(CNN) — Shrouded in thick rainforest and centuries of mystery, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal is one of the greatest overlooked sites of antiquity in the West.
We've all heard of Machu Picchu, but the scale and preservation of Tikal, located in the lowland tropical forest of eastern Guatemala, dwarfs the famed Incan ruins in Peru.
Some of Tikal's skyscraping temples, which rise through the tops of dense jungle canopy, were the tallest buildings in the New World until the 19th century.
If you want to feel what it was like wandering the central plaza of a bustling Mayan city in A.D. 800, Tikal is an outsized time capsule, complete with sound effects from howler monkeys, spider monkeys, raucous parrots and some 285 other bird species.
The natural ambiance is as it was some 1,300 years ago, when for reasons that are still a mystery, the inhabitants of Tikal disappeared at the end of the 10th century.
What it was, what it is
The Mayan city of Tikal is an outsized time capsule with a natural ambiance that hasn't changed in 1,300 years.
Tikal was one of the major metropolises of the Mayan civilization and one of the biggest in the world. Located in the wilds of Tikal National Park about 200 miles north of Guatemala City in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, it was settled as early as 600 B.C.
Most of the major buildings viewable today date to its heyday, A.D. 550-900. With a population of 10,000 to 90,000 people, Tikal was larger than London in A.D. 800.
Archaeologists have uncovered 3,000 structures over a six-mile-square area, with more than 200 sculptured stone monuments and altars.
Unlike many archaeological sites, where the viewings tend to be mounds carpeted in grass or crumbling stone barely taller than a human, many of the edifices here remain on a monumental scale much as they were a millennium ago.
That's especially true for the Great Plaza, the ceremonial center of Tikal, a place that seems to have been concocted by a wayward pharaoh.
Most of the major buildings at Tikal today date to its heyday, 550-900 A.D.
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Steep, pyramid-like temples reach for the sky around the Grand Plaza -- some 10 acres' worth, paved with limestone. The plaza was the scene of epic religious rites and chiefly dramas over the centuries, not to mention sporting events.
There are several ball courts, one in the main plaza, where ancient sportsmen tried to keep a rubber-like ball in the air as long as possible without using their hands.
It's uncertain how or if points were scored, but there was certainly an incentive to win. Experts say the penalty for losing was death for the leader of the luckless team. Others think it was the victors who were treated to the honor of a ceremonial death.
The lofty Temple 1 must have been reserved for aerial acrobats. Getting to the top of this very vertical 170-foot staircase -- and getting back down -- requires the footing of a mountain goat.
Facing this giant is Temple 2, which towers some 145 feet above the Great Plaza. It's surrounded by yet more temples in the Central Acropolis and at the North Acropolis.
Temple 4 was once the tallest building in pre-Colombian America, towering 212 feet. You can climb to its roof for a spectacular vantage of the scenery.
From the tops of the temples at Tikal, you can see the white rooftop combs of other temples poking through the rainforest canopy and ponder the far-flung location of this hidden civilization.
This was an advanced civilization that knew engineering, math and astronomy.
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
For whatever reason, the Mayans chose a location that would hold tens of thousands of people yet had no river or major body of water. They relied completely on seasonal rainfall for their water supply, which they collected in reservoirs.
This was an advanced civilization that knew engineering, math and astronomy possibly better than its European counterparts in the 8th century.
Tikal residents created a calendar with 365 days, and their lunar cycle was only seven minutes off the best that modern instruments can calculate.
While no one knows for certain what happened to the Mayans of Tikal, some think drought could have been the culprit that brought down this thriving civilization, as it did Native American societies in what's now the southwestern United States.
Dependent on rainfall and with a growing population, Tikal was vulnerable to drought and extinction.
Jungle Lodge Hotel is one of three main hotels at the entrance to Tikal National Park.
Courtesy Jungle Lodge Hotel
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1979, Tikal has so much to take in, it's best to overnight at the site and spend a couple days marveling at it all.
There are three main hotels at the entrance to Tikal National Park -- Jungle Lodge Hotel and Hostel, Hotel Tikal Inn and Hotel Jaguar Inn.
The easiest access to Tikal is from the small town of Flores, Guatemala.
Hotel-organized minibus trips to Tikal take about 75 minutes. Public buses depart for Tikal throughout the day from the Santa Elena bus station in Flores. The trip by public bus takes about two hours.
Tikal National Park admission is $20, children 11 and younger free. Tikal walking maps are available at the visitors center for a few US dollars. Jungle Lodge Hotel & Hostel: 502 2477 0570; WhatsApp 502 3185 0223. $85 (standard double), $91 (premium), $153 (jungle suite). Jungle Lodge also has a hostel for those with lighter budgets ($55) Hotel Tikal Inn: 502 7861 2444. $85 (bungalow), $100 (junior suite), $50 (ranchon two single beds), $60 (main building room with two double beds) Hotel Jaguar Inn: 502 7926 2411. $74 (double room), $95 (triple room), $98 (bungalow), $123 (quadruple)
More than half of Guatemala's people live below the poverty line, with almost half of them in extreme poverty. Like its Central American neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador, the country has struggled with crime and drugs in recent years. The US State Department has put a Level 2 (exercise increased caution) travel warning on Guatemala with some Level 3 (reconsider travel) warnings on some areas, including the Petén region where Tikal is located. The State Department advises travelers to fly directly into Flores.
Flores is a small town 66 kilometers (41 miles) from Tikal. Shuttle drivers from one of the hotels at Tikal can be arranged ahead of time to pick you up at the airport and go straight to hotels at Tikal National Park. Don't take taxis. The trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes and costs about $60.