View from Temple IV of Tikal

The 7 Most Recognized Pyramids of Tikal

It is mainly the pyramids of Tikal that make the ancient Maya city famous. They stand above the dense jungle canopy like ancient skyscrapers, built for the elite of the ancient civilization.

During our recent trip to Belize and Guatemala we explored the ancient ruins of Tikal. This amazing Maya site was on my bucket list for decades, so finally getting there was an unforgettable experience.

Walking through the jungle paths, encounters with wildlife would’ve been enough for me to feel like I was in a special place. The imposing heights of the pyramids of Tikal on top of this left me in awe.

I’ve seen plenty of photos of them – at least some of them; I’ve seen videos and shows featuring them. I visited plenty of Maya ruins, I’ve climbed many other Maya pyramids. But nothing compared to the real experience of standing in front of these towering structures reaching high above the jungle canopy.

Temple I – Temple of the Giant Jaguar

The back of Temple I in Tikal, the first view of the ancient Maya city when walking to the Gran Plaza
The back of Temple I in Tikal, the first view of the ancient Maya city when walking towards the Gran Plaza

This steep pyramid is the first structure you will most likely see when entering Tikal – if you take the main road to the Gran Acropolis. And it is for good reason. After all, Temple I is the structure that represents Tikal to most people who have never even visited the site. You’ll see photos of it everywhere Tikal is advertised; the state of Guatemala even used its image on a 50 quetzals banknote (no longer in circulation).

The most recognizable image of Tikal, Temple I
The most recognizable image of Tikal, the front of Temple I

The most famous structure of the ancient city, Temple I stands 145 feet (47 meters) tall, and has nine terraces – the number 9 was sacred to the ancient Maya. On top of the terraced structure sits a three-room temple, and the huge, ornamental roof comb, the signature top of most temple-pyramids of Tikal.

A monumental figure of a seated ruler, flanked by elaborate scrolls and suggestions of serpents decorated the face of the roof comb. According to the old edition of the Tikal handbook by William R Coe published in 1988, at the time of its publication it was still visible in the early afternoon sunlight, though it was badly eroded. Now I could see no sign of it.

Built around 750 AD as a funerary pyramid for the Tikal king Jasaw Chan K’awil, whose tomb was inside the structure, Temple I is also known as the Temple of the Giant Jaguar after a carved image found on a lintel above the temple doorway.

As famous as it is, Temple I is one of the pyramids of Tikal you can not climb. However, you can admire it from below or from the top of Temple II or other structures in the Gran Plaza.

Temple II – Temple of the Masks

Temple II of Tikal
Temple II in the Gran Plaza

Temple II, standing directly across from Temple I, looks like its almost identical, smaller version. Also known as the Temple of the Masks after its richly decorated facade, it is a three-tiered pyramid standing 125 feet (38 meters) high. Built around 700 AD, it was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil. Although no tomb was found inside it, the Queen’s image was carved on a lintel above the doorway of the shrine on top.

You can climb Temple II, though not on the original stone stairway. A narrow wooden stairway starting behind it leads to the top, where you can stand on a terrace and have a perfect view of Pyramid I and the Gran Plaza.

Temple III – Temple of the Jaguar Priest

View of the top of Temple III of Tikal from the top of the Lost World Pyramid
View of the top of Temple III from the top of the Lost World Pyramid

Leaving the Gran Plaza, walking toward Temple IV, you pass Temple III, though unless you look at the sign, you might miss it, since this pyramid in still overgrown at the bottom, looking more like a hill than a man-made structure. However, you can see its top from both the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV.

Only its top is cleared, standing tall and narrow above the jungle canopy.

Also known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest after a scene portrayed on a lintel in one of its rooms, it stands 180 feet (55 meters) high.

Temple IV, The Tallest Pyramid of Tikal

View of Tikal from the top of its highest pyramid, Temple IV
View of Temple IV. from the Lost World Pyramid.

If you only have energy to climb one pyramid, make sure it is this one. A wide wooden stairway leads to the top, so it is not as scary as if you would climb the steep stairs of the pyramid. Once on top, you’ll recognize the view you see in so many images of Tikal above the jungle canopy.

View from Temple IV of Tikal
View from Temple IV: back of Temple III, and Temple I and II in the Gran Plaza

You will also realize how extensive the surrounding jungle is: it extends as far as you can see in every direction. Only several of the tallest pyramids, Pyramid III and V stick out high above the jungle. You can also see the Lost World Pyramid, though only because it is so close.

Fun fact: If you are a Star Wars fan, you’ll recognize this image from one of the original movie, The New Hope.

The tallest pyramid in Tikal – and anywhere in the Maya region -, Temple IV stands 212 feet (65 meters) high from the plaza below. Built in 741 AD, It marked the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil, the son of Jasaw Chan K’awil I.

Temple V

One of the highest pyramids of Tikal, Temple V
Temple V is in a quiet plaza by itself, off the main areas.

Temple V stands alone in a clearing, south of the Central Acropolis. It doesn’t get too many visitors, so it offers a quiet place to sit for a while if you choose to. The second tallest pyramid in Tikal (after Temple IV, of course), it stands 190 feet (57 meters) high and was built around 700 AD.

In 2024 you can not climb Temple V, maybe the reason not many visitors stop there.

Temple VI – Temple of the Inscriptions

Temple VI, aka Temple of the Inscriptions: the back of the roof comb w the inscriptions
Temple VI; Back of the roof comb with the inscriptions in the morning light.

