Tikal in Guatemala was once a great centre of Mayan civilisation, the largest urban centre in the ancient Mayan lowlands inhabited from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, its amazing ruins form the central attraction in Tikal National Park, established in the 1950s. The archaeological site of Tikal is unique compared to Copan, Palenque, and other well-known Mayan ruins in Central America because the ancient city is located in the heart of a tropical rainforest. Tikal can be reached by shuttle bus or private car on a day tour from the nearest city, Flores, which is also the location of the Mundo Maya International Airport (formerly Flores International Airport). On your tour of Tikal, explore this sprawling complex and view the huge Mayan temples rising above the forest canopy.
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As described by UNESCO, Tikal National Park is one of the few World Heritage sites that is listed both for its biodiversity and its archaeological importance. The park is located in northern Guatemala, within a large forest region called the Maya Forest, which extends into Mexico and Belize. Spanning 575 square kilometres of lush jungle, the national park is within the state-protected Maya Biosphere Reserve, renowned for being home to a large number of flora and fauna species such as howler monkeys, toucans, and parrots.
The central area of Tikal in the heart of the park occupies around 16 square kilometres, with more than 4,000 structures. This only represents a fraction of the original city-state that once was home to 60,000 people. Tikal was first settled in 800 BC and declined, like much of the Mayan Empire, around the year 900. The fascinating monuments in “downtown” Tikal speaks to the city’s prosperous past. The Great Plaza has palaces, temples, ball-game courts, and residential areas named Central Acropolis and North Acropolis. At either end of the plaza are Temple I (Temple of the Grand Jaguar), built in honour of King Moon Double Comb, and Temple II (Temple of the Masks), with a stairway guarded by two stone masks. Many of the buildings preserve the decorated surfaces common in Mayan architecture, showing stone carvings and hieroglyphic inscriptions.
The ruins of Tikal are so vast that you may need to walk 10 kilometres or more in order to visit all of the major building complexes. Most guides would recommend that you set aside two days, if you really wish to see everything. There is also a small museum, Museo Tikal, near the Jungle Lodge, the largest hotel in the Tikal area. The Jungle Lodge was originally built for the archaeologists studying Tikal, and may just be the place for you to stay if you decide to stay the night in the lush forest.
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