After waving goodbye to the ruins of Copan we jumped a taxi back to town, picked up our things from the backpackers, went to the shop, bought some water and nonchalantly wandered down to where the bus leaves at 2pm for Tegucigalpa, the unpronounceable capital of Honduras.
We arrived at 1.55pm to find the bus had already gone. GAH!! This is no time to be getting ruthlessly efficient, Honduras!!
We had to wait another hour or so for the next bus, a minibus that got us into Tegucigalpa in the middle of the night. You know, the murder capital of the murder capital of the world. Sorry to hang this on Honduras, I think it’s quite a cool place, but the murder rate (90 per 100,000) is three times that of “really quite dangerous” South Africa, 19 times that of the “gun crazy” US and 90 times that of “it’s all going to the dogs” Great Britain.
In a word: EEK!!!
I’m no fool, I travel with both eyes open. Tegucigalpa is not a particularly groovy place to be right now, thanks to America’s genocidally moronic “War on Drugs” (43 years, trillions spent and no victory in sight). Luckily we made a friend on the bus over, a local Honduran who had lived in the UK for many years. He shared a taxi with us from the bus station and made sure we got safely into the (horrifically overpriced) backpackers (in which the security was like Fort Knox).
We booked the first bus out of Teggy City, which would leave at 6am. However, as the backpackers was so horrifically overpriced, we didn’t have to cash to pay for our tickets, so the hostel owner took me and another guest in their car to the cash machine at the all-night garage. It felt like we were doing a (albeit rather boring) mission on GTA. Everyone’s on edge! Or maybe I was projecting. I dunno.
Since I thought I would be on stuck on Jinja Island at the end of June this year I had (foolishly) allowed the reservation on my Glastonbury ticket to expire. But now I knew that my friend Kendra would be looking after the island for me, I could go… and the few remaining tickets would be going on resale that night at 3am (yeah, Glasto, just wreck everyone’s night sleep in the Western Hemisphere why dontcha?).
I had 4 tickets to try and get for me and three of my friends. I got through to the input screen – yes, even though I was sitting on a bunkbed in a dorm room at 3am in the hardest capital city name to remember next to Bandar Seri Begawan – I put in everyone’s details… hands shaking GOD THIS IS STRESSFUL… only to be told I “exceeded the quota” whatever that means.
Quick as a flash I pressed the back arrow back to the input screen and just punched my details in. I got it. For me at least. I pressed the back arrow again to get Anna’s… punched her details in quick as I could… and was directed to the SOLD OUT screen. It was 3.07am.
I was gutted for Anna, but also elated that I had managed to snag a ticket from the jaws of defeat here in the middle of Central America. I was also absolutely knackered. I fell fast asleep.
Two and a half hours later I was in the cold shower (how much did I pay for this room again??) getting ready to leave on the Tica bus for Nicaragua.
The air of familiarity about all this made it seem almost routine. Here I was, tearing through Central America on a bus and the air-con was set to 0° Kelvin.
Around lunchtime, we found ourselves crossing the border back into Nicaragua – a bit of a backpacker favourite, but exploration would have to save it for next year perhaps when we “do” Southern Central America properly.
We arrived in Managua – the capital of Nicaragua – in the late afternoon. Casey and I tried about 13 different guest houses until we found one that was just right – Hostel Los Cisneros, well recommended. Managua is a sleepy old town, not much going on at all. I walked the two-hour round trip to the nearest shopping mall (I couldn’t find and shops or restaurants on the way) and bought us both food to eat. I found Casey chillaxing on the balcony.
We were planning on pressing on to Costa Rica the next day, but the tickets were sold out and Casey wasn’t feeling so good. Hats off to her – we had been in Central America now for over a month and she hadn’t got even slightly ill (vaccinations! YAY SCIENCE!!), so a day of pampering was well within my remit. Another bloody long walk to the shopping mall though.
The bus left at stupid o’clock the following morning (because OF COURSE IT DID – it was a Tica bus), too early to get breakfast, but the lovely people at the guest house got up and made us coffee anyway.
