Last Updated on February 19, 2020
The sounds of wildlife are what sold me on visiting the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. Our small group of backpackers had started our guided tour with pattering feet and chatter while we entered the jungle, until our guide, Luis, abruptly halted us. He held up a single hand to silence the group—a mere formality though because we immediately quieted once he cocked his head to the side, his ear tuned to the distance and an intense look of concentration on his face. We all strained our ears as well, unsure of what had excited Luis.
Deep growling sounds faintly echoed through the Guatemalan jungle—it sounded like a pack of hogs, but more magnified in both volume and intensity. We were hearing the famous howler monkeys that inhabit the wild jungles that still claim many of the ruins of Tikal—a pre-Columbian Mayan site buried within the Guatemalan jungle. Although archaeologists have uncovered numerous ruins all over the area, the forests in tact, and they still hide Maya secrets as yet uncovered. It’s these secrets that make visiting Tikal a unique experience unlike any other Maya site in North or Central America.
Tikal History: Why is Tikal Important?
Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and much of the city is still buried under the forests and overgrowth. What has been excavated shows an elaborate and huge ancient Maya city with beautiful, crumbling temples and ruins around every corner. Tikal as a city and important historic site dates back to 1000 BC, when it really started to thrive and prosper as a major city and urban area in Mesoamerica during the Maya Classic Era. The estimated numbers of ancient people who inhabited Tikal widely diverges—some put the figure at roughly 10,000 people, while others believe at the height of Tikal’s prominence, the city could have been home to as many as 90,000 ancient Maya inhabitants.
As you would suspect, to house that many people it was a thriving city complete with all the many things even residents today need: schools and hospitals, sports and entertainment complexes, royal palaces and housing for commoners, markets for trade, and much more. And it would have done a lot of trade! Tikal was located right in the heart of areas occupied by the Maya civilization.
Archaeologists believe the city fell into decline around 900 AD—likely because of drought and deforestation. Between then and the early 20th century, the Tikal ruins were mostly unknown to Westerners. Today, the complex network of temples and ruins is a major tourist site. Once it was “discovered” by foreigners in the 1840s, it became known as Tikal, but it is referred to as Tik’al in modern Maya orthography. Even more, Tikal during its heyday was known as Yax Mutal or Yax Mutul according to hieroglyphic inscriptions on the temples and throughout the site.
As archaeologists slowly uncover more secrets from this ancient Maya city, they learn more about the entire Maya civilization. This is because Tikal was a massive and important city—the ruins of royal tombs shed more light on the ruling class, Maya script adds to the trove of language data archaeologists have built across the Maya Kingdom, and intricate carvings fill in gaps of once missing information.
What’s It Like To Explore the Tikal Ruins?
Exploring Tikal means wandering through the jungle (on set paths). I used a guide for the day, and I was happy to have his expert commentary and knowledge. As you walk, massive tree-covered mounds shoot up into the sky around you, and although they look like nothing more than a hill, these mounds contain hundreds (thousands?) of unexcavated Maya temples. Although the Tikal complex of ruins was rediscovered in 1850, numerous areas and ruins have still only been given a cursory glance because of funding limits. This is one aspect I deeply loved about visiting Tikal—the idea that so much mystery still remains for future generations to continue uncovering.
If you take a guided tour of Tikal, then you will visit all of the highlights of the site, plus a few of your guides off-the-beaten path favorites. In the debate about if you should go with a tour group or guide, or if you should independently explore, I am firmly on the side of visiting Tikal with a guide—you will leave having enjoyed the site far more if you have the colorful stories and history to shape your visit. If you were feeling a tad spendy (though really it’s not much in the grand scheme), you could also plan a hybrid trip, arriving in the morning with a tour group and then catching a bus back to Flores on your own. Even more spendy would be staying at the Jaguar Inn—this on-site accommodation represents the best way to catch sunset at the ruins.
