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Snapshot: Tikal

A virtual vacation to Tikal National Park in Guatemala

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Read about Tikal National Park in Guatemala below, then click on the main image, or here, to begin a slideshow about the region.

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Origin: Archaeologists believe the Maya settled the area as early as 800 B.C., but the city itself was not founded until six centuries later. The Maya abandoned it around A.D. 900 for unknown reasons. In 1848, Colonel Modesto Méndez, governor of Guatemala's El Petén department—the vast northern section of jungle where Tikal is located—wrote the first official report on the site. The Guatemalan government established the 222-square-mile Tikal National Park in 1955.

The appeal: Tikal is one of the largest ancient lowland Mayan cities ever founded. The ten-square-mile area contains more than 4,000 structures, but archaeologists have only excavated about 15 percent of the site. The rest lies under the thick layer of jungle that has grown in the 1,100 years since the ancient Maya left the city.

Interesting historical fact: Tikal, which means "City of Echoes" in the local Mayan language, isn't the original name of the city. David Stuart, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies Mayan hieroglyphs, read the glyph that represents the city's name as "Mutul," but no one knows what that word means.

Famous son or daughter: The eccentric Teobert Maler was one of the first American-funded scholars to arrive. He came in 1895 and in 1904 to draw a map of Tikal, which he never turned in to his employers at Harvard University's Peabody Museum. Still, park officials named one of the five original roads the ancient Maya built in Tikal after Maler.

Who goes there?: About 250,000 tourists visited in 2006, including 100,000 Guatemalans, making Tikal one of the country's most popular attractions.

Then & Now: The tropical selva (jungle) is much less densely populated than it was during the Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 900), when anywhere from 90,000 to 200,000 Maya lived in Tikal. Today, the Maya make up a little over 50 percent of Guatemala's population, but most of them live in the much cooler highlands.

Freelance writer Maggie Frank contributes to ARTiculations, Smithsonian.com's art blog. Frank took all the pictures, except where noted.

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