Later that same day we were back in Costa Rica for the third and final time of this trip.
Having sworn never to step foot in the Lonely Planet-recommended Hostel Pangea for as long as I live (seriously guys, did you actually stay there or did you just go off their website??), Case and I stayed at the infinitely more pleasant Costa Rica Backpackers, near the screeching wheels of the railway station.
The next morning we were picked up from the hostel in a minibus and taken to the bus station for the bus to Sixaola – the border with Panama.
This time it wouldn’t cost us $100 in taxi fares.
So then, back through Liverpool, Costa Rica…
Over the rickety bridge at Sixaola, into Panama, and then the white-knuckle minibus ride to the boat dock at Almirante.
We arrived back in Bocas on the last ferryboat from the mainland just before dark on April 30 2014. The Bocas Turtles baseball team had just won the league and the party stretched on into the night, but we were exhausted. What a trip! Back not moment too soon… the next day we’d be taking over our very own private island… Jinja Island.
The Ruta Maya had given us both a fascinating insight into the world of the Mayan people. We had been to almost a dozen incredible sites spread out over 4 separate countries and seen hundreds of monumental works of ancient art, design and imagination. Not only that, but we had hung out with real Mayans, such as Luis from An Idiot Abroad, and watched real-life Mayan warriors play the ball games that were so integral to the lives of their ancestors.
Still one thing I still haven’t figured out though…
In a fit of stupidity that seems rather impressive, even for me, we took the overnight bus all the way from Flores to Guatemala City. Why we didn’t disembark 150km earlier when we passed the junction at Rio Hondo (for Copan Ruinas) I’ll never know. I think I was tired. It was a bit like wanting to get to Bristol from London and going via Liverpool.
So we found ourselves in the middle of the monumental traffic jam that is Guatemala City searching for the bus station for the bus that would take us 150km back the way we came… and then with any luck, swing southwards towards the border with Honduras.
Only remember I said my Lonely Planet was six years out of date? Yeah. That bus station ain’t there no more.
One of my (albeit few) bugbears about Central America (and the UK!) is this: every damn bus company has its own damn terminal and they’re all clustered around the city centre like mad people preaching from The Bibble. This makes things needlessly complicated when attempting the traverse the length and breadth of this mighty isthmus in a limited timeframe. Happily, GuatCit One (as I like to call it) has just built a brand new bus terminal/shopping mall on the edge of town in which all of the competing bus companies can live together in blissful harmony without having to fight through 10 miles of gridlock to get to the middle of a city you’re not even interested in visiting anyhoo. ARE YOU LISTENING LONDON?!!
The only problem was that this semi-mythical bus station was (quite sensibly) situated on the edge of town, whereas we were currently situated slap bang in the middle.
We managed to get a bus for most of the journey, but at some point we did have to get off and get into a taxi. Which cost a small fortune. KICKING MYSELF.
Upon arrival at the squeaky clean bus terminal/shopping mall I quickly realised we stopped there on the way into town about two hours earlier, but kept it to myself lest Casey (she was asleep the first time) conclude I’m some kind of amateur at this travel lark.
Pretty soon we had purchased tickets to Chiquimula (or “Cheeky Mullah” as I like to call it) , the last Guatemalan town before the border with Honduras – just 35km from the turning I missed a several hours ago, which we will NEVER MENTION AGAIN.
The big bus was no problem, but the minibus ride from Chiquimula to the actual border… OH. MY. GOD. The guy driving must have been tripping balls, high on crack cocaine or something – he drove like Louis Hamilton only faster. It would have been terrifying enough in a F1 car on a racetrack, but this guy was weaving along winding mountain roads in the jungle DRIVING A BUS.
I just braced myself and hoped for the best (not for the first time).
Somehow we made it to the border in one piece. Immigration was very straight-forward and we waited on the Honduran side with some locals until the bus came to whisk us away to the town of Copán Ruinas – named for the Mayan ruins that lay nearby.
