Tikal is perhaps the most fascinating place in Guatemala. During a visit to this ancient Mayan city, you will learn a lot about the ingenious temples and the life of the Mayan people. But that’s not all because the jungle in which Tikal is located is also one of the best places in Guatemala for wildlife spotting. It is home to toucans, monkeys, anteaters, pumas, and many other animals. As you watch the sunrise from the abandoned kingdom, you’ll hear the howling of monkeys, and occasionally, groups of parrots will fly by. There are many different choices and options for visiting the park. Here, I share everything about the different options and practical tips to make the most of your visit to Tikal.
The history of Tikal in short
Tikal began in 700 BC as a small village but grew into one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in Maya history. The population is estimated to have been as high as 100,000 people at its peak.
The Maya were skilled mathematicians in their time. They built temples aligned with astronomical phenomena such as the solstice and the moon’s position. This allowed them to create a calendar system to track dates, seasons, and important events, which they used for planning agriculture, religious festivals, and other activities.
The temples were also used to honor gods, perform rituals, and make offerings. In addition to all of this, the temples were primarily associated with the ruling elite and served as symbols of power and authority. When you delve into the history of the Maya during a tour, you’ll learn that careful thought was given to how, why, and where the temples were built as they were. This gives you an interesting insight into how a people lived and interacted with nature, belief, and political power.
However, Tikal was abandoned in the 10th century, swallowed by the jungle. Was it due to a conflict with a rival kingdom? Was it due to drought? To this day, the reasons remain uncertain and the cause a mystery. With this in mind, your visit to Tikal becomes even more intriguing. The city remained hidden until it was rediscovered in the 20th century. Today, Tikal is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and travelers from around the world visit the ancient ruins to learn more about the fascinating Maya civilization.
Choosing a tour or going on your own?
Tikal National Park covers an area of 575 square kilometers and is located in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle. Therefore, exploring this park is an adventure in itself, but it’s also one where you can easily get lost. When I was there, there was even a poster of a man who had recently gone missing in the park. So, it’s important to have some information about the park and your visit options in advance. In the villages of Flores and El Remate, you can find many tour operators. If you’d rather not be tied to a group or tour schedules, you can also explore Tikal on your own. Below, I describe both options.
With a tour to Tikal
An organized tour with a guide is the ideal way to see all the highlights of the park. Here, you’ll learn everything about the lives of the Maya people and, of course, the many temples and buildings you’ll encounter. Your transportation is arranged, and a guide knows exactly the best route through the park. They keep an eye on where the other groups are and try to avoid them as much as possible so that the crowds are dispersed, and you sometimes have the temples to yourself. Guides are also skilled at spotting wildlife, so in addition to an interesting history lesson, you’ll also get an optimal jungle experience.
The different tours
- Sunrise tour: You depart from Flores around 03:00 to be on top of a temple in the ancient Maya kingdom in time to witness the beautiful sunrise.
- Early Bird tour: With this tour, you depart from Flores around 04:30 to explore the park in the early morning light. You enter the park at 6:00.
- Day tour: Don’t want to get up early? You can also depart at various times in the morning.
- Sunset tour: With this tour, you depart from Flores around 12:00 to explore the park in the afternoon and end with a beautiful sunset among the famous Maya temples.
In our opinion, the magical light of a sunrise or sunset is always a recommendation when visiting a special place like Tikal. If the weather forecast isn’t so great and there’s a high chance of clouds, the sunrise or sunset may not be as impressive. The Early Bird Tour is also a good option to book. It’s a bit cheaper than the sunrise tour but still a nice time to walk through the park because it’s less crowded.
A tour lasts approximately 8 hours in total. It takes about one hour and 15 minutes to drive from Flores to the entrance where you purchase your ticket, followed by an additional 20 minutes to reach the point where you enter the park. You will spend around 4 hours walking through the park, passing various temples and palaces. The guide has a lot of interesting information to share about each temple, explaining why it was built and its exact function. You can climb some of the ruins, providing you with a stunning view of Tikal. In between, you’ll undoubtedly see toucans flying and monkeys swinging through the trees.
Exploring the Temples on Your Own
If you’d prefer to explore the vast complex of Tikal on your own, that’s also easily possible. The downside of visiting Tikal independently is that you’ll miss out on all the background information, which can make your visit somewhat less interesting. You can book a shuttle to Tikal and back at any hostel, hotel, or tour operator in Flores and El Remate. If you’re traveling on a small budget, you can also take the bus from Santa Elena (mainland Flores) or El Remate. In this case, it’s more cost-effective to purchase a round-trip ticket rather than separate tickets for the outbound and return journeys. Check with your accommodation for the current departure times.
The Three Different Tickets
- Day ticket: Valid for a visit during regular opening hours from 06:00 – 18:00 (Q150). Between these hours, you can walk through the park without a guide.
- Sunrise ticket: This allows you to enter the park before regular opening hours, from 04:30 – 06:00, to witness the sunrise (Q100).
- Sunset ticket: This allows you to stay in the park later than regular opening hours, between 17:00 – 20:00, to watch the sunset (Q100).
If you want to visit the park during the day and also watch the sunrise or sunset, you’ll need two tickets. One ticket for regular opening hours and an extra ticket for the sunrise or sunset. Because you’ll be walking through the park in the dark during part of the extended hours, you must have a guide during these times if you purchase a ticket for the sunrise or sunset. The guide will meet you in the park and will accompany you (only during sunrise or sunset times). During regular opening hours, you’re free to explore without a guide.
