17 Interesting Facts About Tikal I Learned After Several Visits

Recently Guatemala has gained a lot of attention as a popular tourist destination, but back then when I first visited the country it was known only for two things: learning Spanish and Tikal Mayan Ruins. I personally visited the country to learn Spanish and inevitably visited the Mayan ruins right after, and to my surprise, I learned so many interesting facts about Tikal.

In fact, I was so surprised about this ancient civilization that I visited several times after that, I met my husband there and even took my kids there. I learned so many interesting, fun, and unique facts there.

Top Facts About Tikal

Tikal not only has a huge historical importance but also, it’s one of the most complex, and largest known Mayan cities in the world. I don’t know how many times I have been asked about Tikals, what’s it like, and a lot more.

Here are the most interesting facts about Tikal that I learned after several visits:

1. Tikal in Star Wars

The Mayan city was a popular tourist destination, yes, but what put it in the global eye was Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

Tikal played a role in the Star Wars universe, it served as the filming location for Yavin 4, the Rebel base. The iconic shot where a Rebel oversees the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin was taken from the top of a building known as Temple IV at Tikal, looking east toward Temples I, II, and III.

The ancient Mayan ruins added an otherworldly dimension to the galaxy far, far away!

kid wildlife tikal temple guatemala
Tikal is hands down my favorite place in the whole country, so much so that a single visit was not enough… I visited Tikal SEVERAL times while living in Guatemala.

2. UNESCO Recognition

Before popular movie and TV appearances, in 1979, Tikal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its archaeological and ecological significance.

It was the first place in Guatemala to be declared a Human Heritage Site.

3. Apocalypto Inspiration

Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto” used Tikal as a model, and despite the set being placed during the Spanish conquistadors’ arrival, the film captured the best of this ancient city.

In the movie, Tikal’s temples serve as a backdrop for intense chase scenes and dramatic confrontations.

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4. The City in the Canopy

The forest that surrounds Tikal and once covered it, is extremely important to preserve. It is known to be one of the last few lungs in the world.

Also, Tikal isn’t just a ground-level archaeological site; its temples and pyramids can be seen from the sky, they pierce through the dense canopy, creating a surreal landscape.

Its highest building is the one that was called by archaeologists “Temple IV”. Its actual name is Temple of the Two-Headed Snake and is 70 mt. high. You can climb all the way to the top and enjoy the best views of the whole place.

5. The Stelae Forest

Tikal has an impressive collection of stelae, which are stone monuments adorned with intricate carvings.

These stelae commemorate rulers, events, and cosmic cycles. Stela 16, with its detailed hieroglyphs, tells the story of Tikal’s dynastic lineage and is one of my favorites.

6. Largest Mayan City

Tikal is also known for being the largest city of the Mayan Classic Period. At one point, it was considered a political and social center of the whole Mayan empire.

mayan altar in tikal tikal guatemala
My kids and I agree that one of the coolest facts about Tikal is its stelae and altar, there’s something unique about the ancient carving!

7. The Place of Voices

Most of us know the Mayan site as Tikal or Tikal National Park, but have you ever wondered what “Tikal” means?

What its name really means is “Lugar de Las Voces” (the place of voices).

8. Tikal’s Population and Decline

It’s said that Tikal’s population is estimated to have been around 50,000 inhabitants and 90,000 at its highest point making it one of the biggest cities of its time, and around 900 CE, Tikal faced decline.

Is believed that factors like environmental stress, warfare, and political instability led to its abandonment.

By the time the Spaniards came to the region, Tikal had already been abandoned. Some theories say that after over a thousand years of existence, the city collapsed due to overpopulation. The resources in the jungle were no longer enough.

9. Its Location

Tikal can be found in the Peten department of Guatemala, in the middle of one of Central America’s largest rain forests. The Mayan site is its own national park and is inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Nearby are also Yaxha and El Mirador which are also Mayan Ruins and completely stunning.

pyramid above the trees in tikal guatemala
Several buildings in Tikal are taller than the trees, and you can actually climb some of them (make sure to ask beforehand).

10. Camping is possible

For an additional fee, you can camp within the park or get into the park at 4 am and climb the highest pyramid to have a VIP seat for the sunrise above the forest.

11. Spanish conquistador Missed the City

The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is said to have passed within a few kilometers of the ruins of Tikal in 1525. However, the forest had already taken over the huge pyramids, so he never saw them as anything other than hills.