Like a lot of the small towns we visited on the Ruta Maya, Copán Ruinas was a delight. The backpackers we stayed at was seriously nice – colourful and rustic, so laid back it was silly. I had to pinch myself to remind myself that we were now in Honduras – the murder capital of the world.
After our epic journey getting here, there would be no tomb raiding or Indiana-Jonesing today. We settled in for the night and just chilled.
Early the next morning we jumped a tuk-tuk to Copán, the last site on our Maya Ruta.
Copán is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the Copán Department of western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala. It was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. The city was located in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, on the frontier with the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples.
Copán was occupied for more than two thousand years, from the Early Preclassic period to the Postclassic. It is likely the ancient name of Copán was Oxwitik, “Three Witik” (the meaning of witik remains obscure).
The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC. Mentions of the predynastic history of Copán are found in later texts, but none of these predates the refounding of the city in AD 426. That was the year that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, established it as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. This coup was apparently organized and launched from Tikal.
After this, Copán became one of the more powerful Maya city states and was a regional power in the southern Maya region. B’alam Nehn (often referred to as Waterlily Jaguar) was the first king to actually record his position in the dynastic succession, declaring that he was seventh in line from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Stela 15 records that he was already ruling Copán by AD 504. B’alam Nehn is the only king of Copán to be mentioned in a hieroglyphic text from outside of the southeastern Maya region. His name appears in a text on Stela 16 from Caracol, a site in Belize.
Copán suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Although this was a major setback, Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades.
The population declined in the 8th and 9th centuries from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. This decrease in population took over four centuries to actually show signs of collapse, showing the stability of this site even after the fall of the ruling dynasties and royal families. The ceremonial centre was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
The Copán buildings suffered significantly from forces of nature in the centuries between the site’s abandonment and the rediscovery of the ruins. After the abandonment of the city the Copán River gradually changed course, with a meander destroying the eastern portion of the acropolis (revealing in the process its archaeological stratigraphy in a large vertical cut) and apparently washing away various subsidiary architectural groups, including at least one courtyard and 10 buildings.
Several buildings recorded in the 19th century were destroyed, plus an unknown amount of the acropolis that was eroded before it could be recorded. In order to avoid further destruction of the acropolis, the Carnegie Institution redirected the river to save the archaeological site, diverting it southwards in the 1930s; the dry former riverbed was finally filled in at the same time as consolidation of the cut in 1990s.
The Copán site is known for a series of portrait stelae, most of which were placed along processional ways in the central plaza of the city and the adjoining acropolis, a large complex of overlapping step-pyramids, plazas, and palaces. The site has a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. In two parallel buildings framing a carefully dimensioned rectangle lies the court. The site is divided into various groups, with the Main Group and the Cemetery Group in the site core linked by a sacbe to the Sepulturas Group to the northeast.
The Main Group represents the core of the ancient city, it includes the Acropolis, which is a raised royal complex on the south side, and a group of smaller structures and linked plazas to the north, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the ballcourt. The Monument Plaza contains the greatest concentration of sculpted monuments at the site.
The Acropolis was the royal complex at the heart of Copán. It consists of two plazas that have been named the West Court and the East Court. They are both enclosed by elevated structures. Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD.
Structure 10L-4 is a platform with four stairways situated by the Monument Plaza.
Structure 10L-11 is on the west side of the Acropolis. It encloses the south side of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is accessed from it by a wide monumental stairway. This structure appears to have been the royal palace of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th ruler in the dynastic succession and the last known king of Copán. Structure 10L-11 was built on top of several earlier structures, one of which probably contains the tomb of his predecessor K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil. A small tunnel descends into the interior of the structure, possibly to the tomb, but it has not yet been excavated by archaeologists.
Structure 10L-16 (Temple 16) is a temple pyramid that is the highest part of the Acropolis. It is located between the East and West Courts at the heart of the ancient city. The temple faces the West Court within the Acropolis and is dedicated to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the dynastic founder. The temple was placed on top of the original palace and tomb of the king. It is the final version of a number of temples built on top of each other, as was common practice in Mesoamerica.
