Tikal: The Most Famous Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Tikal is the most famous and fascinating Mayan Ruins in Guatemala, and visiting this place should be on every Central America travel itinerary. If you want to visit this archeological site set in the Guatemalan jungle, read our up to date guide including tips on when to visit, how much it costs, where to stay or how to get there.
Traveling in Guatemala was quite exhausting because distances between destinations are vast and the roads winding, to put it mildly, so since border crossing from El Salvador until we reached the town of Flores, the base for visiting Tikal ruins, we spent every other day at least eight hours on a bus.
This was the reason why we could not wait to enjoy another day out, a day without yet another long transport, a day surrounded by jungle, and finally (because we were getting closer to Mexico and really looked forward to exploring Mayan ruins) a day full of admiring Mayan architecture - simply put, our hopes were high and we wished it would be similarly enjoyable and stress-free as our day in Semuc Champey.
Believe it or not, these straightforward days without much planning and arranging hostels or tickets ahead are pretty rare when traveling long-term.
TIKAL - RUINS BURIED IN THE JUNGLE
Tikal ruins are fascinating and a must include in your Guatemala itinerary.
What we found the most interesting though was the way how the jungle took quickly over once Maya people abandoned the site. According to historians, the area around Tikal was settled about 900 BC, and its importance grew over centuries until the 8th century AD when Tikal became the greatest city in the Maya world.
It is hard to imagine that only a century later Tikal was abandoned because of the fall of the Maya empire and all those large structures and evidence of civilization (at the peak there were around 100 000 people living on the site) was soon buried in the jungle. Of course, rumors about the lost city still lived in the area, and local people passed their knowledge about mysterious ruins deep in the forest for generations, but it was not until the 19th century when first explorers arrived to dig out true about Tikal.
Because of its remoteness, it was very hard and time-consuming to uncover Tikal, so the real excavations started in 1951 when a small airstrip was build and made Tikal more accessible.
Excavation works haven't yet finished, and it is pretty unsettling feeling to walk in the forest and imagine that the hill you are looking at can actually be a relic from the past times.
HOW TO GET TO TIKAL
Right after we found our hostel, we had to look for a travel agency as it was getting late and we still did not have arranged our transport to Tikal ruins. You have two options here on how to get to the ruins. Take a tourist shuttle from Flores Island (they can pick you up in Santa Elena as well) or travel by public transport.
We did the math very quickly - taking the public bus which stops on every corner and takes an hour or an hour and a half longer costs 30Q one way, plus tuk-tuk to the bus station in Santa Elena (the city on the mainland across the bridge from Flores Island) costs 5Q. We would have paid 70Q for the bus ride which would have been for sure more authentic (but we already have many experiences with buses which were more authentic that we wished for), and we would have saved only $1.5 per person.
That's why we opted for the tourist shuttle which costs 80Q per person round trip. We quickly googled travel agencies on Flores Island and found one with good reviews, so we booked with them the shuttle to Tikal and also a van to Chetumal in Mexico the day after.
VISITING TIKAL WITH A GUIDE OR INDEPENDENTLY
In the tourist office, we also had to decide whether we want to take a guided tour or if we want to use only the transport service and roam the archeological site independently.
We opted for the latter and glad we did.
We don't deny that a guide can tell you lots of interesting stories about the site and particular temples and knows well the history, but we often prefer to explore the place on own and read about it on own (there was a mobile phone signal in Tikal, so we were able to use data).
Only later we found out that the group consisted of about 40 people which is way too much and far from enjoyable size, and we could not be happier to move around the grounds in the opposite direction than the group did.
If you want to explore Tikal with a guide, note that you must select this option in Flores Island when booking the transport as there were no guides waiting outside. In that case, you will have to pay additional 40Q. You can also hire a private guide which usually takes small groups (up to 5 people) - you can find some recommendations on Tripadvisor, but this service cost $50 per person.
TICKETS TO TIKAL
When you buy your shuttle or shuttle plus guide tickets to Tikal, do not expect that it includes the entrance fee to the archeological site (as one girl standing behind us in a line did).
You will pay this fee by the entrance - it is 150Q for foreigners.
You should also bring your passport or ID, but we found out it is not a strict rule - you can show only a photocopy or print screen of your passport in a mobile phone, or you can even write down your details (only name and country) on a piece of paper as agents behind the counter collect this information solely for statistics.
SUNRISE, SUNSET OR DAY TOUR
Also, when we were booking our tickets, we could choose what time we wanted to visit Tikal.
There is a sunrise tour, early morning tour, sunset tour or a regular day visit.
We opted for the early morning tour (this is also what a lady in the office recommended to us) and could not be happier with that choice - the sun was not that strong, and crowds haven't arrived yet.
Here's what you can expect from visiting Tikal during different times of the day.
Sunrise | When you want to see first rays of sun touching temples of Tikal, you can arrive early in the morning, and listen to the waking forest. Sunrise tours usually leave Flores Island at 2 AM, and you must have a guide when visiting Tikal that early as it is before the official opening (6 AM to 5 PM), and there is also additional cost 150Q to enjoy this privilege. You must have a guide and pay extra even when you are staying in Tikal (either in a hostel or in the campground). There is one small disadvantage of visiting Tikal during sunrise - the place is very often misty and foggy early in the morning, so there is a higher chance you won't see much. You also need to purchase the entrance ticket at the Banrural Bank in Flores the day before because the ticket booth at Tikal won't open until 6 AM.