Farthest from the main areas, Pyramid VI stands unrestored in a plaza, opening from the path through the jungle.

Also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, the back of its entire roofcomb is covered with hieroglyphics. It is easiest to see the glyphs in the morning sun. According to the inscriptions, Temple VI was dedicated in 766 AD.

Lost World Pyramid

One of the largest - and the oldest pyramids Tikal, The Lost World pyramid.
The Lost World pyramid is one of the largest – and the oldest pyramid of Tikal.

One of the largest pyramids in Tikal, the Great Pyramid is the centerpiece of the Lost World (Mundo Perdido) complex. The complex is the oldest part of Tikal, dating from Preclassic times, and the 102-feet (31 meters) tall, 221 feet (67 meters) wide Pyramid stands in its center.

The Lost World Pyramid was one of the most massive buildings in the Maya world at the time. Periodically rebuilt over time, the pyramid as we see it was the fifth version. The original version dates from about 600 BC, it had three levels, and was about 10 feet (3 meters) tall. Later constructions were added in 500 BC, 300 BC, 1 BC, and the final version at 250 AD.

It is another one set up with a wooden staircase to climb. The flat top offers views in every direction, with Pyramids IV, III, and V above the dense jungle canopy.

Other Pyramids of Tikal

The Talud-Tablero Temple – in the Lost World Complex

Much smaller than the Lost World Pyramid, the Talud-Tablero Temple is unique in Tikal. Talud-Tablero (as I read on the inscription) refers to the architectural style common in Teotihuacan. “Talud” refers to a steep sloping wall, while “Tablero” is a table-like right-angled top.

the Talud-Tablero Temple at Tikal
The Talud-Tablero Temple at Tikal – in the Old World Complex

Since this specific style is synonym with Teotihuacan style, many archaeologists believe that it was either influenced, or even built by people from Teotihuacan. In any case, it is the only one of its kind in Tikal.

The short pyramid is 72 feet (22 meters) high and easy to climb, if you have energy left after all the major ones.

Twin Pyramid Complexes

There are seven known twin-pyramid complexes in Tikal, unique feature of the site. As the name suggests, they are two identical pyramids facing each other in east-west direction, with a plaza in between. Both pyramids are rectangular, with four stairways on each side, and neither has any trace of a room or other building on top. In the center of the plaza stands a stela and an altar, and several other stelae face the east-facing pyramid.

Thanks to the dates on the stelae, we know that these complexes were erected each Katun (twenty-year intervals) during most of the Late Classic period in Tikal.

Pyramids in the Plaza of the Seven Temples

Seven small temple-pyramids stand in a row near each other, giving the plaza its name. These are some of the oldest structures in Tikal, off the main areas, so the plaza offers a quiet time to stop and watch (or listen) for wildlife.

The central temple is the largest (though not by much), and has a stela in front. It is the only one restored.

Visiting Tikal (in February 2024)

Though it may be possible to see all these pyramids in one day, I would feel rushed – and extremely tired, if climbed some of them.

We took three days to visit Tikal, spent two full days (from opening to closing time) exploring the site itself; on our third day we visited the museums.

Day 1

We started our first day with the Gran Plaza, to see the back of the famous Temple I as my first glimpse of the ancient city. It is the most spectacular sight, as you come to it emerging from the jungle. After exploring the Gran Plaza, we walked towards the Lost World, and from there to Temple IV. You can also walk to Pyramid IV from the Gran Plaza, and from there to the Lost World Complex.

We spent at least an hour on top of Temple IV, enjoying the view of the site, the howler monkey family nearby, and the coatimundis climbing the stairs below us.

Understanding that we would return the next day, we skipped Temple VI and the surrounding area, and returned through the North Plaza instead.

The North Plaza is not fully restored, most of its small pyramids are still covered with vegetation. We spent some alone-time there, since we did not see another person walking to this area.

Day 2

On our second day we started our visit with Temple VI, about a mile walk through the jungle From there, we circled back towards Temple V, the Lost World, Temple IV (of course we climbed it again), and ended our visit with the Gran Plaza.

So, between the two days, we explored all of the excavated areas of Tikal, coming full circle, experiencing the Gran Plaza both in the morning and at sunset.

Day 3

We spent our third day in Tikal visiting the museums. It is in fact one museum, but still housed in three different buildings, at least in 2024. They plan on consolidating and keeping all the artifacts in the newest and largest building, but for now, we got to visit three different buildings to see stelae and other artifacts (besides the tomb from Temple I). This visit took us a few hours in the morning, and by mid-day we were ready to leave Tikal.

Climbing (or just enjoying the views of) the Pyramids of Tikal: An Unforgettable Experience

If you asked me what was me absolute best experience in Tikal, I would say sitting on top of Pyramid IV, watching the howler monkey family close-up, the jungle canopy below with a few high-rise pyramid-tops reaching above it.

But that was only one of many unforgettable moments at the site.

My first glimpse of Pyramid I left me in awe. The stelae in the North Acropolis of the Gran Plaza were filled with more images and writing than I’ve seen in any other site. Walking through ancient “castle” rooms, standing on top of the Lost World Pyramid, or just walking along the paths under the jungle canopy were all experiences I will never forget.

I waited a long time to visit Tikal, were looking forward to it, so I knew it would be special. However, the experience even exceeded my expectations.

If you go…

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About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and in 2023 attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Arizona.

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