One of the best preserved phases of Temple 16 is the Rosalila, built over the remains of five previous versions of the temple. Archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia discovered the almost intact shrine while tunneling underneath the final version of the temple. Rosalila is notable for its excellent state of preservation, including the entire building from the base platform up to the roof comb, including its highly elaborate painted stucco decoration. Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil encased the Rosalila phase under a new version of the building in the early 8th century AD. An offering was made as part of the rites to terminate the old phase and included a collection of eccentric flints worked into the profiles of humans and gods, which were wrapped in blue-dyed textiles.
Structure 10L-18 is on the southeastern side of the Acropolis and has been damaged by the erosion caused by the Copán River, having lost its eastern side. Stairs on the south side of the structure lead down to a vaulted tomb that was looted in ancient times and was probably that of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. It was apparently plundered soon after the collapse of the Copán kingdom. Unusually for Copán, the summit shrine had four sculpted panels depicting the king performing war dances with spear and shield, emphasizing the rising tensions as the dynasty came to its end.
Structure 10L-22 is a large building on the north side of the East Court, in the Acropolis, and faces onto it. It dates to the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and is the best preserved of the buildings from his rule. The superstructure of the building has an interior doorway with an elaborate sculpted frame and decorated with masks of the mountain god Witz. The outer doorway is framed by the giant mask of a deity, and has stylistic similarities with the Chenes regional style of distant Yucatán. The temple was built to celebrate the completion of the king’s first K’atun in power, in AD 715, and has a hieroglyphic step with a first-person phrase “I completed my K’atun”. The building symbolically represents the mountain where maize was created.
Structure 10L-25 is in the East Court of the Acropolis. It covers a rich royal tomb nicknamed Sub-Jaguar by archaeologists. It is presumed to be the tomb of either Ruler 7 (B’alam Nehn), Ruler 8 or Ruler 9, who all ruled in the first half of the 6th century AD.
Structure 10L-26 is a temple that projects northwards from the Acropolis and is immediately to the north of Structure 10L-22. The structure was built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil, the 13th and 15th rulers in the dynastic succession.
Copan’s famous Hieroglyphic Stairway ascends the building on the west side from the courtyard below. It measures 21 meters (69 ft) long, 10-meters (33 ft) wide and and has a total of 62 steps.
Stela M and its associated altar are at its base and a large sculpted figure is located in the centre of every 12th step. These figures are believed to represent the most important rulers in the dynastic history of the site. The stairway takes its name from the 2200 glyphs that together form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text.
The text is still being reconstructed, having been scrambled by the collapse of the glyphic blocks when the façade of the temple collapsed. The staircase was first built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil in AD 710, being reinstalled and expanded in the following phase of the temple by K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil in AD 755.
The Ballcourt is immediately north of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is to the south of the Monument Plaza. It was remodeled by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, who then demolished it and built a third version, which was one of the largest from the Classic period. It was dedicated to the great macaw deity and the buildings flanking the playing area carried 16 mosaic sculptures of the birds. The completion date of the ballcourt is inscribed with a hieroglyphic text upon the sloping playing area and is given as 6 January 738.
The Sepulturas Group is linked by a sacbe or causeway that runs southwest to the Monument Plaza in the Main Group. The Sepulturas Group consists of a number of restored structures, mostly elite residences that feature stone benches, some of which have carved decorations, and a number of tombs.
The group has a very long occupational history, with one house having been dated as far back as the Early Preclassic. By the Middle Preclassic, large platforms were being built from cobbles and several rich burials were made. By AD 800, the complex consisted of about 50 buildings arranged around 7 major courtyards. At this time, the most important building was the ‘House of the Bakabs, the palace of a powerful nobleman from the time of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. The building has a high-quality sculpted exterior and a carved hieroglyphic bench inside. A portion of the group was a subdistrict occupied by non-Maya inhabitants from Central Honduras who were involved in the trade network that brought in goods from that region.