Early Morning | Because we decided on this option, we had to get up early as well, as the departure was set at 3:30 AM. When doing the early morning visit to Tikal, we arrived around 6 AM, so we had quite a lot of time to explore the grounds on own as we wanted to catch the shuttle back at 11 AM. You can stay even longer and take a bus back at 12:30 PM or at 3 PM (there is one after that which will pick up sunset tours). We liked the morning in Tikal because the fog lifted up as soon as we arrived, and the site was quiet apart from omnipresent howler monkeys. You can take a guided tour to learn more about the history.
Day Visit | It is not necessary to get up early when you want to enjoy Tikal. You can arrive by your rental car anytime or take one of the later shuttles (we believe that there is one at 8 AM and 11 AM as well). The site starts to be pretty busy around 10 AM when people with own transport and many locals (who pay a fraction of the entrance fee) start filling the place. Days in Tikal are hot and humid, so we recommend you to bring lots of water and sunscreen.
Sunset | If you are deciding between sunrise and sunset tour, we would have opted for the sunset one, as there is a higher chance to have clear views (at least during dry season). The shuttle leaves Flores Island around 2 PM, and you will have enough time to walk around Tikal and later in the afternoon climb to one of the temples, watch the sunset and listen to waking wildlife.
WHEN IN TIKAL
Once we showed our tickets, we hurried to get to the main plaza to beat the crowds.
The central part of Tikal is truly awe-inspiring. Two Temples, I and II stand opposite to each other, but other temples throughout the site are spectacular as well because each and everyone is a bit different. After we explored the main square, we went further without any particular plan, but we covered everything within four hours.
The site is enormous, so prepare yourself for some walking!
You can buy at the entrance a map for 20Q, but it is not necessary unless you want to have a souvenir because there are signs inside the grounds or you can use app Maps.me where you can find all the trails in Tikal.
WHERE TO STAY BEFORE VISITING TIKAL
For a long time, Flores Island has been known and used as a base for visiting Tikal - it is a small place, walkable, with stunning sunsets and excellent tourist infrastructure - there are hotels, restaurants and travel agencies who can arrange a shuttle to Tikal or bus tickets for your onward travels.
If you have a car, you can stay in one of the accommodations lining the road to Tikal.
Budget | Casa Itzayana - For the price paid you'll get a clean, friendly and well-located accommodation.
Mid-range | Hotel Isla de Flores - Clean and spacious rooms, beautiful design, a roof-top bar, and an outdoor swimming pool are the main features of this hotel.
Luxury | Flores Hotel Boutique - This hotel has an excellent location, and boast with free breakfast, fast wifi service, air-conditioning - all of that for a great price.
WHEN TO VISIT TIKAL
If we were visiting Tikal again, we would have traveled there either early in the morning or tried the sunset tour.
When it comes to the seasons, temperatures in Tikal National Park vary very little. We can say it is hot and humid for most of the year. The rainy season runs from May to October so during this time you can expect higher precipitation, especially in the afternoons. Hottest months are from June to August which in combination with rains can be unpleasant for traveling, but on the other hand, you'll have most of the places for yourself.
When you plan on camping or sleeping in the hammocks in the park, don't be fooled by the warm weather as it can get chilly in the jungle at night.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO CLIMB MAYAN RUINS IN TIKAL
At the moment for the best views, you can climb the Temple IV alias The Temple of the Two-Headed Snake, this is also the temple for the sunset watching. You do not climb the original structure to minimize the negative impact but will get to the top via wooden stairs on the side of the temple.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING TIKAL
Most of the people spend a half day in Tikal, same as we did. It is important not to overpack as it is hot and humid in the park and you would feel every extra kilogram on your back. There is a basic packing list for Tikal.
Sneakers for Him & for Her | Tikal grounds are large if you want to see it all, so it is much better to take sneakers instead of flipflops. Hiking boots are not necessary unless you will go deeper to the jungle with your guide.
Rain Poncho | As usual, it can rain anytime, and we always pack a rain poncho no matter how great the weather forecast is.
Water Bottle | There is an overpriced shop and restaurant near Tikal, so bring your own supplies.
Sunscreen | Sun is very strong in Guatemala as well as overall in Central America, so investing in quality sunscreen will pay off.
If you are staying overnight, we would recommend you to not to leave behind the following items:
Mosquito Repellent | We did not experience any problems with mosquitos during the day, but they are more active at night and during the wet season as well.
Cocoon | It can be chilly at night and when you don't take a sleeping bag with you, pack at least the cocoon which will keep you warm and protect you from the insects.
Headlamp | This is a must when camping in Tikal National Park.
HOW TO GET TO FLORES ISLAND
Guatemala has an extensive network of tourist shuttles, and given the distances between points of interests, it is the most effective way how to get from one place to another, although it is slightly more expensive than public transport.
We traveled to Flores Island from Lanquin, and the journey took around 8 hours, but you can arrive either from Antigua or Lake Atitlan.
The city on the mainland, Santa Elena, has a small airport, so when you do not have enough time, you can get quite quickly to Tikal from Guatemala City.
Where To Stay In TIKAL
If you want to get even more authentic experience from Tikal, you can either stay in the campground and sleep in the hammock (you do not need to pay for the entrance twice as a ticket bought after 3 PM can be used the following day) or in one of the hotels about 10 minutes walk from the national park. That's the closest you can get.
WILDLIFE IN TIKAL
Surprisingly, we saw more toucans here in Tikal than overall in South and Central America.
Generally, when walking in the park, keep your eyes wide open to see other birds such as macaws, other species of monkeys, lizards or even snakes!
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