Tikal is one of the largest Maya cities ever uncovered, and houses the most spectacular ruins in Guatemala, which are comparable to Mexico's Chichén Itzá in pre-Columbian splendor. However, unlike at Chichén Itzá, the ruins of Tikal are set in the middle of a vast jungle through which you must hike from temple to temple. The many miles of trails provide numerous opportunities to spot interesting birds such as toucans and parrots, and wild animals including coatimundis, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and deer.

No one's entirely sure what role Tikal played in the history of the Maya, whether it was a ceremonial center for priests, artisans, and the elite, or a city of industry and commerce. In the 16 sq. km (6 sq. miles) of Tikal that have been mapped and excavated, only a few of the buildings were domestic structures; most were temples, palaces, ceremonial platforms, and shrines. So far, archaeologists have mapped about 3,000 constructions, 10,000 earlier foundations beneath surviving structures, 250 stone monuments (stelae and altars), and thousands of art objects found in tombs and cached offerings. There is evidence of continuous construction at Tikal from 200 B.C. through the 9th century A.D., with some suggestion of occupation as early as 600 B.C. The Maya reached their zenith in art and architecture during the Classic Period, which began about A.D. 250 and ended abruptly in about A.D. 900, when for some reason Tikal and all other major Maya centers were abandoned. Most of the visible structures at Tikal date from the Late Classic Period, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 900.

Workers are presently excavating the countless mounds on the periphery of the mapped area, and have been finding modest houses of stone and plaster with thatch roofs. Just how far these settlements extended beyond the ceremonial center and how many people lived within the domain of Tikal are yet to be determined.

Making the Most of Your Visit -- Tikal is such an immense site that you really need several days to see it thoroughly. However, you can visit many of the greatest temples and plazas in 1 day. First-time visitors should hire a guide, which are available at the visitor center and charge around Q80-Q200  for a half-day tour of the ruins. In addition, most hotels and all tour agencies in the region offer guided tours for a similar price.

Tikal National Park is open daily from 6am to 6pm. If you'd like to stay in the park until 8pm (for sunset and nocturnal wildlife viewing), get your admission ticket stamped at the office behind the Stelae Museum. If you arrive after 3pm, your admission is good for the following day as well, and if you're staying multiple days, you must pay the admission fee each day. The best times to visit the ruins are in early morning and late afternoon, which are the least crowded and coolest times of day.

There are a host of excellent books on the Maya, some specifically about Tikal. Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Ancient Maya Capital, by John Montgomery (Hippocrene Books, 2001), is a good place to start. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City, by Peter D. Harrison and others (Thames & Hudson, 2000), is a similar option. For a more comprehensive view of the ancient Maya, try A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, by David Friedel (William Morrow & Co., 1992). Birders will want to have a copy of The Birds of Tikal: An Annotated Checklist, by Randall A. Beavers (Texas A&M University Press, 1992), or The Birds of Tikal, by Frank B. Smithe (Natural History Press, 1966). The latter three books are hard to find, but you should be able to order used copies in the U.S., or you can usually find copies of all of these in Flores or at Tikal.

Sunrise, Sunset

Tikal is a magical and mystical place. Many claim that this magic and mystique is only heightened around sunrise and sunset. Sunsets are easier to catch and a more dependable show. Sunrises tend to be more a case of the sun eventually burning through the morning mist than of any impressive orb emerging. However, afternoons can often be clear, especially during the dry season, allowing for excellent sunset viewing from the tops of the main temples here. If you're staying right at the ruins, your chances are better of catching either or both of these occasions. In fact, visitors staying inside the park are often admitted to Tikal as early as 5am. Aside from this, the most dependable way to catch the sunrise is to sign up with San Juan Travel (tel. 502/7926-0042) for their daily tour leaving Flores at 3:30am. San Juan has special permission to enter the park early, and they promise to get you to the top of Temple IV in plenty of time for Apollo's appearance. The cost is Q60 ($8/£4) per person, and once at Tikal, you can take any of San Juan's regularly scheduled return vans back to Flores.

For do-it-yourselfers, minivans and collective taxis leave Flores and El Remate early enough to get you to the Tikal entrance gate at 6am when it opens. This will generally enable you to get to the top of one of the main temples by 6:30am, which is usually still early enough to catch the sun burning through the mist just over the rainforest canopy. Tip: For either the sunrise or sunset tour, it's a very good idea to bring along a flashlight.

The Museums

The most formal museum here has been officially christened the Sylvanus G. Morely Museum, but is also known as the Tikal or Ceramic Museum. This museum, located between the Jungle Lodge and the Jaguar Inn, has a good collection of pottery, mosaic masks, incense burners, etched bone, and stelae that are chronologically displayed. Of note are the delicate 7.6-to-13-centimeter (3-to-5-in.) mosaic masks made of jade, turquoise, shell, and stucco. There's a beautiful cylindrical jar from about A.D. 700 depicting a male and female seated in a typical Maya pose. Also on exhibit are a number of jade pendants, beads, and earplugs, as well as the famous stela no. 31, which is carved on all four sides. Two sides show spear throwers, each wearing a large feathered headdress and carrying a shield in his left hand; on the front is a complicated carving of an individual carrying a head in his left arm and a chair in his right. This Early Classic-period stela is considered one of the finest. Be sure to check out the reconstruction of the tomb of Hasaw Chan K'awil, who was also known as Ah Cacao, or "Lord Chocolate."

The second museum is known as the Lithic or Stelae Museum, and is in the large new visitor center, which is on your left as you arrive at the parking area coming from Flores. The spacious display area contains a superb collection of stelae from around the ruins. Just outside the front door of the museum is the scaled relief map (mentioned above) that will give you an excellent perspective on the relationships between the different ruins at Tikal. Both museums are open daily from 9am to 5pm, and a Q20 ($2.65/£1.35) admission will get you into both.

Tip: Visit the museums only if you have extra time or a very specific interest in either the stelae or ceramic works. The ruins themselves are by far much more interesting and interactive.

Seeing the Forest from the Trees

Just outside the entrance to Tikal National Park is the Canopy Tours Tikal (tel. 502/7926-2411; www.tikalcanopy.com). A series of treetop platforms are connected by heavy wire cables, so that more adventurous travelers can zip from platform to platform via a harness-and-pulley system. Canopy Tour Tikal actually has two separate zip-line tours to choose from, a somewhat slower tour for wary souls and a faster system for adrenaline junkies. They also have a series of trails and hanging suspension bridges through the thick rainforest here. This attraction is open daily from 7am to 5pm, and the cost is Q190 per person. Shuttle transportation is extra.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.