Guatemala History 101: Explore Tikal, the Ancient City of the Maya Civilization

Guatemala History 101: Explore Tikal, the Ancient City of the Maya Civilization

By Trish Keatings

With evidence dating back to 18,000 BC, Guatemala has the oldest recorded human history of all the Central American countries.

That kind of Guatemala history has long since disappeared, but cultural artifacts and architecture from some of the later inhabitants does remain. Among the many interesting archeological sites found here, one of the most important is Tikal.

Located in a remote corner of the country, Tikal is an archeological wonder surrounded by flora and fauna that would impress the likes of Darwin. It’s a National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and part of an extensive natural reserve.

All that is to say: there’s something in Tikal for everyone. Keep reading to find out what’s in it for you.

What Is Tikal’s Role in Guatemala History?

Tikal started as a small village in 300 BC before growing into the largest urban center in the southern lowlands of the Maya civilization between 600-900 BC.

During this period in history, the Maya people constructed monumental plazas, pyramids, and plazas. They developed hieroglyphic writing, used complex time-counting systems, and created beautiful works of art, sculpture, and painting.

At its height, this Mayan epicenter housed over 10,000 people – and that was only at the heart of the city. Surrounding the main plazas, palaces, and residences was an outlying area housing over 50,000 people.

The ruins that remain provide insight into just how advanced the Maya civilization was, as well as show how they got there. From these remains, researchers can understand their evolution from hunter gatherers into a civilization with intricate and complex religion, technology, and culture.

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Where is Tikal, Guatemala?

The archeological site of Tikal covers an area of 1 square mile and sits approximately 19 miles north of Lake Peten Itza, in the Peten province of northern Guatemala. The once great city is surrounded by the Maya forest, which extends into both Belize and Mexico.

Since 1955, the ruins have been part of Tikal National Park. And, since 1979, that National Park has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage site due to its natural and archeological importance.

Not only does it house thousands of architectural and artistic treasures, it also sits within 57,600 hectares of diverse ecosystems housing large felines such as jaguars, monkeys, anteaters, over 200 types of trees, and more than 2000 varieties of higher plants.

What Is Visiting Tikal Like Today?

The main attraction of most Guatemala Tikal tours is the inner urban zone. Here, visitors will find the remains of palaces, ceremonial platforms, temples, residences, and even ball-game courts.

You can spend hours wandering what’s left of the ancient streets, squares, and plazas hidden inside the heart of the jungle. But you’ll be most taken by the five pyramidal temples that soar above the jungle canopy and remain in near-perfect condition. Pyramid II, the smallest of the pyramids, stands 138 feet, whereas the highest of them, Pyramid IV, is a towering 213 foot.

But part of the splendor of visiting this ancient Guatemala historical site, and a big part of the reason it’s been recognized as the wonder that it is, is its location. Tikal National Park is over 200 square miles of jungle and forest.

More than that, it sits in the middle of the 8,000 square mile Maya Biosphere Reserve. For the adventurer, a Guatemala Tikal tour or a trek into El Mirador includes the opportunity to explore this biodiversity hotspot and see everything the Peten area has to offer.

Alternatively, you can visit the site on your own or, for a one-on-one experience that gives you the freedom to ask your own questions and learn from a knowledgeable local, book a dedicated guide for the day.

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Learn More About Guatemala History Up Close and In Person

Inhabited as early as 300 BC, Tikal l tells the story of the rise and fall of the great Maya civilization. The ruins here give visitors a firsthand look into the art and architecture of this advanced culture, the likes of which still very much permeates Guatemalan culture and society.

But to really understand the magnitude of Tikal and its impact on Guatemalan history, you have to see it for yourself – and Lokal can get you there. Check out our custom Guatemala custom trips to get started.


Trish Keatings

Trish is a freelance content and copywriter whose passions are travel and wellness. A full-time traveler herself, she finds inspiration on the road, among the people she meets and the cultures she immerses in. When she's not writing for others, she's working on her own stories, which she hopes to publish into a novel about the transformational experience of facing fears, pursuing dreams, and finding purpose.

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