Picture this: you’re sitting in your lookout-nest, perched above the canopy of a Central American rainforest. In front of you, peaking above the tree-line, are the roof-combs of three towering Mayan pyramids – Tikal’s Temple I, Temple II, and Temple III. You’re also on duty, on a secret rebel base, on the jungle-covered moon Yavin 4. You’ve got your funky aerodynamic helmet on, and a ship-scanner in hand. You spot a ship flying towards you. It’s the Millennium Falcon; inside are Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, and the rest of the crew. You aim your ship scanner at the Falcon as it lowers itself to the ground near Temple III.
Confused? Don’t be. I’m describing a scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It was filmed here, in Tikal, right from this very vantage point (the summit of Temple IV).
Which means being here is perhaps the closest you can get to being in a Star Wars movie.
Tikal is an old city; there’s evidence of occupation dating back to 1,000 BCE, although the first major construction stage didn’t occur till 400 BCE to 300 BCE.
The Mayan states were constantly at war with one another, and Tikal was in the thick of it. In 378 CE the fourteenth king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ich’aak, was captured and executed by an invading party sent from Teotihuacan (a powerful city state located near present day Mexico City). A young boy, the son of Spearthrower Owl – who was believed to be the king of Teotihuacan – was installed as the new king of Tikal.
Teotihuacan and Tikal became key allies, both grew in might. In 426 CE a delegation from Tikal founded the settlement of Copán, one of the southeastern-most outposts of the Mayans (located in present day Honduras).
But the threat of war was ever-present. In 562 CE Calakmul and Caracol teamed up to destroy Tikal, leading to a hundred year period of stagnation (known as the hiatus) during which time no new stelae were created and no new major buildings constructed. It’s also thought that many of the existing structures were vandalised or destroyed at this time.
Tikal experienced a resurgence in the 7th Century under the reign of King Jasaw Chan K’awil I. Many of the city’s largest and grandest buildings were constructed during this era. But their time in the sun was brief; the Mayan Empire was starting to come apart at the seams.
In the 7th Century CE the mighty city state of Teotihuacan collapsed. Copán fell in the 8th Century CE. Tikal held on till the 9th Century CE, but somewhere between 830 CE and 950 CE it too met its end; overpopulation and prolonged drought are thought to have been contributing factors.
For the next thousand years Tikal lay dormant beneath dense rainforest.
The Great Plaza, Tikal
Bound by Temple I and Temple II to the east and west, and the North Acropolis and Central Acropolis to the north and south, the Great Plaza is the centre of Tikal. It would have been a hive of activity in its heyday.
It’s still a hive of activity most days; Tikal is a popular tourist destination – it was swamped with Guatemalan school children the day I visited. Come early in the morning if you want to escape the crowds.
The North Acropolis, Tikal
The North Acropolis is an odd structure. It started out as a modest necropolis for the ruling dynasty, and then successive kings went and tacked on pyramids and altars and whatnot, transforming it into a bulky, sprawling, ungainly edifice of questionable purpose.
Temple I was built circa 750 CE for King Jasaw Chan K’awil I (the king that got things going again after the hundred year hiatus). The roof comb once featured a giant ornamental carving of the king on his throne.
Temple I is 47 metres tall.
Temple II was built in 700 CE for the wife of King Jasaw Chan K’awil I, a woman known as Lady Lahan Unen Mo.
Temple II is 38 metres tall.
Temple IV is the tallest pyramid at Tikal, and, at 70 metres in height, it is currently the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas (it’s possible there were once taller structures, but if so these structures have since collapsed or are now significantly diminished in size).
Temple IV is also the film location for that memorable Star Wars scene.
It’s a worthy place to end your time at Tikal.
Practical information and how to reach Tikal:
Tikal is roughly 60 kilometres (75 minutes) from the travel/transport hub town of Flores. There are many ways to reach Tikal from Flores. I opted for a private shuttle transfer which dropped me at the front gates at 6 a.m. (opening time) and picked me up mid-afternoon. More transport info here.
The archaeological site is huge, and rather confusing in terms of its layout. Be prepared to walk long distances if you want to see it all.
Read more on the Tikal National Park in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.