12. Mayan Highway

Hidden under the rainforest are the remains of what used to be a highway that communicated the neighboring cities of Peten. They are huge cobblestone roads that go for miles.

13. The Great Jaguar Temple

El Templo del Gran Jaguar (The Great Jaguar Temple) dominates Tikal’s central plaza. Its steep staircases lead to a sanctuary where rituals and ceremonies take place. The temple’s jaguar motifs symbolize power and spiritual connection.

woman in front of tikal temple guatemala
I still remember my first visit to Tikal, it was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling, but something I wish I had known back then: bring insect repellent!

14. Astronomical Observations

Mayans were skilled astronomers, and Tikal’s architecture reflects this. The temples align with celestial events, such as solstices and equinoxes. El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World) complex, for instance, mirrors the Orion constellation.

15. The Resilient Ceiba Tree

The Ceiba tree, sacred to the Maya, thrives in Tikal. Its roots penetrate ancient structures, intertwining with history. Mayans believed the ceiba connected the underworld, earth, and heavens—a living bridge between realms.

ceiba tree tikal tikal guatemala
The Ceiba trees are probably as old as the Mayan city, my kids loved to play around it and checking out its huge roots.

16. The Ballgame

Tikal’s ballcourt witnessed intense ballgames—a blend of sport, ritual, and cosmic symbolism. Players aimed to pass a rubber ball through stone rings using only their hips. The game held spiritual significance, representing cosmic battles.

17. Architectural Marvel

Tikal’s limestone buildings include royal palaces, houses, administrative structures, and inscribed stone monuments. Its temples and pyramids continue to intrigue visitors today.

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History of Tikal

The History of Tikal is as interesting as its facts, the Mayan city remained hidden for centuries until its rediscovery in the mid-19th century by European explorers.

Its remote location, far from major cities, contributed to the city remaining hidden for so many years. Today, it lies within the Tikal National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tikal’s strategic position atop limestone hills allowed it to control trade routes, connect with other Maya cities, and survive as a cultural and economic hub.

Rise of a Civilization: Early Settlement

Around 800 BCE, Tikal’s first settlers established rudimentary structures. Over time, it evolved into a bustling city-state, and between 200 CE and 900 CE, it reached its peak.

Then the population swelled, and monumental architecture started to adorn the landscape. From temples and palaces to ball courts emerged, reflecting the Maya’s advanced knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.

Buildings that stood out:

Temples and Pyramids: Tikal boasts towering temples like Temple I (also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar) and Temple II. These structures served as ceremonial centers, where rulers communicated with deities.

The Great Plaza: At the heart of Tikal lies the Great Plaza, flanked by temples and stelae. Here, rituals, ceremonies, and political gatherings unfolded.

tikal peten guatemala

Decline and Abandonment: Mysterious Collapse

Around 900 CE, Tikal faced environmental challenges, political strife, and population decline. The once-thriving city gradually succumbed to abandonment, at least that’s what scientists and archaeologists believe, because there’s no proof anything 100% verified about Tikal’s decline and abandonment.

Fortunately, Tikal’s legacy persisted through folklore and local traditions. In the 19th century, explorers like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood discovered its splendor and showed it to the world.


Is Tikal accessible to tourists?

Yes, Tikal is open to visitors. Guided tours allow you to explore the temples, plazas, and wildlife. Don’t forget your insect repellent!

What’s the best time to visit Tikal?

Early mornings or late afternoons offer cooler temperatures and better wildlife sightings. Sunrise from a temple top is magical.

Did Tikal have a writing system?

Yes, Tikal’s hieroglyphic inscriptions provide insights into its rulers, rituals, and historical events.

Are there any hidden chambers in Tikal’s temples?

Yes, even nowadays the archaeologists continue to discover new chambers and tombs within the temples. The mysteries persist.

Can I climb Tikal’s pyramids?

Yes, some temples allow climbing. The view from the top is breathtaking, but be prepared for steep steps!

12 Facts About Tikal in Guatemala

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Last Updated on June 29, 2024

One thought on “17 Interesting Facts About Tikal I Learned After Several Visits”

  1. I really enjoyed my visit. It was worth going. Everyone was really kind and friendly so, when we got lost they helped us find our way around. It was very clean and was worth staying for 2 days. I rate it a 5/5 or a 100/100. It was really fun to visit. I would come back again. Thank you for having me!

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