A Complete Guide To Visiting Tikal, Guatemala

Guatemala is packed with beautiful Mayan sites, and Tikal is definitely among the most impressive – to the point that many consider it the highlight of their trip across Central America. What makes it special is not only how well-kept its temples and plazas are, but also the thick jungle setting complete with lush vegetation and wildlife roaming about.

Whether you are on a long-term backpacking trip across Central America or on a short break in Guatemala (or in fact, Belize), you should consider visiting Tikal. If you not sure about going, and how to plan your visit, worry not: I have you covered. I have visited Tikal three times and I have plenty of tips to share.

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things to do in Guatemala Tikal

Everything You Must Know Before Visiting Tikal, Guatemala

What is Tikal?

Located in northern Guatemala, in the Peten province, is the ancient city of Tikal. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once a thriving metropolis, and one of the most important citadels of the Mayan civilization.

Situated within the boundaries of Tikal National Park, which encompasses over 220 square miles, a visit to this enigmatic piece of history means hiking through thick jungle and admiring thousands of ancient structures.

It’s estimated that the area was settled in around 900 BC. Over time, the settlement grew in importance to eventually become a center for commercial activity, culture, and ceremonial events over the many centuries following its founding.

There are enormous temples here, a testament to the complexity of this culture, as well as to Tikal’s own importance. Many of these were constructed during the 8th century AD, which is around the time that Tikal had risen to become one of the most important cities in the Mayan world. It was home to an estimated 100,000 people.

Tikal eventually fell into a decline towards the end of the 9th century, a similar time to Mayan city states in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The reason for the Mayan empire’s collapse is still unknown, but theories exist, ranging from war and cataclysmic famine, to depletion of resources.

As the impressive structures were left completely abandoned, the jungle reclaimed them over the centuries. They were overlooked by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors, who marched through in 1525, not seeing the ruins for the trees (though its existence was rumored by various sources).

It wasn’t until the Guatemalan government sent out an official expedition in 1848 that Tikal was “rediscovered”. Since then it has been studied extensively by international and local teams alike.

Tikal

Why is Tikal Important?

Tikal is widely known for its Mayan ruins, and is one of the only World Heritage Sites that’s included in UNESCO’s listings for both natural and cultural criteria—thanks not only to the ancient human engineering, but to the biodiversity at work here, too.

It’s not just rainforest but also palm forests, savannah, wetlands, and tropical broadleaf, making the position of the ruins in the middle of all this dense and diverse ecosystem even more amazing. In fact, today jaguar and puma are known to roam the area, as are howler monkeys, spider monkeys, anteaters and 300 species of birds, including toucans.

But most people won’t be trekking through the surrounding jungle: they’ll be coming to see the grand ruins of Tikal itself. Many of the structures seem to be very well preserved and intact with hieroglyphic inscriptions and staircases. The inner urban zone is particularly important, with many temples and pyramids, along with ceremonial platforms, palaces, roads, and even residences still on display.

Tikal, however, is much more important than just the most obvious buildings. The site has changed our perspective on understanding Mayan civilization and the evolution of human culture in general. There’s a wide selection of artistic and intellectual relics that have been found, including glyphs, ancient administrative records, carvings, and sculptures.

tikal

The Main Sights of Tikal

With such a lot to see at Tikal, it can be tricky to know exactly where to start on your exploration of this ancient site. And, if you don’t have very much time, then you might want to hone in on the bigger and more impressive sites.

There are thousands of sites, and only a few have been fully excavated. There are six main pyramids (labelled Templo I – VI), all of which consist of a pyramid with a temple at the peak. Some of these are over 200 feet (61 meters) in height.

The Great Jaguar Temple

Also known as Templo I, the Great Jaguar Temple is situated in an area called the Grand Plaza. It is a funerary pyramid, the final resting place of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, one of the greatest rulers of Tikal, who was entombed here in 734 AD. The pyramid soars to an impressive 155 feet (47 meters) and was originally topped with a sculpture of the king himself.

Various items were discovered inside, such as images of deities, offerings of food and drink, and even inscribed human bones!

Temple of the Masks

Named after a mask-like carving on a lintel above a doorway (now in the American Museum of Natural History), this is the more popular title of Templo II. It was built around 700 AD and stands at 125 feet (38 meters) tall. Situated on the west side of the Great Plaza, directly opposite Templo I, this multi-level pyramid was built by Jasaw Chan K’awiil I in honor of his wife. It boasts an ornate roof and various sealed chambers.

Mayan ruins in Guatemala

Temple of the Jaguar Priest

Officially Templo III, the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was the final of the great pyramids to be built in Tikal. Reaching approximately 180 feet (55 meters) in height, it’s been dated to 810 AD. It’s associated with the king known as Dark Sun, a lesser known king. Inside the temple, there’s a sculpted lintel depicting a figure wearing jaguar skins, hence the name of this site.

Templo IV

The tallest of all the pyramids at Tikal, Templo IV was built in 741 AD and lies at the western edge of the main urban area of the city. It is an impressive 230 feet (70 meters) in height, making it the second tallest pre-Colombian building in the Americas. It was intended to mark the reign of Yik’in Chan K’awiil, the 27th king of the Tikal dynasty. Archaeologists believe that his tomb remains undiscovered beneath the pyramid.

