Of the many cool things there are to do in Central America, seeing some Mayan ruins is certainly one of the most important to put on your itinerary. While there are many to choose from, the ancient site of Tikal in northern Guatemala has to be one of the best Mayan ruins to visit. It not only has a whole bunch of incredible Mayan temples, but those temples are found inside an atmospheric jungle setting which feels incredibly remote.
Tikal National Park is a vast archaeological site which dates back thousands of years, it’s loaded with so much historical importance that there is no surprise it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala. So if you feel like going for a wander in the jungle in search of ancient temples, Tikal is the place to do it. It’s best to head out on an adventure like this with some direction, so this guide to Tikal will give you some of the most important tips for visiting Tikal to ensure you have a terrific trip.
Brief Background of Tikal
To fully appreciate how impressive Tikal is it’s best to have a little background on the Mayan site. While today it is an extensive archaeological site in northern Guatemala, in it’s time Tikal was a major city of the Mayans. The history of settlement at Tikal stretches back as far as 1000 BC, but the earliest parts of the site you’ll likely see date back to the 4th century B.C. The city of Tikal was at its most developed from 200 to 900 AD before it was entirely abandoned shortly after that. Over time Tikal became lost to the immense Guatemalan jungle. Although locals remained aware of its existence, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Tikal was fully surveyed. And now, amongst the Mayan ruins of today, Tikal had become one of the best archaeologically understood sites in Central America.
Best Time to Visit Tikal
Making the most of your trip to Tikal means taking several things into account, chief among them is the timing of your visit. Since you’re going to be spending quite a lot of time outdoors at Tikal, getting the best weather possible is going to make a big difference. Avoiding crowds of other tourists has its perks too, from maintaining the remote atmosphere, to saving a little on room rates.
Guatemala in general has two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. Visiting during the rainy season, which runs from May to October, isn’t ideal as showers regularly come during the afternoons and last for hours. Additionally, Tikal can get quite humid at this time of year, making your visit all the more taxing. During dry season Tikal is at its hottest, especially during the months of April and May.
The other factor to keep in mind when planning your visit is the crowds of the high season. In Guatemala high season runs from December through March, although it’s at its peak during the weeks either side of Christmas and Easter. Greater demand for accommodation at these times means prices are likely to be higher than other times of the year. All of this means that the best time to visit Tikal is during the months of February and March, when the weather is a little cooler and drier, and prices are slightly more affordable.
How Long to Visit Tikal
One of the other key factors to planning a trip to Tikal is knowing how long to spend there. The ruins of Tikal can easily be explored in a single day so most people visit on a day trip from nearby Flores.
The park’s opening hours are from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily, but if you’re visiting on a sunrise tour you’ll be able to enter the park at 4:00 AM.
How Much Does the Entrance Fee to Tikal Cost
To visit Tikal you’ll be required to pay the entrance fee of 150 GTQ, roughly $20 USD. Do note that this is the general entrance fee, and those doing a sunrise tour will be charged 250 GTQ, or around $33 USD. If you plan on visiting Uaxactun as well, you’ll need to pay an extra 50 GTQ.
Tickets are cash only so make sure to have enough money on you as there are no ATMS around.
How to Get to Tikal
Given its remote location in the jungle, understanding how to get to Tikal is a crucial element to planning your trip. Tikal is located in northern Guatemala not far from the border with Belize, this means you have a few options on where to base yourself. Most visitors travel to Tikal from the closest town of Flores, however some people choose to visit Tikal from San Ignacio in Belize instead.
Due to its position in the jungles of Peten, public transport is really only an option if you’re coming from the town of Flores. “Chicken buses” run fairly regularly with the first bus leaving to Tikal at 3.30 am and the last bus returning to Flores at 5:30 p.m. Travel time between Flores and Tikal is roughly 1 ½ hours.
The most common option for getting to Tikal is to go with a tour. While many tours to Tikal include a guide as part of them, some provide the option only to pay for the shuttle there and back, leaving you to your own devices during the day.
Again, the most common route is to take a tour from Flores, however there are also tours leaving from cities in Belize like San Ignacio and Belize City. Believe it or not, there are even tours which will fly you from Guatemala City to Tikal as a day trip.
