If you like your Mayan sites tame and manageable, Mexico’s Chichén Itzá fits the bill, but if you prefer your ruins living, breathing, and vertigo-inducing, it has to be Tikal
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Tikal National Park is northeast of Flores in the Petén region of northern Guatemala
VISITORS PER YEAR Around 215,000
Jan: 82°F (28°C); Apr: 88°F (31°C); Jul: 86°F (30°C); Oct: 84°F (29°C)
If Tikal were a volcano, it would be on perpetual amber alert. You tell yourself that nothing’s going to happen while you’re there, but then again, once in situ suddenly you aren’t so sure. Perhaps it’s the incessant chattering, rustling wildlife, or the feeling that the on-site archaeologists are on the verge of unearthing something spectacular, but this ancient site has the air of a place about to rumble into action at any moment. Whereas better-known Chichén Itzá can feel a little like a historical theme park, Tikal’s winding jungle pathways and remote location combine with its sheer scale to devastating hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck effect.
At one time the epicenter of the Mayan civilization, the city of Tikal dominated Mesoamerica in the 6th century AD, during the region’s late Classic period. The most impressive of Tikal’s structures are its six huge step pyramids, known as Temples I–VI, some of which tower over 200 ft (61 m) above the humble tourist. Yet the majesty of Tikal is apparent wherever you are, whether you’re craning your neck upward, peering giddily downward, or gazing across the Plaza Mayor at the temple tops rising above the rain forest canopy.
Much of Tikal remains unexcavated, unlike Chichén Itzá, which was fully cleared in the 1930s and is all there, catalogued and on a plate. Tikal leaves much more to the imagination – its ancient ruins are always keeping something back, whether shrouded in dawn mist or covered in tropical foliage.
And when you’ve found yourself a spot in which to sit and take it all in, Tikal allows you to believe that if you closed your eyes and drifted into a daydream, you might open them again to find yourself in the midst of a Mayan ceremony; an ancient ball game, perhaps, or a shamanic ritual. It’s almost as though the Maya had downed tools and left this, their largest city, hours before your arrival.
While Chichén Itzá provides the stage for Plácido Domingo concerts, Tikal has played host since the 1990s to sacred rituals and traditional festivals.
During modern Mayan ceremonies, such as the anti- Columbus Day gathering in October, huge fires are lit in Plaza Mayor, and the spirits are recalled to this once-powerful citadel, which to this day, although ruined, is a very long way from being spoiled.
Getting There and Around
Visiting Tikal entails a 7-hour bus journey or a 45-minute flight from Guatemala City to Flores, which is in the steamy Petén area of northern Guatemala. Tikal is an hour’s road journey from Flores.
Where to Eat
There is plenty of choice in Flores itself, where the cuisine tends to be international and more Tex- Mex than gourmet. Café Yaxha has a decent menu as well as books and photos on Mayan culture.
Where to Stay
There are three hotels at Tikal itself, all of which are pricy and often booked out by groups.
Avoid these and head to the picturesque island city of Flores, from where it’s a 20-minute boat trip across Lake Petén Itzá to the four-cabin Ni’tun Lodge, a charming, peaceful eco-retreat.
When to Go
Visit Dec–Feb, when mornings and nights are cool. Avoid Easter and Christmas, which can get busy, and May to September, the peak time for rain and mosquitoes.
Budget per Day for Two
US$220 including accommodations at Ni’tun Lodge, food, and travel to and from Flores. Prices for Tikal tours vary considerably and are best booked locally.
FORGET CHICHÉN ITZÁ?
THE BUILD-UP Iconic Chichén Itzá was crowned one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 (Tikal didn’t even make the final) and is undoubtedly one of the essential Mayan must-sees. The main temple of Kukulkán is particularly spectacular at the Equinox ceremonies of light and shadow.
THE LETDOWN Chichén Itzá is just too accessible from Cancún to maintain any sort of mystery. The site is on the receiving end of a long line of coaches morning and evening, so don’t expect a “real deal” experience – even climbing the pyramids is now forbidden.
GOING ANYWAY? Make sure you stay overnight at one of the nearby hotels and arrive at the site at first light or in the late afternoon to beat the coachloads of tourists. As well as being crowded, it will be seriously hot around midday, so visiting at this time is best avoided.