On our recent trip to Guatemala, we found an ATM and ate some airport fried chicken as soon as we landed. And then we made a beeline for Tikal.
What is Tikal
Tikal is an ancient Mayan settlement known for it’s towering temples in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle.
Here’s a brief history to give you some context as to how old these ancient ruins are:
The Maya settled in Tikal around 700 BC and by 200 BC, they had built a complex of buildings. By AD 250, Tikal had become an important religious, cultural, and commercial city. Tikal’s military strength allowed its population to grow to approximately 100,000 by the middle of the 6th century, at which point it was conquered and ruled by the Maya of Carocol for a short time.
In the late 7th century, King Ah Cacao restored Tikal’s military strength and continued to conquer other Maya kingdoms. His successors were responsible for building most of the temples around the Grand Plaza.
Tikal was abandoned by the end of the 10th century and it was generally forgotten aside from some brief references in writings from Spanish missionary friars, left to collect dust in old libraries.
In 1848, the Guatemalan government heard rumours of the existence of Tikal and sent out an expedition to visit the site. Then, in 1877, a Swiss explorer visited the site and took some artifacts back to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Basel. Add that to the list of of stuff the Swiss stole.
The University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropología e Historia worked on restoration of the site from 1956 through 1969. The Guatemalan government then continued some archeological work but only until 1984. As such, Tikal is only partly restored and still very wild. Tikal National Park was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. Thanks to LIDAR technology, scientists now estimate that Tikal may contain more than 10,000 structures, the vast majority yet to be unearthed.
How to Visit
The first step is getting to the island town of Flores. It is a super cute town filled with candy coloured houses and surrounded by the encroaching Lake Petén Itzá.
Flores is attached to the mainland town of Santa Elena by a causeway. We took an hour long flight to Flores / Santa Elena from the Guatemala City Airport and I highly recommend this option if you are tight on time. There is also an hour long flight from Belize City available.
Other popular options are to take a 4-5 hour bus ride from Belize City or bus or shuttle from elsewhere in Guatemala. Plan for about 4 hours from Rio Dulce or 9 hours from Guatemala City. Traveling by land is definitely cheaper than a flight if you have the time and a strong stomach.
Once you’ve made it to Flores, you need to decide when you want to visit Tikal. We chose a regular, middle of the day trip but you could also go before the park opens for sunrise and more active wildlife, or stay after the park closes for sunset. It’s also possible to spend the night in the park and experience both sunrise and sunset.
There are 8 shuttles per day running between Flores and Tikal and you also have the option of taking a taxi which could be cost effective if you’re traveling with a group.
You’ll need to purchase a ticket before entering the park and if you plan to go during regular park hours, the simplest way to do this is just outside the park gate. If you plan to enter before the park opens, you’ll need to buy a ticket at Banrural bank. In addition, if you plan on being in the park before it opens or after it closes, you’ll need to purchase an additional ticket for that.
While you are technically allowed to visit the park without a guide, I highly recommend a guide because the core of the ancient city takes up about 6 sq miles (16 sq km) and is not remotely well marked. If you are lucky enough to find any ruins, you still won’t know what you’re looking at. You can book a guide in advance or find one inside the gate at the information kiosk.
We found it very simple to book both our shuttle transportation and tour guide through the travel agent at Los Amigos Hostel in Flores.
What to Take With You
- Bring your entry ticket or cash to buy your ticket.
- Make sure you pack water and enough food to get you through the day. There is a small restaurant near the entrance where you might be able to grab a quick bite at the start or end of your visit.
- Bring sun screen and anything else you might need to be comfortable and safe in the sun.
- Bring bug spray, although I can say that we didn’t really come across any mosquitos or other insects. And for that reason, do not get talked into wearing pants and long sleeves unless you’re doing it to protect yourself from the sun.
- Wear whatever shoes you are comfortable walking long distances, climbing steep steps, and walking on iffy terrain. For some people that might be flip flops.
- Bring an extra phone or camera in case yours suddenly stops working while a Brazilian girl is taking your picture.
What to Expect
No matter what I tell you to expect, you’ll be surprised.
The ruins of Tikal are located in the center of a giant national park. And this national park is a wild jungle and probably less developed than most national parks you’ve seen. For example, the entry gate was manually operated by three men using a pulley system. There are a few signs throughout, but not enough to help you navigate or always tell you what you’re looking at. And because it is so large and spread out, you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself. You rarely see anyone that isn’t part of your group which allows for great pictures.
Here’s a taste of what you might see, in the order that we saw them:
Ocellated turkeys patrol the area around the museums and visitor center.
Ceiba trees are Guatemala’s national trees. They stand as high as 100 feet tall and spread their branches as wide a 150 feet, and are prized for the shade they provide. They also provide homes for various species of bromiliads, orchids, and ferns.
Agoutis or paca are large rodents that are apparently rarely seen during the day.
Howler monkeys are black with big shoulders and skinny legs.
Complex Q is a twin temple complex, where the East Pyramid has been partially restored and can be climbed.
From the top of Complex Q, you can see Templo I in the distance.
Spider monkeys have a light coloured mask around their eyes and nose. They are easy to spot as they make long, crashing leaps through the tree canopy.
Templo IV is the highest building in Tikal and the second highest pre-Columbian building known in the western hemisphere. I’ll wait here while you look up the highest. There is a wooden staircase that allows you to easily climb Templo IV and from the top, you’ll get an amazing view across the jungle that includes several of the other pyramids.
You may recognize the view from Star Wars: Episode IV. This is also where everyone goes to watch sunrise.
El Mundo Perdido is a complex of 38 structures including a huge pyramid which is the oldest Maya structure at Tikal.
The pyramid in El Mundo Perdido can also be climbed for some pretty cool views.
Templo V is an imposing temple that consists of seven stepped platforms.
Templo I (Temple of the Grand Jaguar) was built as a mausoleum to Ah Cacao (the king that restored Tikal’s primacy in the Maya world after a short period of domination by the Caracol). You are not allowed to climb Templo I, but you get a great view of it from the Gran Plaza (Tikal’s ceremonial core) or from the top of Templo II.
Templo II (Temple of the Masks) is located across the Gran Plaza from Templo I and can be climbed for great views of Templo I and the rest of the Gran Plaza.
The Acropolis Central beside the Gran Plaza offers a maze of courtyards and is thought to either be where Tikal’s nobles lived, or possibly used for sacred rites and ceremonies.
There are a number of other structures and flora and fauna that you might be able to see, but this was my experience.
What Else to Do In Flores
It is honestly a super tiny town. You can walk the entire circumference in 15 minutes, although it is lightly challenging because the sidewalks are slowly being swallowed up by the lake.
There is a rope swing you can visit by taking a boat ride across the lake.
Otherwise, just find somewhere with a view and enjoy the sunset over the lake.
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