If you are visiting Tikal from Flores, we can highly recommend this full-day tour with lunch. The guides speak good English and are very knowledgeable and passionate about Tikal National Park.
How to Get Around Tikal
There’s really not much to be said as far as getting around Tikal as for the most part it’s quite straightforward. The site’s temples are linked by walking paths, so you’ll be spending the day walking from one to the next. So as not to wander aimlessly, a map will come in handy. If you’re going on your own, maps cost 20 GTQ, or you can take a photo of the site map on your phone as you enter the archaeological park.
Where to Stay in Tikal
During your visit to these wonderful ancient Mayan ruins, figuring out where to stay can cause a bit of confusion. Your main two options of bases in Guatemala from which to see the site are the town of Flores, or the limited number of places right outside the entrance to the archaeological site. Flores is used to seeing tourists come through and head off to Tikal for a day trip, while those keen on a Tikal sunrise will want to consider staying as close to the temples as possible.
1. Staying in Flores
Sitting on Lake Peten Itza, the island town of Flores is one of the common stops for tourists passing through Guatemala. This means that despite the small island that Flores sits on, you’ll find plenty of accommodation available.
You don’t have to spend a lot for the nicest places in Flores, and Hotel Isla de Flores proves that. This 4-star hotel on the island gives you everything you need, from spotless rooms, lake views, and even a rooftop pool.
Finding an even better balance of budget and comfort is the Hotel Villa del Lago. This reasonable mid-range hotel has all the amenities you could want with WiFi, hot water, air-conditioning, and laundry.
There’s no shortage of cheap places to stay in Flores but if you want a place that’s clean and friendly, look no further than Casa Ula Hostel. With dorms and private rooms, this hostel will give you somewhere to crash after a long day out at Tikal.
2. Staying at Tikal
For those who want to stay close to the temples of Tikal, there are only a few options to choose from.
Combining class and hints of local inspiration, you’re sure to feel comfortable at the refined Hotel Jungle Lodge Tikal. Each private bungalow features a modern bathroom as well as fans to help keep you cool.
Another hotel which puts you right at the entrance to Tikal is the Hotel Jaguar Inn Tikal. With friendly service, clean rooms, and onsite restaurant, you’ll have all you need for your stay at Tikal.
Then there’s always the option of camping in Tikal at the campground just by the entrance. For budget travelers, this may be a way to cut down on costs. You can either bring your own tent or rent a covered hammock, but be sure to take the weather into account when making this choice.
Tips for Visiting Tikal
We’ve covered a lot of advice so far on how to visit Tikal, but we’ve still got a few more tips to throw your way to help you make the most of your time at Tikal.
1. Guide or No Guide
A big decision you have to make with your visit is whether or not you want to have a guide show you around, explaining the history of Tikal as you go. While it always depends on the quality of the guide, generally going with a guide will help you fully understand why Tikal is so significant and make exploring easier. The tradeoff, though, is that you’ll have less independence and can’t just spend longer in one spot because you want to.
If you decide to go without a guide, there are a few things you can do in advance to help you get around on your own. First, download the Tikal Audio Guide so you can learn a little about the site. Also, don’t forget the advice about taking a photo of the site map on your phone.
2. Timing Your Visit
If you have any say over the timing of your visit, it’s best to get in early and start exploring in the morning. This way you’ll beat the harsh afternoon heat in the dry season or the afternoon showers in the wet season. The site is also more likely to be quieter in the morning, which is always nice.
3. Climbing Temples
At Tikal it is possible to climb your way to the top of some of the pyramids, as is common in Central America. This can be a wonderful experience, letting you appreciate the temple in new light and see some splendid views from the top. But do take caution when climbing as these steep staircases often have little in the way of railings. Also, do not climb temples that clearly have signs telling you not to climb! These restrictions might be there either for reasons of safety or preservation, regardless, follow all sign postings.
