Start: Visitor Center and Stelae Museum.
Finish: Temple VI.
Time: 3 to 4 hours.
Best Time: Before or after the crowds gather at the Great Plaza. Feel free to reverse the order of this walking tour if it will help you avoid the masses.
Worst Time: Between 10am and 2pm, when crowds and tour buses stop at the Great Plaza.
A full tour of Tikal will require an extensive amount of walking -- as much as 10km (6 miles). The itinerary described here will take you to most of the major temples and plazas, and can be accomplished in about 3 to 4 hours. If your time is really limited, you should follow the signs and head straight to the Great Plaza. To orient yourself, begin your tour at the visitor center and neighboring Stelae Museum. Here you'll find some informative exhibits and relics, as well as an impressive relief map of the site.
From the entrance, walk along the path that goes west toward the ruins, and turn right at the first intersection to get to:
1. Twin Complexes Q & R
Seven of the twin complexes at Tikal have been discovered and mapped (only a few have been excavated), but their exact purpose is still a mystery. Each complex has two pyramids facing east and west; at the north is an unroofed enclosure entered by a vaulted doorway and containing a single stela and altar; at the south is a small palacelike structure. Of the two pyramids here, one has been restored and one has been left as it was found (the latter will give you an idea of just how overgrown and ensconced in the jungle these structures had become).
At the end of the Twin Complexes is a wide road called the Maler Causeway. Turn right (north) onto this causeway, and walk 15 minutes to get to:
2. Complex P
Some restoration has been done at this twin complex, but the most interesting points are the replicas of a stela (no. 20) and altar (no. 8) in the north enclosure. Look for the beautiful glyphs next to the carving of a warrior on the stela, which are all in very good condition. The altar shows a captive bound to a carved-stone altar, his hands tied behind his back -- a common scene in carvings at Tikal. Both these monuments date from about A.D. 751.
From Complex P, head south on the Maudslay Causeway to:
3. Complex N
This complex is the site of Temple IV (Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent). Finished around A.D. 740, Temple IV is the tallest structure in Tikal at 64m (212 ft.) from the base of its platform to the top. The first glimpse you get of the temple from the Maudslay Causeway is awesome, for the temple has not been fully restored, and all but the temple proper (the enclosure) and its roof comb are covered in foliage. The stairway is covered in earth and roots, but you can get to the top of the temple using a system of roughly made wood ladders set against the steep sides of the pyramid. The view of the setting and layout of Tikal -- and all of the Great Plaza -- is magnificent. From the platform of the temple, you can see in all directions and get an idea of the extent of the Petén jungle. Temple III (Temple of the Great Priest) is in the foreground to the east; Temples I and II are farther on at the Great Plaza. To the right of these are the South Acropolis and Temple V.
Temple IV, and all the other temples at Tikal, are built on this plan: A pyramid is built, upon which a platform is constructed. The temple proper rests on this platform and is composed of one to three rooms, which are usually long and narrow and used for priestly rites rather than for habitation. Most temples had beautifully carved wooden lintels above the doorways. The one from Temple IV is now in the Völkerkunde Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
From Temple IV, walk east along the Tozzer Causeway for 10 minutes to get to:
4. Great Plaza
Along the way you'll pass the twin-pyramid Complex N, the Bat Palace, and Temple III. Take a look at the altar and stela in the complex's northern enclosure -- two of the finest monuments at Tikal -- and also the altar in front of Temple III, showing the head of a deity resting on a plate. The crisscross pattern shown here represents a woven mat, a symbol of authority to the Mayas.
Entering the Great Plaza from the Tozzer Causeway, you'll be struck by the towering stone structure that is Temple II, seen from the back. It measures 38m (125 ft.) tall now, but is thought to have been 42m (140 ft.) high when the roof comb was intact. Also called the Temple of the Masks, because of a large face carved in the roof comb, the temple dates from about A.D. 700. Walk around this temple to enter the plaza proper.
Directly across from Temple II you'll see Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar), the most striking structure in Tikal. Standing 44m (145 ft.) tall, the temple proper has three narrow rooms with high corbeled vaults (the Maya "arch") and carved wooden lintels made of zapote wood, which is rot-resistant. One of the lintels has been removed for preservation in the Guatemala National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City. The whole structure is made of limestone, as are most others at Tikal. It was within this pyramid that one of the richest tombs in Tikal, believed to be the tomb of Tikal ruler Hasaw Chan K'awil, was discovered. When archaeologists uncovered it in 1962, they found the former ruler's skeleton surrounded by some 180 pieces of jade, 90 bone artifacts carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, numerous pearls, and objects in alabaster and shell. Note: Tourists can no longer scale temples I or III. However, those in need of serious cardio workouts will get their fill by climbing some of the other temples.
The North Acropolis (north side of the Great Plaza) is a maze of structures from various periods covering an area of 8 hectares (21 acres). Today it stands 9m (30 ft.) above the limestone bedrock and contains vestiges of more than a hundred different constructions dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 800. At the front-center of the acropolis (at the top of the stairs up from the Great Plaza) is a temple numbered 5D-33. Although much of the 8th-century temple was destroyed during the excavations to get to the Early Classic period temple (A.D. 300) underneath, it's still a fascinating building. Toward the rear of it is a tunnel leading to the stairway of the Early Classic temple, embellished with two 3m-high (10-ft.) plaster polychrome masks of a god -- don't miss these.
Directly across the plaza from the North Acropolis is the Central Acropolis, which covers about 1.6 hectares (4 acres). It's a maze of courtyards and palaces on several levels, all connected by an intricate system of passageways. Some of the palaces had five floors, connected by exterior stairways, and each floor had as many as nine rooms arranged like a maze.
Before you leave the Great Plaza, be sure to examine some of the 70 beautiful stelae and altars right in the plaza. You can see the full development of Maya art in them, for they date from the Early Classic period right through to the Late Classic period. There are three major stylistic groups: the stelae with wraparound carving on the front and sides and text on the back; those with a figure carved on the front and text in glyphs on the back; and those with a simple carved figure on the front, hieroglyphs on the sides, and a plain back. The oldest stela, no. 29 (now in the Tikal Museum), dates from A.D. 292; the most recent is no. 11 in the Great Plaza, which dates from A.D. 869.
If you head southwest from Temple II, you'll come to the area known as:
5. El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World)
This plaza contains the Great Pyramid, which stands 34m (114 ft.) high and is the oldest excavated building in Tikal. This pyramid is one of the most popular spots for watching the sunset. If you've timed it right, you might be able to hang out here and watch the show; otherwise, make a mental note to get your bearings and come back later. Directly east of the Great Pyramid is the Plaza of the Seven Temples, which dates to the Late Classic period. Bordering this plaza on the east side is an unexcavated pyramid, and behind this is Temple V. This entire area is known as the South Acropolis. You can climb Temple V, but be forewarned: While the view from above is beautiful, the climb, both up and down, is on a very steep and rather rickety wood stairway, which can be scary.
If you cross through the South Acropolis to the east and then turn north in the general direction of the Great Plaza, you'll come to the East Plaza. From here you can walk southeast on the Méndez Causeway to Temple VI (Temple of the Inscriptions), which contains the most extensive hieroglyphics in Tikal, although they are nearly illegible. It's worth coming out this way just for the chance to spot some wild animals, which seem to be fairly common in this remote corner of the park.
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.