From the history to what you should expect and how to make the most of your trip, learn all you need to know about visiting Tikal in Guatemala, with tips I gathered from many visits.
Tikal is one of the world’s most fascinating and impressive archaeological sites. Situated in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest, The Mayan ruin was once the capital of a robust and influential kingdom that dominated the region for a long time.
Today, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park that attracts thousands of visitors every year who want to explore its ancient temples, and areas to enjoy its natural beauty and wildlife.
Tikal Maya Ruins is one of the most unique places in the world for my family and me. Why? This is where my husband and I met thirteen years ago, and since then, we have taken our sons to visit the ruins, so they too can see the magic this place possesses.
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Where’s Tikal located?
Tikal Ruins are nestled in a rainforest in Guatemala, and part of the Tikal National Park, located in the Peten Department to the northern side of Guatemala. It’s close to the Belizean border, about 500 kilometers or a 9-10h drive from Guatemala City.
It’s close to the Biotopo Protegido San Miguel La Palotada El Zotz, a natural preserve area, and Peten Itza Lake, home to several towns that can offer accommodation like El Remate or Flores Island.
What is Tikal, Guatemala?
Tikal is the largest and most important Maya city ever discovered due to its complexity. It covers an area of about 16 square kilometers and contains over 3,000 structures, including temples, palaces, pyramids, plazas, ball courts, and stelae.
Tikal was the center of political, economic, religious, and cultural life of the Maya civilization from the 1st to the 9th century AD. At its peak, it had a population of about 100,000 people and controlled a vast territory that extended from the Yucatán Peninsula to the highlands of Guatemala.
Highlights of Tikal Mayan Ruins:
- It was also a cultural and artistic center. They developed a sophisticated writing system, a complex calendar, a refined astronomy, and a rich mythology.
- They also excelled in architecture, sculpture, painting, pottery, and weaving.
- As well as, building monumental structures reflecting their cosmology and ideology.
- They carved stelae that recorded their history and achievements and decorated their buildings with elaborate murals and friezes that depicted their rituals and ceremonies.
- They also created beautiful objects of art and everyday life, such as jade masks, ceramic vessels, bone needles, and obsidian knives.
It is not only a historical and archaeological treasure, but also a natural wonder. It is located in the middle of a lush tropical rainforest home to hundreds of species of plants and animals. There’s so much wildlife that you get to see, like howler monkeys, spiders, and great foxes.
A rich and complex cultural heritage that reflects the achievements and challenges of the Maya civilization. To fully appreciate and understand Tikal, it is important to learn about its history and culture, and how it evolved over time.
Tikal boasts interesting facts, it was founded around the 1st or 4th century AC, but many historians say people could have lived there by at least 600 BC. It soon became a prominent city-state that competed with other Maya centers for power and prestige.
The city reached its golden age during the Classic Period (250-900 AD), it’s believed that Yax Ehb Xook funded it, and it was ruled by a dynasty of 33 kings who expanded its influence and wealth, as of 2008, only 27 of these rulers have been identified successfully, and those include at least one woman.
Tikal’s decline is hard to pinpoint, it began in the late 9th century AD when its inhabitants abandoned it, and it is believed that it happened due to a series of droughts, wars, and social unrest that affected the Maya civilization as well as overpopulation and exploitation.
Researchers have been trying to explain how and why it collapsed for a long time, but the questions remain unanswered. Some recent research pointed out that it could have been due to poison found in the ancient city drinking water when they struggled with a dry season.
It was left behind, a magnificent city to be reclaimed by the jungle, and remained hidden and forgotten for almost a thousand years until explorers and archaeologists rediscovered it in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since then, Tikal has been extensively excavated and restored and has become one of the most visited and studied Maya sites in the world.
Tikal in Star Wars and Media
The Mayan ruins have gained much popularity and significance, not only to its people but also worldwide due to their appearance in popular movies, like Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and the Moonraker.
