One of the very first Maya ruin we agreed we’d visit was Tikal. It is supposed to be one of the biggest, heighest, largest, bestest sites and we both had fond memories of playing the board game Tikal together. A game where you play a group of explorers that searches for pyramids and artefacts. The longer we thought about it, the more accurate the game seemed to us. You don’t see anything while walking through the jungle and have to just hope to stumble upon the next temple. The temples are excavated in layers, just like the Mayas built their temples in layers. The only minor inconsistency is that the highest pyramids in the board game have ten stories, while everyone knows that Mayan temples only have nine levels (same as the underworld in their beliefs).
We had been warned about a lot of things for Tikal: It’s gonna be overrun by tourists, it will be way too hot, it’s too large you’ll get lost, the weather is too bad, you won’t see the sunrise and so on. People recommended us to leave at 4:30 for the sunrise, skip the sunrise and enjoy the ruins while you still could.. Unfortunately that didn’t quite align with our natural laziness and we, instead, to take the 9:00am bus. And it was absolutely fine, I don’t know if we got very lucky or if it’s just not as full but we barely saw a handful of people in the ruins and it didn’t really get hot either as the sky was quite covered.
Tikal, as a big tourist attraction, is unfortunately also rather inapproachable. Out of the 10000 buildings of Tikal, about 350 have been excavated, two of which can be accessed by tourists. One of these two is the highest pyramid in Tikal with about 66m in height and allows a view onto all of Tikal.. if it wasn’t for the forest. Barely three of the thousands of temples manage to have their roof comb peak through the canopy of the forest. It was built by Yik’in around 750AD. He also built or changed almost everything else in the city. He is credited with modifying the city layout in such a way, that it actually became defensible and the city was never conquered after these changes. That being said, the last stelae was erected in 869 and the city abandoned before the tenth century so there wasn’t all that much time in which they could’ve been conquered left either.
Yik’in’s tomb remains a bit of a mystery with our tour guide books basically offering three opinions on where and why he’s buried. His tomb remains undiscovered to this day, but there are apparently archaeologists digging into this, highest, pyramid to find his tomb.. Which might prove completely fruitless if the tomb is actually in a tiny, unfinished, unimportant pyramid on the grand plaza, as my guide book claimed.
The grand plaza was truly amazing to see and hosts the second accessible pyramid from which you can have a bird’s eye view of the remaining pyramids. The northern part of the plaza is covered in small pyramids since, apparently, every king wanted to be buried there. This lead to numerous problems and ‘extensions’ to create room.. which, I think, overwhelmed also the archaeologists at time. At least that’s the only way I can explain names like “Temple 33-d5”.
There were two more plazas that we found interesting the first was the plaza of the seven temples, which, well, has seven temples on one side and, fascinatingly enough three parallel ball game setups on the other side. Each of these is aligned with a temple entrance on the opposite side.. While one seems to know a lot about the layout of the place, not a lot is known about the use.
The other place is called “lost world” and while I kind of expected dinosaurs to walk around, the place is not quite *that* old. The center is an astronomical pyramid built over the earliest version from 500BC. The current version must date back to somewhere around 400AD and apparently holds typical symbols from the Teotihuacan from central Mexico. We looked, but couldn’t really find these ‘obvious’ signs.
After so many nice plazas we decided that we should also stop at the East plaza even though it wasn’t on any of the official walk-throughs.. Well.. it turns out that’s for a reason. We saw one wall and decided that couldn’t be all of it and kept on moving. When we reached a sign saying “Group F” without any visible ruins at all, we admitted defeat.. I guess there was a reason this was not on the recommended walk-through of Tikal.