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Tikal Guatemala: Step back in time and wander the site of ancient Mayan ruins.
There are many wonders of the world that leave you breathless. Perhaps the most famous ones like Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Giza, and Petra come to mind. The ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal deserve a worthy mention right up with those other historical marvels. I’ve named them one of the top 15 destinations you must visit before you die. Yes, Tikal is just that amazing! In this travel guide, I’m going to tell you all about my trip to Tikal National Park, what it’s like to experience the Tikal ruins, my top tips to getting the most out of your trip, and detailing everything you need to know before you go.
Why Visit Tikal?
While there are numerous Mayan ruins and temples throughout Central America, Tikal Guatemala is the most magnificent one to visit. I have visited several Mayan ruins in Mexico and Xunantunich in Belize in the past. There are quite a few reasons that set Tikal apart from other significant Maya sites.
It’s a Massive Mayan Site
First, Tikal is one of the largest sites and there’s so much to explore in a day. Tikal National Park occupies a region of 576km squared containing wetlands, savannah, and tropical jungles. There are numerous remains of the Maya civilization scattered throughout the property that are continually being uncovered. Only about 15% of the structures have been revealed, meaning that there’s still so much to explore and discover at Tikal. It’s common to see some sections covered in tarps because there are excavations always ongoing.
You’re also able to climb several of the temple structures and wander the original plazas themselves. In my experiences, most other Mayan ruins sites do not allow tourists to climb any of the pyramids or temples. Most of them are roped off to admire from a distance, but you aren’t able to actually climb them. There are many Tikal temples that you can climb, giving you a unique vantage point from up above.
Lots of Wildlife
As Tikal Guatemala lies in the heart of the jungle, you’ll see an incredible variety of flora and fauna species throughout your visit. I witnessed some of the biggest trees that I’ve ever seen in my life. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, toucans, macaws, coatimundis, and more. It was wonderful to see so many Guatemalan animals living wild and free when we were volunteering to help these same animals at the wildlife rescue center. It’s easy to spot the wildlife living at Tikal on your own, though if you take a tour with an expert guide, you might have a better chance of spotting the elusive ones.
It’s Not Crowded
Tikal National Park is not as busy or crowded as other historically significant places. It’s a little bit out of the way from the more frequented places in Guatemala. Plus, Guatemala is not visited as often as other spots in Central America where the temples and ruins are easier to access (like Chichen Itza and Tulum).
When we visited Tikal in February, we were shocked that it was so empty. There were only a few groups of tourists wandering around, even at the most popular temples, pyramids, and plazas. There are many places that you’ll have entirely to yourselves. It’s possible that it’s because Tikal encompasses such a vast area of land that the visitors are more spread out. Even still, the most frequented spots still didn’t seem that busy.
Tikal was even more deserted early in the morning after our sunrise hike. I really feel like tourism in Guatemala will pick up once everyone realizes just how amazing it is there. Get to Tikal Guatemala before it’s sought out and frequented by the masses.
Historical and Cultural Significance
Lastly, Tikal National Park is an important historical and cultural place in the world. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a major center of Mayan civilization. This can’t be summed up in just a couple of sentences, so allow me to elaborate in more detail about this.
History and Importance of Tikal
Tikal National Park in Peten, Guatemala, was formed in May 1955 and regulated in September 1957. By 1979, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional value and worldly significance. It is one of the few world heritage properties that combines both natural and cultural richness. Nestled within the gigantic Maya Biosphere Reserve (exceeding two billion hectares), Tikal has an extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance.
Within the jungle, there are more than 200 tree species and 2000 plants among these diverse ecosystems. These habitats are home to five cats (including jaguar and puma), monkeys, anteaters, and over 300 species of birds.
As for the main archaeological site, it spans approximately 16 kilometers squared with over 4000 structures and buildings. There are important squares, temples, pyramid complexes, and other groups of buildings. You’ll receive a detailed map when you visit Tikal National Park with descriptions of the various buildings and areas. There’s an additional map that you can purchase when you first arrive at the park in your transfer van, but you are able to get a free one at the park. It’s slightly less detailed, but will have all of the information that you need.
An Incredible History
Tikal has an incredible history, as you can imagine. It was likely known as Yax Mutal and was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilization. Although Tikal’s beginnings date back to 400 B.C., it thrived and dominated the most (politically, economically, and militarily) between 200 and 900 A.D. At one point, its population grew to around 100,000 people, followed by a sharp decline.
