely heard of Tikal before joining the Dos Hombres to Gran Cacao and Programme for Belize Archaeological Projects (DH2GC and PfBAP, respectively), and had no idea what to expect. I was in for a colossal surprise.

We arrived at the entrance to Tikal National Park after a short drive. Here we disembarked and bought our tickets; all under the watchful eyes of friendly, armed guards. As we waited in line, I was struck by how lush the area was. The road to the archaeological site was bordered on both sides by a dense jungle, whose vegetation wore a rich hue of green.

Had I done my research beforehand, I would not have been taken aback by Tikal’s vibrance. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2018), Tikal is, “One of the few World Heritage properties inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria for its extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance.” Based on my experience, Tikal deserves its World Heritage status.

After leaving our vans in the main parking lot, we took a short walk through a tree-shaded path. Before long we left this patch of jungle, passed by a large ruin on our left, and pivoted to the right to behold the Main Plaza.

A ruin across from the Main Plaza at Tikal

I was stunned by what I saw. The Main Plaza is bordered on either side by Temples I and II. Temple I stands at 47 metres (154 ft), and contains the tomb of the Mayan ruler Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate). At 38 metres (125 ft), Temple II is no less imposing (TikalNationalPark.org).

In between these two pyramids was a large field, with the North Acropolis (pictured in the featured image) at the far end. Many Mayan rulers were buried in that stelae-adorned acropolis, along with some of Tikal’s first inhabitants (Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, 2015).

As I approached the North Acropolis with DH2GC’s director, she told me how a group of archaeologists had dug a trench along part of the artificially raised platform. The trench collapsed, revealing a Preclassic (2000 BC – 250 AD) Mayan floor (MesoAmerican Research Center, 2010).

We wandered around the Main Plaza and North Acropolis for a while, and climbed a wooden staircase to the top of Temple II. This gave us an excellent view of the plaza below us, and we stayed there for a few minutes before returning to the ground. We then made our way to Temple IV.

Temple IV is the tallest pyramid at Tikal. In fact, this 65 metre (213 ft) temple is the tallest known structure in the pre-Colombian Americas (TikalNationalPark.org). We located the modern staircase that led to the top, and then began the long ascent to Temple IV’s summit.

We reached the top of Temple IV after a strenuous climb. We were now above the trees, and from our vantage point their canopies fused to become an endless sea of green. The tops of Tikal’s temples occasionally broke the surface to create small, grey islands.

It was a beautiful, peaceful scene. We sat on the top of Temple IV for a long time, drinking in the fresh air. Our rest was warranted, because there was still a lot more of Tikal to see. Those sights will be the topic of the upcoming post, Tikal: Part 2.

My day in Tikal was too eventful to cover in one post. The second half of this series-within-a-series will be posted in one week’s time – at the latest.

Bonus Photo:
A Mayan altar in Tikal’s Main Plaza, which you can see is still in use. Modern-day Mayan peoples are still allowed to carry out their spiritual traditions at Tikal, which is super cool. Yes, “super cool” is a professional term.
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32 thoughts on “Journey to Belize: Tikal Part 1

  1. Hello Josh, I’ve been travelling and have not been online much in the last couple of weeks, so it’s a pleasure to log in and find your post about Tikal – great shots and great summary and synopsis of your day there. It’s such a big place that it easily warrants to days during one trip. When I was there in 2015 I arrived early and did the tour with a local guide and then further explored on my own – I reluctantly left at closing time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jacques! There’s so much at Tikal, and every structure and stela warrants close inspection; it’s easy to spend hours there and not get very far. I didn’t have a local giving me a tour, but I was with a professional archaeologist for much of my time there. So that definitely helped! Still, as I’m going to talk more about in my next Tikal post, I’d love to go back there now that I know a little more about Tikal’s history.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a rich and vibrant hue of green with envy! Beautiful pictures — and so happy to see your smiling face. I never had an interest in visiting South or Central America before, but your posts (and some pictures I saw of Peru last year) are reallt changing my mind!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, the smiling face of someone who looks like they’re about to push an unsuspecting victim off the tallest Pre-Colombian structure in the Americas.

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments. My experiences in Central America were all very pleasant, so I definitely recommend you go there sometime. Belize would probably be the perfect country to start out in, because its Caribbean vibe might suit you well. I haven’t made it to South America yet, but I will!

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh wow. That does sound like quite a lot. Do you usually post on a specific day? I change mine over time, but currently it’s Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for me with the occasional reblog sprinkled in there.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yea, I might let the news articles go, depending on how quickly I’m able to finish my more original posts. I’d rather give my own stuff and my collaborative pieces a higher priority than recycled content.

            Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favorite days to post, and sometimes Mondays as well. I don’t like to post on weekends, because I find that I don’t usually get much traffic during them. I’ll post on Saturdays or Sundays if I’m backed up or I come across a really important news article, but I try to avoid publishing on Fridays if I can help it; I just never get a good return on my time and effort.

            That being said, when I was super busy with classes Friday mornings were about the only windows I had to quickly throw posts together. So I had to take them, even though they weren’t ideal.

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          3. WordPress usually tells you the best day and hour to post. Check your insights in the stats section. My best day fluctuates, and I change my posting habits accordingly.

            News content has actually brought in a lot of traffic for me, especially on the company website. Sometimes recycled content isn’t too bad haha

            Liked by 1 person

          4. I keep an eye on the best day and hour stuff, and it’s usually Tuesday or Thursday that occupy the top slot.

            I get a lot of views from recycled news post too – in fact some of my most widely viewed posts have been news ones. But my reasoning is that since those articles have already been featured on news websites, then lots of people have probably already seen them. But if I don’t publish my original content, then no one will ever see it. I also quickly get bored when I share too many news articles, and get more excited about my blog when I’m creating my own content.

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  3. What an adventure. While you were there, did you by chance learn of any unique myths and legends of old obscure disappearances, fountain of youths or anything bizarre you may have found interesting? I always think there has to be a story behind or a tale to go with these ancient ruins. Love your natural way of sharing your experiences.

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