Also, it has been featured in several documentaries and TV series, like Mystery of the Maya and Exploración Maya, where it was highlighted with information known by that time.
Best time to visit Tikal
The Park is open to the public every day of the year, from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. The best time to visit Tikal is during the dry season, which typically runs from November to April. During this period, you’ll experience less rainfall and more sunny and pleasant days, and the roads are clear and accessible, making it ideal for exploring the site and the surrounding jungle.
You expect temperatures ranging from 26 to 37˚C while nighttime it gets from 18 to 21˚C (70˚F). Despite being the dry season, remember it’s a rainforest, so you still can expect some rain and humidity, make sure to pack a raincoat.
The rainy season, from May to October, is also a good time to visit Tikal, when the forest is green and lush, and the crowds are smaller and quieter. However, you should be prepared for rain and mud, and bring an umbrella, a raincoat, and waterproof shoes.
Tikal entrance fee
The entrance fee to the Tikal Mayan Ruins is 150Q (Money in Guatemala is called Quetzales), which is around $20 per day and person. If you want to do the sunrise or sunset tours, you’ll need to buy an extra ticket that costs 100Q, extra, on top of the main entrance fee. You will also need a guide for these tours (more on later).
Since 2023, you can now buy your tickets only, which saves a lot of valuable time when visiting Tikal. In previous years you needed to do it personally, with a passport, and pay in local currency. Kid 9 years old and younger are free of charge, and those who are 10 and older needs to pay the full entrance fee.
If you have been traveling to Central America, you could enter through the Belize border or if you’re already traveling around the country, you can fly from Guatemala City to Flores.
There are several ways to get to Tikal, depending on your budget, time, and preference.
How to get to Tikal from Guatemala City or Antigua?
- The easiest and fastest way to get to Tikal is by flying. Daily flights are from Guatemala City to Flores, the capital of Petén, and the nearest town to Tikal. The flight takes about an hour and costs vary a lot, from as low as $37 to as high as $144 one way.
- Another way to get to Tikal is by bus. Several bus companies offer direct or indirect services from Guatemala City to Flores. The direct buses take about 8 to 10 hours and cost around USD 30 one way.
- A third way to get to Tikal is by car. You can rent a car in Guatemala City or Flores and drive to Tikal. The road is paved and well-marked, but it can be bumpy and narrow in some parts. The drive takes from the capital takes about 7 to 9 hours. The car rental costs vary a lot, plus gas and tolls.
From Flores, you can take a shuttle bus, a taxi, or a private transfer to Tikal, which is about 65 kilometers away. The trip takes about an hour and costs vary greatly depending on your choice. Also, if you booked a tour they may have this covered, so, make sure to ask beforehand.
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Things to Do in Tikal
The Mayan ruins and its surrounding areas are one of those places where you can spend hours, even days exploring and discovering its wonders. There is so much to do and see in Tikal, that you will never get bored or tired of it.
Here are some of the main activities that you can enjoy:
Check out the main attractions and monuments of Tikal
There are many attractions and essential structures to discover and admire, each has its own story and significance, and you can learn more about them by hiring a guide, so I highly recommend doing a guided tour.
Some of the must-visit are:
Mundo Perdido (Lost Word)
This is what you see in the Star Wars movie, its main temple is the Great Pyramid. There are several pyramids that you could climb up and walk on and some others that you can’t, due to it becoming fragile over the years.
Right on the side of the Lost World is the Plaza of the Seven Altars, which consists of several structures in a large plaza, including some ball courts and several small temple-like structures.
The Great Plaza
This is the heart and soul of Tikal, where you can find the most iconic and majestic structures of the city as well as unique stelae and art objects. It is surrounded by two colossal pyramids, the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks, which rise above the forest canopy and offer stunning views of the site and the landscape.
The Great Plaza also contains the North and Central Acropolises, as well as several stelae and altars that commemorate the deeds and dates of the kings and the gods.