It’s not known why Tikal was abandoned and lost for centuries in the forest. There are theories that deforestation, erosion, and drought contributed to its decline. Its temples and palaces were reclaimed by the jungle and completely buried. Thankfully, these buildings are slowly being uncovered and discovered once again. After centuries of rumors of a lost city, Tikal was rediscovered in 1848 by Colonel Modesto Mendez and Ambrosia Tut, Governor and Mayor of El Peten, respectively.
Recently using laser technology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 structures hidden beneath the jungle canopies of Guatemala. The ruins of this sprawling pre-Columbian civilization are much more complex, larger, and interconnected than anticipated. As our technology advances, it will be exciting to learn more and increase our knowledge of this ancient society.
My Experiences at Tikal
It’s always a thrilling experience to be able to wander the same places that someone once did thousands of years ago. I always try to imagine what it was like back then. As a Mayan person living centuries ago, what it was like to stroll the bustling North Acropolis or gaze up at the Temple of the Masks? What were the residences like back then, as well as the living conditions? What was it like to live in an era of human sacrifice? While it might look like a mass of crumbling ruins in our time, it was once a thriving culture with thousands of carved buildings containing great character and importance.
The main departure point to Tikal National Park is the city and island of Flores. You’ll fly into Flores from Guatemala City or Belize City. Then, I recommend that you spend one day in Flores, including an overnight stay. Head over to the bank near the Maya Mall in Flores to purchase your tickets to Tikal ahead of time. You’ll need to bring your passport with you to buy the tickets, and you’ll have to bring your passport to Tikal as well. It’s very important that you bring your passport to avoid being turned away.
You can buy your transfer through your hotel in Flores or through a local tour operator. If you plan to visit Tikal for the day from Flores, you can purchase this ticket in advance that includes round-trip transport from Flores to Tikal, a ticket to Tikal and tour with a knowledgeable guide, and lunch. However, I suggest that you spend the night at Tikal National Park for the best overall experience.
You’ll travel to Tikal Guatemala in the morning in an air conditioned bus (be sure to spend the small amount of extra cash on an air conditioned transfer), tour Tikal with a guide throughout the day, spend the night at a comfortable Tikal hotel, and wake up the next morning for a sunrise tour. We wandered around Tikal until 8 or 9 in the morning, returned back to our hotel to enjoy the pool for a few hours, and left around 3:00pm back to Flores.
Planning Your Visit
Our small group decided to tour around Tikal Guatemala with an experienced guide. It’s up to you whether or not to book a guide or wander around the park on your own. It’s also possible to do a combination of both. You can walk around with a guide for a few hours and then explore the rest of Tikal National Park on your own. I recommend that you walk around with the guide. You’ll learn lots of important facts about the ruins that you otherwise wouldn’t realize. Our guide was also fantastic at pointing out the wildlife up in the trees. He also knew some fantastic shortcuts through the forest to save some time and provide an escape from the midday heat.
It’s possible to download an audio guide to wander at your own pace and learn interesting facts about Tikal Guatemala. I’m personally not a fan of audio guides so much, but I did see some couples listening to them together. If you decide against booking a tour with a guide, at least download the audio guide to provide some more meaning to the experience.
Once you hand over your ticket at the entrance, you’ll receive a wrist band to Tikal National Park. Then, you can explore the ruins of Tikal right up until the park closes at 5:00pm. Also, the park opens at 6:00am, so it’s possible to arrive bright and early to explore all day.
As you’re in the jungles of Central America, you might imagine that it can get quite hot. While you’ll find some shade in the forest, the Mayan sites are out in the open, leaving you exposed to the sun and the elements. It gets very hot around the middle of the afternoon, so try to explore as early as possible. We found that it was very pleasant early in the morning. Of course, bring lots of water and sunscreen.
Exploring Places of Interest
You might be able to explore every important structure and building at Tikal, but I’m not even sure that we saw every last pyramid complex or square across our day and a half there. There are a few main sites that you’ll certainly want to check out at least once during your visit. While our guide gave us lots of valuable information, he also gave us free time in several of the areas. We were to meet back within a half hour of exploring the squares and temples. I loved this combination of informative learning and time to wander on our own.
The Grand Square
The Grand Square is the epicenter of Tikal and the most spectacular area of the entire complex. There are many ceremonial buildings in the North Acropolis, also serving as a mausoleum of governing families. There are two spectacular temples: Temple I and Temple II.
Temple I, also known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, was built around 700 A.D. by the ruling Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. Archaeologists discovered his tomb inside this temple.