Altar Q depicts 16 kings in the dynastic succession of the city
Altar Q is the most famous monument at Copán. It was dedicated by king Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat in AD 776 and has each of the first 16 kings of the Copán dynasty carved around its side. Each figure is depicted seated on his name glyph. A hieroglyphic text is inscribed on the upper surface, relating the founding of the dynasty in AD 426–427. On one side, it shows the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ transferring power to Yax Pasaj.
The Motmot Capstone is an inscribed stone that was placed over a tomb under Structure 10L-26. Its face was finely sculpted with portraits of the first two kings of the Copán dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and K’inich Popol Hol, facing towards each other with a double column of hieroglyphs between them, all contained within a quatrefoil frame. The frame and the hieroglyphic names of mythological locations underneath the feet of the two kings place them in a supernatural realm. The capstone bears two calendrical dates, in AD 435 and AD 441. The second of these is probably the date that the capstone was dedicated.
RIGHT THAT’S THE LAST OF ‘EM!!
You might think I’d be all Mayan’d out by now, but this trip has barely scratched the surface. Casey and I have been to 11 sites out ofover 140 scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.
So there’s plenty more to see and do, of course there is, there always is! I quite fancy the trek through the jungle to see El Mirador, still hidden away in the very north of Guatemala. Seriously, you could travel every day for the rest of your life and still not see everything this crazy wonderful little big planet has to offer.
Although Copan is our last stop, this isn’t quite the end of our Ruta Maya. We still have to get back to Bocas Del Toro… back back back to Jinja Island.
We were picked up from Ya’ajche’ campamento in the morning and driven the short distance to the border. Leaving the Mexican side was a mere formality, and it was a quick boat ride over the Usumacinta River to the small town of Bethel in Guatemala.
However, on the Guatemalan side we had a bit of a wait. It was something like two hours. All I could think of is how that could have been an extra two hours in bed. Lovely soft warm comfortable BED.
I spend most of the time trying to get a decent shot of the tiny humming bird that was flitting back and forth back and forth in the roof of the passport office.
Eventually, the minibus that was taking us to Flores rucked up and after five minutes on the only road in or out of this one horse bordertown I saw why it was so late – yeah, we was bumpin’ and grindin’ down the old gravel n’ dust highway.
The crappiness of the road from Bethel to Guatemala’s north-west highway reminded me of the roads leading to most of the international borders in Africa – is this something that governments do on purpose to put people off emigrating?
Okay, fair enough, when Google Maps refuses to plot a journey down that particular highway, I guess it’s not really meant for regular traffic.
After a few hours of being bounced around like your mum last Saturday night, we hit good solid asphalt HUZZAH!! We arrived in the wonderful little town of Flores around mid-afternoon.
The town of Flores is situated on an island on lake Petén Itzá, the second largest lake in Guatemala… and it couldn’t be more pleasant if it tried.
That afternoon we chilled on hammocks on the roof of our backpackers and in the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal in a homely little place that overlooked the lake.
With our receipt, we were given these teeny-tiny Guatemalan “worry dolls” – apparently, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you tell them what’s keeping you awake and then place them under your pillow. They’ll take your worries away and allow you to sleep. Aww… I love this place!
After all of the previous day’s excitement, we decided that we wouldn’t rush to Tikal the next day, but would instead spend the day hanging out in this awesome little town. I could stay here for a long, long time.
So it was the morning of Thursday April 24 2014 before we headed to the crown jewel of the Mayan empire… TIKAL.
We left at 4am in order to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV, something of a rite of passage for touristy tourists such as ourselves. It takes about an hour to get to the site from Flores, and when we arrived it was still dark.
After checking out the 3-D model of the city that is located at the site entrance, we trekked to the Temple in the dark – it seemed like our minibus gang were the only people there.
Casey is afraid of heights and had problems scrambling up some of the pyramids along on the Ruta Maya, but she plucked up the courage to climb Temple IV – the tallest temple in the entire Mayan world. She did herself proud. A few months later she would do her first skydive.