Please note: If you want to visit Tikal at sunrise, you must purchase your tickets at least one day in advance. This is because the park’s ticket booths open at 06:00. You can buy your ticket in Flores or El Remate from a tour provider or at the Banrural Bank. If you’re staying in a hotel near the park entrance the day before your visit, you can purchase your tickets there for the next day.
How to Have Tikal to Yourself Without Getting Up Extremely Early
You can visit Tikal from various places. Most travelers make a stop in Flores during their trip to Guatemala. It’s a cozy town and a great base for visiting Tikal. It’s approximately a one-hour and 15-minute drive from Flores to Tikal. If you want to visit Tikal early in the morning for sunrise, you can do so with a tour from Flores, but you’ll need to get up extra early at 03:00. Alternatively, you can take the bus to Tikal the day before and stay one or two nights near the entrance to Tikal. This way, you won’t have to get up as early, you can walk from your hotel straight into the park, and you’ll have the temples all to yourself! There are only two hotels near the entrance to Tikal, so if this option appeals to you, you can choose either Hotel Tikal Inn or Jungle Lodge Tikal Hostal. Upon arrival at these hotels, you can also arrange for a guide for the next day if you’d like to explore Tikal with a guide.
Visiting Tikal from a Lodge in El Remate
Most travelers choose to visit Tikal from Flores or to stay near the entrance as described above. However, there’s a third base called El Remate. This small village is located on the same lake as Flores but is a bit closer to Tikal. It takes only 40 minutes to drive from El Remate to the entrance. The village itself doesn’t offer much, but there are several unique lodges right on the water. Most lodges are quite pricey, but at Hotel Gringo Perdido, you get the best value for your money because both breakfast and dinner for two people are included in the price. This lodge is located directly on the lake and has many comfortable seating areas like hammocks, hanging nets, and lounge chairs. You can borrow kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkeling equipment for free to explore the lake. Due to the lodge’s remote location, you can enjoy a beautiful starry sky at night. You won’t want to leave this place!
Optional: Combine Tikal with the Lesser-Known Sibling Yaxha
I combined the Early Bird tour in Tikal with the sunset tour in Yaxha, another ancient Maya city in the vicinity. Doing two tours in one day can be more intense, but if you want to see and learn a lot in a short amount of time, this combination is a great choice because the tours complement each other well. In this case, be sure to bring a packed lunch. Yaxha is the lesser-known sibling of Tikal. Yaxha was also one of the largest Maya cities, featuring massive temples surrounded by lush nature. Yaxha covers 16 square kilometers (6.2 square miles), making it smaller than Tikal, and because it’s less known, it tends to be quieter. While I found the temples at Tikal to be slightly more impressive due to the larger number of grand temples and more extensive excavation, I also thoroughly enjoyed exploring the compact complex of Yaxha. You can book this combination tour through Getaway Travels in Flores.
The Most Beautiful Temples of Tikal
The vast area of Tikal consists of thousands of structures, including temples, palaces, houses, and ball courts. It would take several days to see everything, and not all of it has been excavated. Most people, therefore, focus on visiting the impressive highlights in the park. Here are some of the must-see structures:
- The Grand Plaza – This is the heart of the ancient Maya city, where ceremonies and activities were held in the past.
- Temple I – Also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, it stands at 47 meters (154 feet) and, while not the tallest, is the most iconic and impressive temple in the area. This temple became a monument to one of the greatest rulers of the empire, and archaeologists found the most valuable treasure underneath it.
- Temple II – Also known as the Temple of the Masks, it is 38 meters (125 feet) high and one of the best-preserved temples in the complex. It faces Temple I, and when you climb it, you have a magnificent view of the Grand Plaza and Temple I.
- Temple IV – Standing at 65 meters (213 feet), this is the tallest structure in Tikal. You shouldn’t leave Tikal without climbing this temple and gazing upon the ancient Maya empire. This is also the best spot to witness the sunrise or sunset.
What to Bring to the Temples
Pack the following items in your backpack to prepare for your visit to Tikal:
- Passport: You’ll need it to identify yourself when purchasing an entrance ticket.
- Mosquito repellent: Especially around sunrise and sunset, it’s a good idea to apply mosquito repellent, as you’ll be in the middle of the jungle. Mosquitoes are also attracted to dark clothing, so it’s preferable to wear something light or colorful.
- Sunscreen and a hat or cap to protect yourself from the sun, as it can get quite hot!
- Enough cash, as there are no ATMs at Tikal.
- Ample water and some snacks. There are no restaurants or shops within the park; you’ll only find food and drinks available at the entrance during official opening hours.
Additional Tips for Your Visit to Tikal
- Easily navigate Tikal with the maps.me app. Be sure to download the map in advance so you can see the paths within the park.
- Entrance is free for locals on Sundays, so keep in mind that it may be busier on that day.
- The large tour buses with tourists typically arrive toward the end of the morning and depart in the early afternoon. To avoid the crowds, it’s best to plan your visit accordingly.
- If you use your day ticket after 15:00, you can also use it the next day.
Our Favorite Places to Stay in Flores
Los Amigos Hostel is the place to be when you’re looking for a vibrant atmosphere in Flores. This popular hostel boasts a large garden, a restaurant, and a bar that’s always bustling with activity and games. You can enjoy (specialty) beers and delicious food here. If you prefer a quieter hostel, Hostal Don Cenobio is a great choice. This hostel is right by the water and offers a beautiful rooftop terrace with stunning views of the lake. You’ll have a tasty breakfast here in the morning to start your day off right. If you have a bit more to spend and want to relax by a lovely pool, then Hotel Isla de Flores is fantastic. This charming hotel features beautiful rooms and a rooftop terrace with a pool. It’s a great place to unwind!
|Los Amigos Hostel
||Hostal Don Cenobio
||Hotel Isla de Flores