Written by guest writer Megan Rod
Nestled within the lush rainforests of Guatemala remains the ruins of an antique civilization named Tikal—a travel destination that should not be overlooked by the curious adventurer. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, this location’s history weaves deep into ancient times, reaching back as far as 900-300 BCE.
Tikal was a paramount location for the Mayan people; it is not the name of the actual city, though. Rather, Tikal is the arrangement of ruins left behind from the old city of Yax Mutal (translating to “First Mutal”). “Tikal” refers to the common meeting ground that the civilization used for rituals and ceremonies—much like what we would consider a capitol in modern times. It is believed to have hosted at least 60,000 Maya when the city of Yax Mutal was at the height of its power.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic church sent conquistadors across countries like Mexico and Peru to destroy Mesoamerican cultures. Due to this carnage, Mayan people did not inhabit Tikal for a millenium. This was until 1848, when European explorers re-discovered a series of temples that were all built within the same proximity.
The name Tikal simply became the predominant reference for the location after its re-discovery, and it stuck—a name that translates to “at the waterhole.” This, perhaps, reflects the Mayan civilization’s emphasis on its populace finding a common meeting-ground.
Today’s version of Tikal still carries the idea of bringing the public together. Since the 1960’s, travelers have been able to openly access the area and explore over 17,000 of its remaining ancient structures.
Travelers with Wilderness Inquiry will explore the alluring forests of Belize in the early morning hours before they encounter the temples of Tikal. A few of these temples include The Great Plaza, The Mundo Perdido, and the Temple of Ah Cacao.
The Great Plaza, also known as the ceremonial heart of Tikal. Believed by historians to be built before 3 B.C., this structure has lasted thousands of years because of its phenomenal architecture and sturdy limestone foundation. The Mundo Perdido (alternatively known as the “lost world” temple) served as an astronomical observatory for the people of Tikal. Here, people would use the surrounding temples from the east staircase to better understand the sky and how it correlates with time. Moreover, those who get to see Mundo Perdido will be gazing upon the last building to be abandoned during the Terminal Classic (the end of Mayan rule). The Temple of Ah Cacao (alternatively known as Temple I, or the Temple of the Great Jaguar) hovers over the central plaza at a staggering 121 feet tall, with nine prominent tiers and a single structure depicting a king upon a jaguar throne on top. Moreover, an ancient king by the name of Jasaw Chan K’awiil is buried underneath the ruins, and the building was actually constructed around his tomb.
The most captivating part about this journey to Tikal may be the fact that visitors are encouraged to walk the steps of these structures. Whether it be sitting on the first step or climbing to the third tier of Mundo Perdido, this privilege allows travelers to better comprehend their surroundings.
People who travel with Wilderness Inquiry not only get the opportunity to explore Tikal, but Belize as well. A day after experiencing the ruins, those who are on the program will get to observe the Mayan Mountains, stroll through Guanacaste National Park, and rest upon the serene beaches of Hopkins, Belize, which trace the Caribbean Sea.
Due to its vibrant history and resilient nature, visiting Tikal is a surreal experience. This area is scarred with carnage, yet it has remained standing for multiple centuries. We are beyond lucky that these pieces of Mayan culture have remained, and every traveler should have the fortune to gaze upon the majesty of this place.
For more information on this unique and extraordinary opportunity, or to apply, please visit https://www.wildernessinquiry.org/itinerary/belize-and-tikal/.