All night the sky was as clear as an unmuddied lake, however, as dawn broke over the jungle a heavy mist rose from the canopy, obscuring what would otherwise have been a spectacular sunrise.
Tikal is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Because of the site’s remoteness from modern towns, however, no explorers visited Tikal until Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut, respectively the commissioner and the governor of Petén, visited it in 1848. Tut reported a set of mysterious ruins to a La Gaceta, a Guatemalan newspaper, which named the site Tikal (Tik’al in modern Mayan orthography). In 1853, the report was published in the Berlin Academy of Sciences’ Magazine and archaeologists and treasure hunters flooded in.
Tikal was one of the largest of the Classic period Maya cities and was one of the largest cities in the Americas. The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 70 metres (230 ft) high, large royal palaces, in addition to a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments. There is even a building which seemed to have been a jail, originally with wooden bars across the windows and doors. There are also seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a set of 3 in the Seven Temples Plaza, a unique feature in Mesoamerica.
The site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.
Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, with a long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the tombs of many of the rulers on this list and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces.
The name Tikal may be derived from ti ak’al in the Yucatec Maya language; it is said to be a relatively modern name meaning “at the waterhole”. The name was apparently applied to one of the site’s ancient reservoirs by hunters and travellers in the region. It has alternatively been interpreted as meaning “the place of the voices” in the Itza Maya language. Tikal, however, is not the ancient name for the site but rather the name adopted shortly after its discovery in the 1840s. Hieroglyphic inscriptions at the ruins refer to the ancient city as Yax Mutal or Yax Mutul, meaning “First Mutal”. Tikal may have come to have been called this because Dos Pilas also came to use the same emblem glyph; the rulers of the city presumably wanted to distinguish themselves as the first city to bear the name.
Tikal is located 19 kilometres (12 mi) south of the contemporary Maya city of Uaxactun and 30 kilometres (19 mi) northwest of Yaxha. The city was located 100 kilometres (62 mi) southeast of its great Classic Period rival, Calakmul, and 85 kilometres (53 mi) northwest of Calakmul’s ally Caracol, now in Belize.
The city once covered an area greater than 16 square kilometres (6.2 sq mi) and included about 3,000 structures. The area around Tikal has been declared as the Tikal National Park and the preserved area covers 570 square kilometres (220 sq mi).
The ruins lie among the tropical rainforests of northern Guatemala that formed the cradle of lowland Maya civilization. The city itself was located among abundant fertile upland soils, and may have dominated a natural east—west trade route across the Yucatan Peninsula. For centuries the city was completely covered under jungle.
There are traces of early agriculture at the site dating as far back as 1000 BC, in the Middle Preclassic. A cache of Mamon ceramics dating from about 700-400 BC were found in a sealed chultun, a subterranean bottle-shaped chamber.
Major construction at Tikal was already taking place in the Late Preclassic period, first appearing around 400–300 BC, including the building of major pyramids and platforms, although the city was still dwarfed by sites further north such as El Mirador and Nakbe. At this time, Tikal participated in the widespread Chikanel culture that dominated the Central and Northern Maya areas at this time – a region that included the entire Yucatan Peninsula including northern and eastern Guatemala and all of Belize.
In the 1st century AD rich burials first appeared and Tikal underwent a political and cultural florescence as its giant northern neighbours declined. After being conquered by Teotihuacan in 378 AD, Tikal rapidly rose to dominate the northern and eastern Peten. Uaxactun, together with smaller towns in the region, were absorbed into Tikal’s kingdom. Other sites, such as Bejucal and Motul de San José near Lake Petén Itzá became vassals of their more powerful neighbor to the north. By the middle of the 5th century Tikal had a core territory of at least 25 kilometres (16 mi) in every direction.
In the 5th century the power of the city reached as far south as Copán (where we’re heading next), whose founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was clearly connected with Tikal. Copán itself was not in an ethnically Maya region and the founding of the Copán dynasty probably involved the direct intervention of Tikal.