The South Plaza
This is another interesting and scenic area of Tikal, where you can find the Temple of the Priest, and the Temple of the Bat, which are elegant and graceful pyramids that honor some of the priests and the warriors of Tikal.
This area also contains the South Acropolis, which is a complex of palaces, temples, and tombs of the elite and the commoners of Tikal. The South Plaza also hosts several stelae and altars that record the history and the events of the city.
Temple IV and Complex N
Temple IV is also known as Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent, it’s the tallest structure in the Tikal Archeological Site. One of the biggest draws about this temple is that you can actually climb to the top of the structure and get a bird’s eye view of the jungle and ruins.
The complex N of the Mayan ruins is known as the twin pyramid complex, while they are smaller than the others, it’s worth checking out.
Those are just a few structures, areas, and temples you can explore. Tikal Mayan Ruins are huge, you can also check out the Ballcourt, and several other complexes like R, Q, O, P, and H.
Camping in Tikal
An additional experience to the already awesome trip to Tikal ruins is camping right there and it is possible. Something that most tourist seems to overlook is that the park has a campground designated for you to use. It’s near major buildings like the Visitors Center and the Sylvanus Morley Research Center.
The price is 50Q, which is around $7 right now. While you can bring your own hammock or tent, you can rent one for 35Q, with a mosquito net included. You can also use the lockable shed in case you want to store your valuables.
(This camping fee is extra, you still need to pay the entrance fee).
Recommended Guide 🗺️
If you’re planning to travel, check out this 48-hour Tikal guide, with in-depth tips on the places to visit, things to do, and more.
Visit the Museum
Right near the entrance to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, you’ll find a research center, it’s home to the Museo Tikal (Sylvanus Morley Museum) and it MUST be an addition to your trip to the area. It’s packed with pieces of art, history, and mysticism.
You’ll not only learn a lot of helpful information about the Mayan ruins, from its discovery to its excavation, but also about the Mayan culture, history, and heritage.
Also, all of the exhibitions are in English, so it will be a lot easier to understand.
Try the local food
No journey is complete without savoring the local cuisine and Tikal offers a delightful array of local dishes in several different restaurants situated close to the Mayan ruins, including the hotel’s restaurant.
Some restaurants in Tikal are:
- Restaurant Jungle Lodge Hotel
- Jaguar Inn Restaurant
- Comedor Tikal
- El Meson
- Comedor Imperial Okan Arin
Don’t miss the opportunity to taste traditional flavors like Pibil, a slow-cooked, marinated meat dish, and Kak’ik, a spicy turkey soup.
📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more helpful information, check out the Complete Guide to Popular and National Dishes in Central America.
Check Out the Nature
Tikal is a paradise for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, who can spot and admire the beauty and diversity of life in the forest. The park offers many opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, and photography, as well as for learning about ecology and conservation efforts.
The flora and fauna of Tikal are diverse and abundant, it’s one of the best places to learn more about Guatemalan Wildlife. The forest that surrounds the Mayan ruins is dominated by a lot of trees, ceibas, chicozapote, and copals, among others.
The forest also hosts a variety of orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and vines. As well as hundreds of species of birds, and many species of animals, such as monkeys, and tapirs.
The Visitor’s Center
The visitor center is there for you if you need anything, the people working there are usually nice and will share all the information you need. If you are calling, they will help you schedule your tour or prepare a safe trip if you decide to visit a lot.
Also, they can pinpoint areas to check out in the ruins or where to start your journey. If you want to camp in the area they can also help you and point you in the right direction. Make sure to pay them a visit and ask any questions!
Activities Near and Around Tikal
While Tikal is the crown jewel of Petén, this region of Guatemala offers even more to explore. Plan side trips to other archaeological sites like Uaxactun, which offer different but equally captivating Mayan experiences, or walk around the towns around the lake.
Uaxactun and other archaeological sites
This is one of the oldest and most influential Maya cities in Petén besides Tikal. Uaxactun is located in the middle of the forest, and you get there the same way you used to get to Tikal, since it’s only about 20 kilometers away. It has several structures, including pyramids, plazas, observatories, and stelae.