Templo V

South of the Central Acropolis is Templo V. Unfortunately, it’s unknown who this pyramid is dedicated to, but that doesn’t make it any less visually impressive. At 190 feet (58 meters) tall, it’s the second tallest and boasts a steep moss-covered stairway, big balustrades and interestingly rounded corners. It dates to around 700 AD.

Temple 33

This funerary pyramid was once decorated with masks and panels featuring engravings and hieroglyphs. Interestingly, it was discovered that Temple 33 wasn’t just one but two pyramids, with one being built over the top of an existing one.

Temple of Inscriptions

Founded in 766 AD, the Temple of Inscriptions or Templo VI is particularly stunning thanks to its 40 foot high roof-comb, which is covered in panels of Mayan hieroglyphs. You’ll find it at the southeast end of the Mendez Causeway.

The Lost World Pyramid

For something a little less polished, you could pay a visit to the Lost World Pyramid. It was actually decorated with stucco masks of the sun goddess, and is part of a larger temple complex dedicated to her. Today it’s covered with overgrowth and plants, making it feel mysterious and otherworldly.

Central Acropolis

Just south of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis. This is a palatial complex that was once the home to royal families of Tikal, and was used between 250 and 550 AD. Numerous rooms, passageways and structures made up this opulent and sprawling complex. Though it’s in ruins today, it’s easy to imagine the grandeur of the Central Acropolis in its heyday.

North Acropolis

Unlike its central counterpart, the North Acropolis wasn’t intended for living members of the royal family, but as a funerary complex instead. It was the main center for funerary activity in Tikal for over 1,300 years, and for that reason is one of the most studied of all structures in the Mayan world.

Stelae Museum and The Sylvanus G. Morley Museum

The structures of Tikal are practically intact, but the many artefacts and decorations have been removed and taken to various museums around the world. Luckily, there are not one but two museums located in Tikal National Park.

The Sylvanus G. Morley Museum (aka Tikal Museum) is located near the entrance, and is where you can find reconstructions of tombs as well as other artefacts. The Stelae Museum houses a selection of stelae (decorative stone slabs) that have been moved here to better preserve them.

Tikal

Opening Hours and Entrance Fee for Tikal

Tikal National Park is open daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Sunrise tours start at 4:00 am.

Tickets

  • Q150 (around $20 USD) – Adults
    Free – Children under 12
  • Sunrise tour and ticket costs Q250 ($33 USD).
  • Tickets purchased after 3 p.m. are valid for the following day.
  • Uaxactun has an additional Q50 ($6.50 USD) fee.

Make sure to bring enough cash for your ticket as the ticket office only accepts cash payments.

If you want to visit Tikal for sunrise you will have to buy the ticket the day before as the ticket office only opens at 6:00 am. For sunrise tours that include transportation from Flores, click here.

Flores

How to Get to Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal National Park is located 40 miles north of Flores, which will be your main base when visiting the site.

There are many different ways to get to Flores, depending on your budget, itinerary, and how much time you have to spare – by plane from Guatemala City; by direct overnight bus from Guatemala City; by shuttle from Antigua or Lanquin / Semuc Champey; by bus from Belize City or San Ignacio in Belize.

Once you are in Flores, you have several options to get to Tikal.

By Chicken Bus

If you want to visit Tikal on the cheap, you have the option of getting there by chicken bus. The first one leaves at 3:30 am, and the last bus from Tikal to Flores leaves at 5:30 pm. Journey time is about 1.5 hours.

By Taxi or Minivan

Private shuttles or minivans are one of the best options of getting to Tikal. These leave hourly and take around an hour to reach the site. They cost around Q200 ($27 USD) roundtrip and must be booked a day in advance – you can book it via your hotel, via one of the many agencies in Flores, or online here.

Taxis also ply the same routes but can be more expensive, though more comfortable (make sure you haggle).

By Organized Tour

Guided tours are an easy, hassle free way of exploring the site. Several tours depart daily from Flores and they typically include transportation, fees and a guide to take you around the site. Some tours also include lunch.

For guided tours click here. For sunrise tours, click here. For tours from San Ignacio (Belize) click here.

Guided tours also depart from Antigua and Guatemala City, and can either last a full day or a couple of days. These typically include transportation (roundtrip flights and ground transportation) and entrance fees. Multi-day tours also include a visit to Yaxha, accommodation in Flores and meals.

For information on day trips departing from Guatemala City, click here. For information on multi-day tours, click here. For day trips from Antigua, click here.

Flores Guatemala

Sunrise and Sunset Visits

To admire Tikal in all its glory and in an even more beautiful light, you have the option of visiting at sunrise or sunset. You can even do both, if you have the energy for it. However, keep in mind that there are days when it is overcast so there won’t be much of a sunrise or sunset to be seen – and unfortunately, there isn’t much of a way to predict this.