A long-running rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began in the 6th century, with each of the two cities forming its own network of mutually hostile alliances arrayed against each other in what has been likened to a long-running war between two Maya superpowers. The kings of these two capitals adopted the title kaloomte’, a term that has not been precisely translated but that implies something akin to “high king”.
In the mid 6th century, Caracol seems to have allied with Calakmul and defeated Tikal, closing the Early Classic, a defeat that seems to have resulted in the capture and sacrifice of the king of Tikal. The badly eroded Altar 21 at Caracol described how Tikal suffered this disastrous defeat in a major war in April 562. Tikal was not sacked but its power and influence were broken. Thus began the Tikal hiatus, which has served as a marker by which archaeologists commonly subdivide the Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology into the Early and Late Classic.
By the 9th century, the crisis of the Classic Maya collapse was sweeping across the region, with populations plummeting and city after city falling into silence. Increasingly endemic warfare in the Maya region caused Tikal’s supporting population to heavily concentrate close to the city itself, accelerating the use of intensive agriculture and corresponding environmental decline.
In the latter half of the 9th century there was an attempt to revive royal power at the much diminished city of Tikal, as evidenced by a stela erected in the Great Plaza by Jasaw Chan K’awiil II in 869. This was the last monument erected at Tikal before the city finally fell into silence. The former satellites of Tikal, such as Jimbal and Uaxactun, did not last much longer, erecting their final monuments in 889. By the end of the 9th century the vast majority of Tikal’s population had deserted the city, its royal palaces were occupied by squatters and simple thatched dwellings were being erected in the city’s ceremonial plazas.
Before its final abandonment all respect for the old rulers had disappeared, with the tombs of the North Acropolis being explored for jade and the easier to find tombs being looted. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted and the rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years.
In 1525, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within a few kilometres of the ruins of Tikal but did not mention them in his letters. After Spanish friar Andrés de Avendaño became lost in the Petén forests in early 1696 he described a ruin that may well have been Tikal, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that Mr. Tut and would reintroduce Tikal to the world.
Pioneering archaeologists started to clear, map and record the ruins in the 1880s. In 1951, a small airstrip was built at the ruins, which previously could only be reached by several days’ travel through the jungle on foot or mule. In 1956 the Tikal project began to map the city on a scale not previously seen in the Maya area. From 1956 through 1970, major archaeological excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project. They mapped much of the site and excavated and restored many of the structures.
There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large pyramids, labelled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 metres high (200 feet). They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. It is estimated that each of these major temples could have been built in as little as two years.
Temple I (also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar) is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil, who was entombed in the structure in AD 734, the pyramid was completed around 740–750. The temple rises 47 metres (154 ft) high. The massive roofcomb that topped the temple was originally decorated with a giant sculpture of the enthroned king, although little of this decoration survives. The tomb of the king was discovered by Aubrey Trik of the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Among items recovered from the Late Classic tomb were a large collection of inscribed human and animal bone tubes and strips with sophisticated scenes depicting deities and people, finely carved and rubbed with vermilion, as well as jade and shell ornaments and ceramic vessels filled with offerings of food and drink. The shrine at the summit of the pyramid has three chambers, each behind the next, with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels fashioned from multiple beams. The outermost lintel is plain but the two inner lintels were carved, some of the beams were removed in the 19th century and their location is unknown, while others were taken to museums in Europe.
Temple II (also known as the Temple of the Mask) in was built around AD 700 and stands 38 metres (125 ft) high. Like other major temples at Tikal, the summit shrine had three consecutive chambers with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels, only the middle of which was carved. The temple was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil, although no tomb was found. The queen’s portrait was carved into the lintel spanning the doorway of the summit shrine. One of the beams from this lintel is now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Temple III (also known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest) was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal. It stood 55 metres (180 ft) tall and contained an elaborately sculpted but damaged roof lintel, possibly showing Dark Sun engaged in a ritual dance around AD 810. The temple shrine possesses two chambers.
