Snapshot: Tikal

A virtual vacation to Tikal National Park in Guatemala

The top of the Great Pyramid is flat, providing a truly panoramic view. From this spot, visitors can also hear the wails of howler monkeys in the jungle that separates the Grand Plaza and the "Lost World." (It's Worth It)
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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.

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.

Ever been to Tikal? Smithsonian.com's reader forum

At about 820 feet above sea level, the North Acropolis, part of the Grand Plaza, is one of Tikal's highest peaks. Besides the impressive size of the site and its pyramids, Tikal also boasts largely untamed jungle and a variety of animals, including toucans, golden-tailed birds, and spider and howler monkeys. Jaguars, a symbolic animal carved into stelae found at Tikal, still inhabit the park's jungle. (The Grand Plaza)
Taken in 1958 by William R. Coe of the University of Pennsylvania's Tikal Project, this photo shows Mayan workers removing a stela, or ancient stone slab, from a building. It took a group of Penn archaeologists about 13 years to uncover and study ten square miles. (Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Museum) (Major Excavation Begins)
Tourists are no longer allowed to climb this temple, since the wooden staircase bolted to it was harming the ruin and had to be removed. More than 80 stelae have been found in Tikal; most of the carved slabs have been damaged. (The Temple of the Great Jaguar)
A colossal mask of the rain god Chac, from the Classic Period, faces the Grand Plaza from the North Acropolis. Besides being an urban center, ancient Tikal was also a religious center where rural communities from all over gathered to celebrate religious ceremonies. (The Gods Smile Down)
As with the Chac mask, various stelae are kept beneath thatched-roof huts for protection. The cement structure in the middle At this site of royal tombs is a fire pit used for modern Mayan ceremonies, including prayers for rain. (Burial Ground)
This temple, constructed between A.D. 250 and 300, is the oldest pyramid at Tikal influenced by the talud-tablero architectural style, a common pre-Columbian pyramid style that came from the ancient city of Teotihuacán in modern-day Mexico. (A platform, the tablero, rests on top of a stone slope, the talud.) Two archaeologists from Penn dubbed this group of 33 pyramids the "Lost World," or "Mundo Perdido" in Spanish, after the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel. (The "Lost World")
Visitors walk on a dirt path through sometimes thick jungle to get from one group of temples to another, passing other ruins on the way. Temple V, dead east from the "Lost World" group, is a late Classic ceremonial building that stands 187 feet high. (Temple V)
The top of the Great Pyramid is flat, providing a truly panoramic view. From this spot, visitors can also hear the wails of howler monkeys in the jungle that separates the Grand Plaza and the "Lost World." (It's Worth It)
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