When we arrived in Belize, we took a shuttle bus to the village of San Ignacio in the highlands near the Guatemala border. Our purpose was to see a little of the Belizean landscape and to tour Tikal , the largest Mayan ruins in Central America with some 3000 structures, of which only about 30% have been excavated.
The ‘Discovery’ of Tikal
For almost a thousand years, from 900 AD to 1848, Tikal was virtually a lost civilization with its thousands of structures absorbed by rapidly growing jungle that covered all of the man-made sites built over 1300 years by Mayan peoples. An early expedition in 1848 led to a second expedition in 1853 when a report was published by the Berlin Academy of Science which included illustrations of various stelae and descriptions of partially exposed temples.
A Swiss scientist, Dr. Gustav Bernoulli, traveled to Tikal in 1877 and hired local Mayans to held remove wooden lintels across the temples which were transported to Basel Switzerland where they are preserved in the Museum fur Volkerkunde.
The world learned more about Tikal when an English explorer, Alfred Percival Maudslay, visited the site in 1881 and 1882 and drew maps and took the first photographs of temples after local workers had chopped down vines and trees exposing them for the first time in 900 years.
Traveling to Tikal
Out trip to Guatemala started early, leaving our Casa del Blanco Caballo mountain resort and driving fifteen minutes to the border where we checked through customs and boarded a van for the two-hour ride to Tikal.
Guatemala landscape is much different that mostly lowlands Belize; high mountains, dense jungle, and little villages where farmers had clear-cut trees to eek out a couple of years raising crops. After two years, the soil is depleted of nutrients and the jungle foliage starts to take over again, a cycle that takes about ten years.
After driving two hours through a couple of police check points, passing along the shore of the largest lake in Guatemala, Peten-Itza, we arrived at the Tikal. National Park, a small settlement of jungle resorts, research center, two museums, a few tourist shops, and small cafes. While we were there, we heard German, French, Italian, and Spanish from the diverse backgrounds of international visitors.
Temple of the Grand Jaguar
Out guide escorted us into the Tikal site, walking through dense jungle on a dirt path to an interpretive map that showed the major trails, pyramids, monuments, and temples, and unexcavated ruins.
History of the Tikal Mayans
The history of the Mayan people in Tikal is divided into several periods, used by archeologists to date the growth of the city and when its major temples, plazas, monuments were constructed.
A Preclassic prior began around 600 BC and lasted until the Classic Period around 250 AD. A late Classic period that lasted until 450 AD when most of the major construction took place. to the collapse of Tikal as a civilization around 900 AD.
A Post classic period continued after most Mayans departed, melted into the jungle, and built other sites throughout Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala at Copan, Palenque, Calakmul, Altun Ha, Cahal Pech, and Chichen Itza.
Tikal has an estimated 3000 ruins with only about 30% excavated by archeologists. Walking on jungle trails, you can see mounds of dirt, vines, trees, and stones which are sites which have not been excavated.
Along the way, our guide pointed out Guatemala’s national tree, the Ceiba, which had a spiritual value to Mayans, signifying links from the underworld to the heavens. They called it the “Holy Tree of Life” because they thought it was the axis of the world.
Wildlife at Tikal
Wildlife was plentiful at Tikal, howler monkeys, golden turkeys, and white-nosed coatimundi related to the raccoon family. Golden turkeys pecked at ant mounds and scratched for worms; coati roamed the hillsides, their long noses sniffing for bugs and worms.
Coatimundi roamed in packs, following alpha males and nursing mothers who’d stop on a hill to feed their young, distinguished by reddish fur like wild foxes.
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Update: We’re spending a month in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Travel with us and explore Central America.
Next: Casa del Caballo Blanco, San Ignacio, Belize
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