Temple IV marks the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil (Ruler B, the son of Ruler A or Jasaw Chan K’awiil I) and two carved wooden lintels over the doorway that leads into the temple on the pyramid’s summit record a long count date (184.108.40.206.0) that corresponds to 741AD. Temple IV is the largest pyramid built anywhere in the Maya region in the 8th century and as it currently stands is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas although the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan may originally have been taller, as may have been one of the structures at El Mirador.
Temple V stands south of the Central Acropolis and is the mortuary pyramid of an as yet unidentified ruler. The temple stands 57 metres (187 ft) high, making it the second tallest structure at Tikal – only Temple IV is taller. The temple has been dated to about AD 700, in the Late Classic period, via radiocarbon analysis and the dating of ceramics associated with the structure places its construction during the reign of Nun Bak Chak in the second half of the 7th century.
Temple VI is also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions and was dedicated in AD 766. It is notable for its 12-metre (39 ft) high roof-comb. Panels of hieroglyphs cover the back and sides of the roof-comb. The temple faces onto a plaza to the west and its front is unrestored.
Temple 33 was a funerary pyramid erected over the tomb of Siyaj Chan K’awiil I (known as Burial 48) in the North Acropolis. It started life in the Early Classic as a wide basal platform decorated with large stucco masks that flanked the stairway. Later in the Early Classic a new superstructure was added, with its own masks and decorated panels. During the Hiatus a third stage was built over the earlier constructions, the stairway was demolished and another royal burial, of an unidentified ruler, was set into the structure (Burial 23). While the new pyramid was being built another high ranking tomb (Burial 24) was inserted into the rubble core of the building. The pyramid was then completed, standing 33 metres (108 ft) tall. The final version of Temple 33 was completely dismantled by archaeologists in 1965 in order to arrive at the earlier stages of construction. WHAT??? Really?!!
Temple 34 is a pyramid in the North Acropolis that was built by Siyaj Chan K’awiil II over the tomb of his father, Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The pyramid was topped by a three chambered shrine, the rooms situated one behind the other.
Structure 5D-43 is an unusual radial temple in the East Plaza, built over a pre-existing twin pyramid complex. It is built into the end of the East Plaza Ballcourt and possessed four entry doorways and three stairways, the fourth (south) side was too close to the Central Acropolis for a stairway on that side. The building has a talud-tablero platform profile, modified from the original style found at Teotihuacan. The vertical tablero panels are set between sloping talud panels and are decorated with paired disc symbols. Large flower symbols are set into the sloping talud panels, related to the Venus and star symbols used at Teotihuacan.
Structure 5C-49 possesses a clear Teotihuacan-linked architectural style; it has balustrades, an architectural feature that is very rare in the Maya region, and a talud-tablero façade; it dates to the 4th century AD. It is located near to the Lost World pyramid.
The Lost World Pyramid (Structure 5C-54) is the largest structure in the Mundo Perdido complex. It was decorated with stucco masks of the sun god and dates to the Late Preclassic; this pyramid is part of an enclosed complex of structures that remained intact and un-impacted by later building activity at Tikal. By the end of the Late Preclassic this pyramid was one of the largest structures in the Maya region. It attained its final form during the reign of Chak Tok Ich’aak in the 4th century AD, in the Early Classic, standing more than 30 metres (98 ft) high with stairways on all four sides and a flat top that possibly supported a superstructure built from perishable materials.
Phew!!! Of course there’s loads more to explore, but I think that’ll do for now. Just a couple things left to tell you about Tikal. First up, the place was used in the original Star Wars movie as Yavin IV…
And the gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) that grows here inspired James Cameron’s “Tree of Life” concept in Avatar.
After a long day we took a bus back to Flores just in time to swim in the lake before it got dark. After our last lovely meal in Flores, we crossed the causeway back to the “mainland” and began our long journey south to Honduras and Copan Ruinas – the last stop on our Ruta Maya.