A Look at Guatemala’s Rich Maya History

Reader Contribution by Marilyn Jones
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From the top of a Maya pyramid, the view of the jungle and other pyramids was something I had imagined other adventure travelers witnessing, not me. But I was here with the help of encouraging guides and a man-made staircase alongside the ancient structure. It was from this vantage point that George Lucas filmed scenes for his first Star Wars movie in 1977.

I sat for a long time taking in the magic of the moment. Magic is actually a perfect word for Guatemala, the Maya Culture and Tikal National Park located almost 200 miles north of Guatemala City. Visiting the ruins of the ancient city was one of many Maya discoveries I made with Bella Guatemala Travel, a California-based tour company specializing in Guatemala culture, history, and natural beauty.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of pre-Columbian Maya civilizations. Dating to 4th century BC, the city dominated much of the Maya region. Population estimates vary from 10,000 to as high as 90,000.

The causes of the Maya empire’s collapse remain a mystery; wars, famine, overpopulation, and resource depletion have all been blamed. Tikal, according to historians and archeologists, began to suffer from deforestation, erosion, and a decline in population. The site was completely abandoned by the end of the 10th century, and the rainforest claimed the ruins for nearly a thousand years.

Exploring Tikal

From the parking area, we walked along a narrow dirt road cutting through the jungle. My Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, an archeologist, and Emilio Faillace, a naturalist, helped everyone in the tour group understand the jungle and the Maya ruins all around us.

When the jungle opened up, Gonzalez and Faillace pointed out palaces, temples, and ball courts — some are covered with vegetation, and others have been restored. Still others are hidden by trees and would be impossible to identify without the help of our expert guides.

The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) are located on opposite sides of the Great Palace, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces, and ball courts.

Temple I rises 165 feet above the jungle floor. There are nine tiers corresponding to the nine levels of the Maya underworld. Archeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacau inside. Festooned with jade ornaments, the skeleton was also surrounded by offerings of pottery, alabaster, and pearls.

Temple II is almost as tall as Temple I and just as impressive.

Other temples include Temple III or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest; Temple V, a mortuary pyramid of an unidentified ruler; and Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent, is the temple I climbed for my spectacular view of the jungle. It is the tallest Tikal pyramid, standing 230 feet high. It was built in 740 AD by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son, Yik’in Chan Kawil, to honor his father.

Well maintained paths and open space made it easy to stroll through what was once a thriving commercial, political, and military center. We for stayed several hours, taking in the intrigue and beauty of the setting.

The spirits of the men and women who once worked and raised their families in Tikal live on in the thousands of Maya descendants living in Guatemala. Guatemala is truly an oasis of beauty and culture, and a welcoming respite for any traveler.

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