4. Things to Pack
Even if you’re just coming for the day, it’s important to give some thought to what you plan on bringing to Tikal. Your passport is essential, as you won’t be allowed to get in without it. Then there’s the issue that getting food and water can be expensive when you get it in Tikal, so pack food or snacks and bring plenty of water. Now, you’re going to be spending the day outside at the mercy of the sun and the jungle, so don’t forget insect repellent, a hat, sunscreen, and of course some good walking shoes.
Best Things to Do in Tikal
With logistics covered, it’s time to get to the places to see while you explore Tikal. Rather than providing a fixed course through the archaeological site, here are the main sights and things do in Tikal. This way, whether you’re with a guide or on your own, you’ll know exactly what not to miss. Though there are many temples and structures located throughout Tikal, the focus here is on the main ones.
The Grand Plaza
The most important stop on any Tikal itinerary is the heart of Tikal, the Grand Plaza. Once the central square of the city, it takes little imagination to bring ancient Tikal to life. At opposite ends of the Grand Plaza you’ll see two towering temples, Temple I and Temple II. On the two other sides of the plaza lie the North Acropolis on one side and the Central Acropolis on the other.
Temple I, aka the Temple of the Great Jaguar, stands 47 meters high and was finished around 750 AD. It was built as a tomb for local king Jasaw K’awiil Chan, and many artifacts have been recovered from within it. Temple II, across the way is known as the Temple of the Mask and is a little shorter (38 meters) and a little older (700 AD). What sets it apart though is that you can climb up Temple II for great views of the plaza in front of you. You can also explore both acropolises, giving you new angles of the Grand Plaza and the two temples.
While climbing the temples at the Grand Plaza involves some steps, none quite compete with the workout you get climbing up Temple IV. Standing at 70 meters in height, it’s the tallest pyramid in Tikal and towers over the surrounding canopy. Temple IV is actually the largest pyramid of its time built anywhere by the Mayans and now stands as the tallest pre-Columbian structure. The climb up isn’t all that tricky or steep like other temples, it’s just a long way up!
Besides the thrill of clambering up an ancient pyramid, Temple IV is most popular for the views you get once you reach the top. At the top you’ll find plenty of people taking it easy as they marvel at the view before them. The view isn’t just of treetops, you can actually see the tops of several other Tikal temples poking out from the trees. Fun Fact: This view was used as a setting in the film, Star Wars: A New Hope.
The greatest temple reveal comes when you visit Temple V, as this pyramid sits in a small clearing surrounded by jungle. One moment you’re walking along a trail and the next a giant temple appears out of nowhere in the gap in the trees. The second highest temple of Tikal at 57 meters, Temple V also dates from around 700 AD.
Temples III and VI
A little outshined by the temples previously mentioned, these are two of the later temples to be built in Tikal. Temple III was known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest and dates from 810 AD. The temple is such a steep and solid structure that it almost seems more like a carved rock than a man made structure. Temple IV is often referred to as the Temple of Inscriptions, which is hardly surprising given the hieroglyphic inscriptions which run around the sides of its roof-comb.
Lost World Pyramid
Throughout the rest of Tikal there are other plazas and temple complexes to explore. These tend to get less attention by tour groups making them quieter but no less fascinating. Take for example the Lost World Pyramid in the Mundo Perdido complex, one of the oldest structures found throughout Tikal. It’s final form, now covered in vegetation, dates from the 4th century and this ancient temple is almost 100 meters tall with a viewing platform for visitors sitting on top.
Spot Some Wildlife
It’s important to remember that as you see these temples you’ll be taking paths through prime Guatemalan jungle, so the chances of spotting some wildlife while you’re here are decent. Much like other Central American Mayan ruins, you can bet on seeing, or at least hearing, some howler monkeys as you go about. A little quieter are the spindly spider monkeys, but you can see them here too.
As for creatures other than monkeys, Tikal can be a good place to spot the vibrant beaks of toucans in the trees. A little harder to spot are the coatimundis, raccoon-like creatures with a white nose. Last of all, you’ll have to be exceptionally lucky to spot a jaguar here in the wild, as they are notoriously elusive. But hey, you never know!
And there you have a comprehensive guide to visiting the ancient ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. You’re sure to be amazed by this incredible heritage site!