Here’s what you should to consider before signing up for a sunrise or sunset visit:

SUNRISE TOURS – Visiting Tikal for sunrise implies a very early wake up call (think 2:30 am for bus departures at 3:00 am); it’s costly (there is an additional Q100 – $13 USD fee) and you’ll have to buy the ticket in advance in town (your hotel can tell you where to get it) as the ticket office on site only opens at 6:00 am. On the other hand, the site won’t be nearly as crowded and it will also be a bit cooler compared to visiting during the day.

For guided sunrise tours, click here.

SUNSET VISITS – There is no additional fee to pay if you want to linger around the site long enough for sunset (provided you haven’t had enough of the heat already), but the site closes at 6:00 pm and the last bus to Flores departs at 5:30 pm, which means you’ll have to rush to the gate.

For guided sunset visits, click here.

You can opt to invest in a room at the Jaguar Inn, the closest accommodation to Tikal, to save yourself the hassle of a very early wake up call or having to rush back to town on the last bus.

Best Time to Visit Tikal

Tikal is located in the jungle of Peten, in northern Guatemala, a region that is humid throughout the year and where you can expect temperatures to be different degrees of hot. However, it is worth nothing a few factors that may help you decide when to visit.

Rain season in Peten goes from May to October and is characterized by heavy showers that can last for the best part of the afternoon, and high humidity. That really is not ideal for exploring a site that is immersed in the jungle and where the trails can get quite muddy.

Dry season starts in November and ends in April and coincides with high season, which goes from December to March. The largest groups of tourists arrive in Guatemala for Christmas and Easter, which is when the site will be the most crowded and accommodation slightly more expensive. April and May are the hottest months.

Keeping all these factors in mind, you could say that the best time to visit is February and March. I visited once at the end of November, once at the end of January and once in February and each time had lovely weather (though granted, it was hot and humid) and to be fair I never felt that the site was overwhelmingly crowded.

Where to Stay

In terms of accommodation, you can either opt to stay in Flores; or by the site itself. Flores will inevitably give you a wider range of accommodation option for all budgets, and easy access to restaurants and other attractions. However, being close to the site has its advantages too. Below is a selection of the best places to stay in both locations.

In Flores

  • HOTEL ISLA DE FLORES – In the heart of town, rooms at this mid-range hotel are plain but comfortable and the service good. It’s one of the best places to stay in Flores.
  • LA LANCHA – Actually located in El Remate, 21 km out of Flores, this is the best place to stay to fully pamper yourself. You can pick between bungalows and massive apartments with lake views.

In Tikal

  • JAGUAR INN – A great mid range option. Rooms are spacious, there is an on-site restaurant and personnel is very friendly.
  • JUNGLE LODGE – Another good mid-range option. Rooms are on the small side, but spotless. There is a pool and an on-site restaurant.

Other Useful Info for Visiting Tikal

Here are a few additional tips for a smooth visit:

GET A GUIDE – There are two groups of travelers. Those that prefer exploring a site at their own pace and without a guide; and those that find having a knowledgeable guide an enormous advantage. I am all in favor of a guide for this particular site, and this is after having visited without one the first time, and with a guide the other times. The issue is that not all guides are the same and unless you go in with a recommendation, it can be a bit of a hit and miss. Your best bet is to book a guided tour online so that you can check reviews by other travelers. This tour comes highly recommended.

BRING CASH – There are no ATMs anywhere in Tikal. You’ll need to bring enough cash with you for the day (whether that’s for the tickets, for transport or if you want to buy souvenirs, food, drink, etc.).

TOILETS – Finding toilets can be an issue. You can pick up a map from the Visitor Center for Q20 or just take a picture of the large sign by the entrance on your cellphone and save it for when you need it (the bathroom, that is).

WEAR A HAT – There’s almost no shade around the main sights of Tikal, so you should definitely bring a hat to wear to protect against the sun. Also, ensure that you have plenty of sunscreen on and maybe cover up with a light long sleeve top.

DRINK LOTS OF WATER – It’s hot in Tikal so you should also bring plenty of water—staying hydrated is super important!

PACK SOME SNACKS – There is an on-site restaurant where you can grab a sandwich, drinks and snacks but there’s always a line and it’s quite overpriced, so you may as well bring your own snacks for the day!

APPLY MOSQUITO REPELLENT – You are in the jungle, it’s incredibly humid and there are lots of mosquitos who’ll be happy to feast on you unless you protect yourself.

KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN FOR WILDLIFE – It’s not the main attraction, but definitely an added bonus.

DRESS APPROPRIATELY – If you’re there for the whole day, chances are you’ll be exploring. That calls for sturdy footwear (no flip-flops guys!), a good rucksack and clothing that’s up to the task.

ARRIVE EARLY – If you get there as the gates open at 6:00 am, you’ll not only avoid the hottest part of the day, but you’ll also avoid the crowds of daytrippers and other tourists who flood the site throughout the day.

DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT – You actually need your passport to buy a ticket at the gate, and you can be turned away without one. So make sure it’s packed and ready to go.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts:

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Discover everything you need to know before visiting Tikal, Guatemala - via @clautavani

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