Temple II, called Temple of the Masks, was also built by Jasaw Chan K’awill I (also known as Ah Cacao) around 700 A.D. You can actually climb to the top of Temple II, thanks to a series of staircases around the back of it. At the top, you can enjoy a stunning view of Temple I, the North Acropolis, and the Central Acropolis.
When you’re visiting the North Acropolis, don’t miss the giant mask carving that’s sectioned off down below. There are also several altars and carvings around the middle of the temples. Please do not touch or sit on any of the stones as the Mayan peoples still use them in rituals to this date.
On the opposite side of the North Acropolis, you’ll find the Central Acropolis. Feel free to wander around this set of structures and buildings with several rooms. You’ll also catch some alternate views of the temples, making for some great photo opportunities. We were the only people visiting this area, even in the middle of the day.
We also saw several coatimundis rooting around in the grass. These animals look like raccoons, but they’re somehow even cuter. Please don’t feed the animals, chase them around, or bother them in any way. We saw tourists throwing food at them or getting a little too close. It’s best to let the wild animals remain wild, and admire them from afar.
Temple IV is a building that you won’t want to miss. Along with the Grand Square, Temple IV was such a highlight of my trip. Temple IV, or Temple of the Two-Headed Snake, is the tallest structure in Tikal Guatemala. Of all the Tikal temples, this is the one you need to visit. It was built around 740 A.D. by the ruling Yik’in Chan K’awiil (known as Yaxkin Caan Chac). Ascend up several staircases to the very top of the temple for the most incredible view. While this might be tough, especially in the heat of the day, it’s totally worth it once you get to the top.
For those movie nerds out there, you might recognize this scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A rebel spots the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin. Just like in person, you can see Temples I, II, and III off in the distance. I was pretty excited to show my photos to Justin when I got home because I know he’s such a fan of the movies!
Lost World Pyramid
Another building that you can climb at Tikal Guatemala is the Great Pyramid at the Lost World. While there are 38 structures in the Lost World, the Great Pyramid is the top attraction. It dates back to 500 B.C., though it was rebuilt several times. It’s one of the tallest pyramids in the entire Mayan region. While there are steep staircases on all four sides, there’s a special set of modern wooden stairs made for tourists to get to the top. Once you walk up there, you can fully appreciate the spectacular views of the Square of the Seven Temples, Temple V, and the surrounding Guatemalan jungle.
Tikal at Sunrise
While we initially arrived at Tikal Guatemala by a small transfer bus around 10:00am (departing Flores around 8:00am), we toured around for most of the late morning and early afternoon. Then, we headed back to our accommodation, the Hotel Tikal Inn, to relax by the swimming pool and have some lunch. However, our small group had plans to embark on a sunrise tour of Tikal the next morning.
An Early Morning Experience
Staying overnight at the Hotel Tikal Inn made it possible to easily take the Tikal sunrise tour. We had to meet our guide at our hotel around 4:00am, which seems incredibly early. However, if you weren’t already spending the night at a hotel within Tikal National Park, I have no idea how early you’d have to wake up to make it there on time! Suddenly, waking up at 3:30 in the morning didn’t seem so bad. The staff at the Hotel Tikal Inn had hot coffee ready for us when we woke up, so we could absorb some caffeine before our sunrise trip.
We met with a group of several other travelers for our tour. Be sure to purchase your tickets for the sunrise tour from the bank (where you bought your original Tikal tickets) or through your hotel. You’ll receive a separate wristband upon checking in for your tour at the desk (you’ll need to bring your passport once again). The tour guides, armed with flashlights (as it will be pitch black!), will guide you through the jungle at night, all the way to Temple IV at the very back of Tikal National Park.
Why It’s Worth It
After you ascend all of those stairs to the top of the temple (which isn’t nearly as bad when it’s cooler outdoors at night), find a place to sit and make yourself comfortable. We were among the first people to arrive at Temple IV. Slowly, more and more visitors started to join us. Gradually, the seating area at the top of the temple filled up. However, we were all asked to remain silent. Thankfully, everyone obliged.
As the world started to slowly grow brighter, the creatures of the jungle started to wake up, too. Birds started to chirp and call out to one another. Howler monkeys started bellowing in the darkness. As the jungle woke up, so did the rest of the world, growing brighter and brighter. The three temples off in the distance came into view as the fog lifted. The fog gradually dissipated as night became day. While it was a little too foggy and cloudy out to see the sunshine, it was still magnificent, beautiful, and magical. I highly recommend this experience, even if the weather doesn’t fully cooperate.