Uaxactun was a pioneer and a leader in Maya astronomy, calendar, and art, and it had a close and complex relationship with Tikal.
Not only that, Petén is the cradle of the Maya civilization, and it has other archaeological sites that showcase the diversity and the splendor of the Maya culture.
Other archaeological sites in the area:
Yaxha: This is Guatemala’s third largest Maya city, after Tikal and El Mirador. It is located on the shore of a beautiful lagoon and has several structures, including temples, palaces, ball courts, and stelae. Yaxha was a rival and sometimes an ally of Tikal, and it had a long and prosperous history from the Preclassic to the Postclassic Periods.
El Mirador: This is the largest and most ancient Maya city in Petén, possibly in the world. El Mirador is located in the heart of the forest and has many different structures, including one of the giant pyramids. El Mirador, the capital of the first Maya state, had a remarkable and mysterious history from the Preclassic Period.
Natural Parks and Wildlife
Petén is not only a land of history and culture, but also a land of nature and adventure. The area surrounding Tikal has several natural parks and reserves that protect and showcase the beauty and diversity of the flora and fauna of the region.
The main one is Reserva de Biosfera Maya, which comprises most of the area where the Mayan ruins are situated, and is one of the largest protected areas in Central America and one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It covers an area of about 21,000 square kilometers and includes several national parks, biotopes, and wildlife refuges.
The reserve protects various ecosystems, such as wetlands, savannas, swamps, and forests as well as a huge amount of diverse wildlife.
Next is the Biotopo Protegido San Miguel La Palotada El Zotz, which is part of the Reserva de Biosfera Maya, which is a mystical place. And finally the Tikal National Park.
You can find several tours to do, which I highly recommend so you won’t miss out on anything meaningful about the area.
What can you find at Tikal National Park?
Tikal National Park is not just about ruins; it’s a sanctuary for nature enthusiasts. The dense jungles offer a lot of wildlife to check out, including howler monkeys, toucans, and elusive jaguars.
There are many areas where you can camp and do several other activities like hiking, trekking, wildlife watching, and exploring.
📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more useful information, check out the Best Places to Visit in Central America.
Flores Island and other towns
This is the capital and the largest town of Petén, and it is a charming and colorful place to visit. It’s located on an island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá, and it has colonial and modern architecture that contrast and complement each other.
Flores has many attractions and services, such as churches, museums, markets, restaurants, bars, and hotels. The island makes the perfect base to explore the rest of Petén, as it has many transportation and tour options.
You can also, explore other towns around the lake, like San Andres which is small and quiet and it is a place where you can experience the authentic and traditional life of Petén. El Remate has a rural and friendly atmosphere, and it has a rich and diverse culture.
Another great activity to do and a must is immersing yourself in the rich culture of the Petén’s people, its indigenous and local communities.
Learn about their traditions, art, and way of life, preserved for generations. Engaging with local communities is not only enriching but also supports sustainable tourism in the region, and is a big help to them.
Where to Stay
There are several accommodation options in and around Tikal, depending on your budget, comfort, and preference.
The most convenient option is to stay inside the Tikal National Park, where three hotels offer basic but comfortable rooms, with private bathrooms, hot water, electricity, and Wi-Fi. The hotels also have restaurants, bars, pools, and souvenir shops.
One of the biggest draws about these hotels is their location, within walking distance from the archaeological site.
But there are several other options, for example, you can stay at Flores Island, which offers a more rural option, and you can explore the town or do activities at the river.
NOTE: When staying in the park there are a few restrictions and limitations such as no TV and lights being out by 10 pm (including all electricity altogether).
Hotel Jaguar Inn
I stumbled upon Hotel Jaguar Inn Tikal when searching for a place to stay for us when visiting the park. The hotel is entirely in the park and was a perfect find.
Our room had four comfortable beds, and a great bathroom, and the hotel had a restaurant with internet and plenty of vegetation to keep us excited about staying.
