Tikal is arguably Guatemala’s most famous and popular tourist destination. It was capital of the Mayan world over a thousand years ago and the temples and monuments here are the largest and most well preserved. A visit, even if it’s just a day is well worth it.
I visited Tikal as part of my two week Guatemala trip. Read about my itinerary in detail to help plan your own trip!
A history about Tikal
Tikal was once home to around 60,000 Maya and held jurisdiction over numerous other cities spread through the jungle from the Yucatán Peninsula to the west of Honduras. The earliest dated structure discovered within Tikal is named Stela 29, which is thought to have been built in 292 AD. The civilisation was inhabited from 6th century BC to 10th century AD. Temple IV is thought to have been erected in 741 AD, this dizzying pyramid reaches a height of 212 feet, which is the tallest Maya structure ever.
It is believed that the Maya constructed this city in honor of the Mayan rulers and deities. The temples and hieroglyphic demonstrate not only architectural genius, but also show traces of a civilization far more advanced than many ever believed. Still, the Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed after 900 AD, leaving the city lost at the mercy of the jungle’s cover. That is until it was rediscovered in 1848, when it sparked a lot of interest from explorers and travelers alike. It was declared a Cultural and Natural Heritage by UNESCO in 1979.
How to get to Tikal
As Tikal is one of Guatemala’s most popular attractions, they’ve made it quite easy to reach. Tikal is located in near the town of Flores. From Flores, Tikal is a 1.5hr drive as it is located deep within the jungle. There are regular shuttles that run all throughout the day that visit Tikal from Flores.
Get the 1st class overnight bus from Guatemala city. You can book this through any travel agent in Antigua and they can either arrange for you to get a transfer from your hotel to the bus. OR or you can get a chicken bus or taxi into the city and buy your ticket at the bus company of your choice. The three companies that do this route are:
- FDN- Fuente del Norte
- ADN: Autobuses del Norte
- Linea Dorada
The cost is around 220Q if you get on at Guatemala City. If you book through a tour operation in Antigua you will pay a little more. Shop around though and speak to local people before you commit to a booking. The bus takes 9-10 hours on Guatemalan time, which means anything can happen.
The much easier route is to take an airplane shuttle from Guatemala City to Flores. Avianca and TAG (a local Guatemalan airline) make the flight multiple times a day. The airlines have structured the flights around people that potentially want to make day trips out of the trip. Flights from GC to Flores are between 6am and 6:30am, and return flights from Flores to Guatemala City are at night between 6:00pm and 6:30pm. The flight only takes 45 minutes and cost roughly 700Q one way. It’s well worth it in my opinion to spend the extra cash and save the 10 hours or so.
Tikal Entrance Fees
As of Jan 2018, the entrance fee for Tikal is 150Q. This will grant you access to the park between the hours of 6am and 6pm. There exists the option of a sunrise and sunset tour that require additional entrance fees (of 100Q each). Also, the sunset and sunrise tours require a mandatory guide (which is also extra and can be negotiated depending on where you are and how good your skills are). But keep in mind that the 150Q is non-negotiable for entrance during regular hours (and it also does not require a guide). Tickets can be purchased at the bank in the airport of Flores, as well as the gate entrance (which is actually about 15 minutes before the entrance of the park). Tickets cannot be purchased within the actual park itself.
Exploring Tikal’s ruins
We started exploring the ruins the morning we arrived (from our 6:30am TAG flight). After checking into our accommodation at Tikal Jungle Lodge within the park, we met some other travelers and a guide was already at the hotel waiting to negotiate with us. We settled on the price of 100Q per person for a four hour tour which seemed quite reasonable.
We stamped our tickets at the entrance that barely felt like an entrance. I feel like anyone could just sneak into the park and no one would know any better. Our guide was was actually very knowledgeable about the park and had grown up just outside of Flores. Upon entering, I could immediately hear howler monkeys that would be doing their thing for the rest of the time I was here. I was pleasantly surprised by how few people there were here. It’s nothing like Machu Picchu but rather more like something in the Bolivia Salt flats.
Built in 734 AD, this temple is also known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar because of a lintel that represents a king sitting upon a jaguar throne. Although not the tallest temple with a height of 143 feet, its size makes it an impressive icon at the Grand Plaza, the heart of Tikal. Inside was found the tomb of the ruler Jasaw K’awiil Chan, whose replica is located in the Ceramic Museum. This is the most iconic and picturesque of the temples in my opinion.
Also known as the Temple of the Masks, this temple is directly opposite the Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the Grand Plaza. You can go up to the top of the temple through a steep wooden stair (be careful!). Be prepared to be amazed when you look at the Grand Plaza and other temples from the top.
Also known as Temple of the Two Headed Snake, this is the highest structure in the whole Tikal complex and in all Mesoamerica; standing at 230 feet tall. From here you get a great view of the entire jungle, right above the tree’s canopy. The climb up is pretty easy, thanks to a wooden stair. This is the best place to see the sunrise and sunset while at the park.
The impressive thing about this temple is the view from the top, which overlooks the tops of the temples at the Grand Plaza. While the view is impressive, the hike up and standing at the top is quite dangerous as there are no guardrails and the steps are very steep.
Lost World Pyramid
Over 100 feet tall, the pyramid includes four stairways that reach the top, each one decorated with large stone-carved masks of the Mayan god of rain. Looking out from the summit, Temple IV and the Temples of the Great Plaza can be seen rising through the jungle canopy. This is the oldest structure in Tikal.
The ancient Maya took great pride in their artwork, creating intricate masks dedicated to the dead and sculpting stelae that recorded their history. Some of these can bee seen throughout Tikal, while others are displayed at this museum. Only a fraction of Tikal’s over 3,000 buildings have been excavated and restored. Out of those, these are the ones that you shouldn’t miss.
This is the most recognized place of the whole complex as it was the center of civic ceremonial activities of the Mayan culture. It is surrounded by Temples I and II, a Mayan ball game, and a series of palaces and residences.
How long to spend in Tikal
We had booked our flight to leave Guatemala City at 6:30am, and return at 6:30pm the following day. We had two full days to explore the ruins (and also needed two entrance tickets, 1 per day). I would say 1 day is probably enough for most people to explore the ruins. It’s not as big as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Petra in Jordan so unless you’re a big Mayan ruins person, 1 day will be enough.
What is nice about having the second day and the overnight stay is being able to go early in the morning before anyone is there, and at sunset after everyone leaves. This is not to be confused with the sunrise tours which begin at 4am, or the sunset tour which begins around 6pm. I didn’t do either of those separate tours and from the people I spoke to that did, they either didn’t see anything because of fog, or it was anticlimactic.
The ideal time to be in Tikal is between 7am and 9am, and 4pm and 6pm. Very few people come here during those hours and if you’re lucky, a good sunrise or sunset will really bring out the colors of the ruins.
Where to stay in Tikal
Most people choose to stay in Flores as there’s more to do there as it’s an actual town. I chose to stay inside the park just because I wanted to be close to the park and thought it’d be cool to stay in the jungle. There are only a few lodging options within the park: Tikal Jungle Lodge and the Jaguar Inn. I stayed at Tikal Jungle Lodge in their private rooms with shared bathrooms. It’s like an upscale hostel for 400Q a night.
The dining options here are limited, expensive, and largely mediocre so keep expectations low! Nevertheless, it was cool to hear the howler monkeys at night and “feel” like you’re a part of it.
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