Important Travel Tips
You’ll want to plan your trip to Tikal Guatemala with great care as it’s one of those amazing and awe-inspiring destinations to see in your lifetime. It isn’t the easiest place in the world to reach. While I hope you’ll be able to visit more than once, it’s a good idea to make your first trip count the most.
When to Visit Tikal
I recommend visiting the Tikal Maya ruins in the winter between December and February. Even though it’s still very hot, it’s likely the coolest time of year to visit. The weather will likely be dreary at home if you’re from a cooler climate like me (Toronto wasn’t looking so great in February!). It’s the dry season in Guatemala. Even though this is a busier time of year for tourists, it was not busy at Tikal Guatemala.
While March through May is still technically the dry season, it is even hotter than from December to February. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be even hotter than when we visited. If you visit between June and August, it will be the rainy season, but this will make the temperatures a little bit more comfortable. It rains even more from September to November, although tourism is the slowest and you might be able to find hotels at the best price. I recommend going there in January or February, but you should really get to Tikal National Park whenever you can.
How to Purchase Tickets
Purchase tickets in advance from the bank in Flores. Head over to the bank branch at the Maya Mall, just across the bridge from the island of Flores. You can buy the day passes to the park, as well as the sunrise tour tickets. Tickets to Tikal National Park are 150 quetzales ($20 USD) and the sunrise hike tickets are 100 quetzales ($13 USD). You can visit the park with a standard ticket as early as 6:00am (after the sunrise). You must take the sunrise tour with a guide and you leave at 4:00am.
Bathrooms and Water
I recommend bringing lots of water along with you. However, you might drink that water and then what? Thankfully, there is a stand at the Grand Square with water and snacks. There are a few spots with restrooms throughout Tikal, too.
Day Trip from Flores
Yes, you can visit Tikal Guatemala as a day trip from Flores. You can get a transfer from Flores to Tikal, spend the day at Tikal, and then take the bus back to Flores. That’s no problem and if you only have that much time to visit Tikal National Park, I suggest that you travel in that manner. However, if you can spare an extra day, I recommend that you spend the night at Tikal National Park. After a night there, wake up early in the morning for the sunrise tour. Then, spend a little extra time of rest and relaxation at the hotel to enjoy the pool and the dining options.
Tikal Packing List
Whether you’re visiting for the day or spending the night, you’ll want to bring a few things along with you to Tikal:
- Comfortable shoes – you’ll be doing a LOT of walking!
- Passport – you won’t be able to enter the national park without one
- Tickets – I recommend purchasing your tickets ahead of time, especially for the sunrise tour
- Water bottle, filled with lots of water (remember that you shouldn’t drink the water in Guatemala, so make sure it’s filtered properly or use a Lifestraw)
- Hat and sunglasses
- Camera, smartphone, GoPro, be sure to capture lots of pictures
Check out this guide that details what to pack for a day hike for more ideas and suggestions that apply to this trip, too.
Where to Stay
We spent the night at the Hotel Tikal Inn, which was such a treat. It was right within Tikal National Park, merely steps from the Tikal Guatemala ruins themselves. I shared an adorable and posh hut with my sister, and there was an amazing swimming pool. The rooms were spacious and comfortable at this eco-lodge. Plan your stay accordingly: they turn on the electricity and the ability to have hot showers between 5:30pm and 9:30pm. After that, it’s lights out! That wasn’t a problem as we got to bed around 9:00pm, in order to wake up early in the morning for our sunrise tour.
The meals at the restaurant were delicious, too. We dined there for lunch that day where I savored a dish of yummy and filling pasta. The next morning, we had breakfast there, where I ate corn tortillas, beans, and fried plantains. It was no problem dining at Hotel Tikal Inn as a vegan. The coffee at the Hotel Tikal Inn was very rich and delicious. Upon our arrival, we were offered coffee immediately, which was totally awesome.
The highlight of the Hotel Tikal Inn was the refreshing swimming pool. We swam in the pool after a day exploring Tikal Guatemala, as well as the following day after checkout. There were many trees and flowers with interesting birds all around. I really loved sitting beneath one of the huge umbrellas with a cold beer in my hand.
I highly recommend booking your stay at the Hotel Tikal Inn when you visit Tikal National Park. It provides an extra level of luxury to your stay at an affordable price, plus it’s very convenient to stay right within the park itself.
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Have you ever visited the temples of Tikal or any Mayan ruins? Please let me know if you have any comments or questions down below!