The Jungle Lodge is another popular option inside the park and it has several amenities too but it’s also pricier than Jaguar Inn. The lodge has a restaurant and a pool.
Rooms are clean and beds are comfy, you can also find Outdoor furniture blended with nature, so it feels like a green hotel. The staff is also friendly.
Outside Tikal Option
This one is outside Tikal, situated on the shore of the lake, three kilometers from El Remate town. This eco-lodge offers top-notch rooms and open-air cabins.
Our room was amazing; it had a private porch with a jacuzzi, and we got two meals included—a four-course dinner and breakfast.
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There are many tours available to visit Tikal Mayan ruins, you can visit the park between its working hours, but another popular way to do it is on a sunset or sunrise tour, when the park’s atmosphere completely changes.
Tikal Sunrise Tour
However, when you do go to Tikal, what I highly recommend is to do the sunrise tour, mainly because, and it is very important to understand, it gets hot, like blistering hot and humid, it can be really hard for a lot of people to continue with a full day.
But if you start the sunrise tour by the time 10 or 11 a.m. You’ve pretty much done the whole tour, and it’s not that hot, this way you have the entire afternoon to go and enjoy either Flores or El Remate. Also, checking out the sun rising above the ruins is just magical.
This is another special tour that allows you to witness the spectacular sunset from the top of one of the pyramids of Tikal.
You can see the sky changing colors and the forest falling asleep while listening to the sounds of the birds and the animals. This is a magical and unforgettable experience that you should not miss.
You can book these tours online, at your hotel, or the park entrance. The prices and the durations vary depending on the tour and the provider, but they are usually affordable and reasonable.
Tips for visiting the park
Plan your visit in advance: Decide what you want to see and do in Tikal. You can spend a few hours, a full day, or several days in Tikal, depending on your time and interest. You can also combine your visit to Tikal with other destinations in Petén, such as Uaxactun, or El Mirador.
Hire a guide: To learn more about the ancient Maya’s history and culture. The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and they can show you the best spots and the hidden secrets of the site.
Bring water and snacks! As well as sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, insect repellent, and a camera. No shops or vending machines are inside the site, so you must bring your own supplies. There are also not many trash cans inside the site, so you need to take your trash and dispose of it properly outside the site.
Respect the rules and the regulations of the site and the park: Do not climb, touch, or damage the structures, the stelae, or the altars. Use common sense, and don’t feed, touch, or disturb the animals. Also, it’s really important that you don’t take anything from the site with you. Avoid the restricted areas and follow the instructions and the signs of the staff and the guards.
Enjoy and appreciate the beauty and the wonder of Tikal: The park is a unique and amazing place, where you can connect with the past, the present, and the future of the Maya civilization. A place where you can learn, explore, discover, and have fun. Tikal is a place that you will never forget.
How safe is Tikal and Petén?
Tikal and Petén are generally safe and peaceful, but you should always be careful and alert, especially in remote and isolated areas.
You should also follow the rules and regulations of the site and the park, and respect nature and wildlife. Avoid traveling at night and in bad weather, and always carry your documents and valuables.
How much money do I need to visit Tikal?
The money you need to visit Tikal and Petén depends on your budget, time, and preference. You can spend as little or as much as you want, depending on the transportation, the accommodation, the food, the tours, and the activities you choose.
You can find cheap and expensive options for everything and negotiate and bargain for better prices. You should also have some cash in local currency (quetzals) and US dollars since some places do not accept credit cards or foreign currency.
What are the best souvenirs to buy in Tikal and Petén?
The best souvenirs to buy in and around Tikal are the ones that are made by local and indigenous artisans and that represent the culture and the identity of the region.
You can find many souvenirs and handicrafts in the markets, and local shops, of the towns around the lake. You should always buy from local vendors, that way you help and support the area, and avoid buying anything made from endangered or illegal materials.
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Last Updated on December 20, 2023