Marvel at the Many Temples
The most recognizable temple, Temple of the Great Jaguar, is powerful. It’s located within The Grand Plaza, and this is the image you see in most photos and postcards. It lives up to the hype. As I stood with the acropolis and living quarters to my right, and other temples completely surrounding me, it seemed so illogical to believe these tall structures reaching for the clouds could have been built so many years ago. Jaguar Temple (Temple I) is a limestone-stepped pyramid with a roof comb that reaches 154 feet (47 meters) and was finished around 732 AD.
Witness a Ritual Maya Ceremony
I had the incredibly rare opportunity to witness a Maya ritual taking place in the center of The Grand Plaza. The Mayas often avoid Tikal because of the many tourists, but the place is still holy to the Maya people and during certain celebrations they are able to enter the area for ritual celebrations. A family of about ten built a fire in the middle of the courtyard to perform various ceremonies, and their rituals lasted many hours.
Climb for Panoramic Jungle Views
Like many Maya ruins across the region, there are some temples in good enough shape that tourists are permitted to climb to the top of the ruins and enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding jungle, with the tips and peaks of some temples poking over the treeline.
Discover Reclaimed Temples
The Guatemalan jungle has reclaimed the an untold number of structures that once beloved to the to ancient city of Tikal. In addition to the more famous temples that make for stunning photos, and the temples you can climb, many of the more remarkable stories still lie partially covered by jungle undergrowth. As archaeologists continuously assess the site, they often burrow through just a portion of a mound, and use technology to assess what lies under the ground. They will then either fully or partially uncover the ruins, gather important information, and an many cases they’ll leave the sites wild. There’s only so much funding and time. That means intrepid travelers can spot a trove of beautiful structures fighting with nature for relevance.
Enjoy the Abundant Wildlife
A cacophony of noise also surrounds Tikal’s temples—it’s almost as if the animals refuse to give back their secret temples. I saw my first wild Toucan while visiting Tikal, and our guide pointed out ring-tailed kudamundi (also called coatimundi) wandering the forests—also a first for me. Oh, and we even found a tarantula!
The nature at Tikal is a real highlight of the site, that makes visiting the many temples even more special. You have these delightful creatures reminding you that the Guatemalan jungle has reclaimed so many of the Tikal ruins, and that you’re a guest in this place.
Never was that more apparent that with the hooting, growing sounds echoing across the jungle throughout our visit. If you’ve never heard a howler monkey, take a moment to listen (minute 1:40)—no description can do it justice. It will also give you a tour of the temples and grounds!
The grounds of Tikal feel limitless. We walked for hours and saw the majority of the major temples that have been excavated so far, but these are still just a tiny percentage of what is left undiscovered. This is what sets my imagination spinning. After climbing to the top of a designated temple (it has a wooden staircase so that tourists don’t destroy the ruins), I stared out over the top of the jungle and wondered how much temples they still haven’t found. The jungle is dense in this region, and there is an undoubted potential for new discoveries … it’s just a matter of when.
Quick Tips: Plan Your Visit to Tikal
How to Get to Tikal
Flores is the gateway to Tikal for most travelers, and you’ll to book at least here two nights in Flores to properly arrange your visit. Flores is a full town (many shops, restaurants, and ATMs), so it’s a nice base.
By bus or shuttle: You can get to Flores from Belize (I took a five-hour shuttle from Belize to Flores). Shuttles and buses also leave from Antigua and Guate City every day multiple times a day—this is a long and twisty ride, however, and most people break it up with a visit to Semuc Champey (also what I did on the way out of Flores). If your transport leaves you in Santa Elena, you’ll have to grab a tuk-tuk over to Flores (it’s a cheap ride).
By air: There is a small airport near Flores that runs flights to and from the nearby cities—if you are crunched on time this will save a heap of it rather than the mega-killer bus rides that it takes to travel all of Guatemala overland.
This post has a deeper overview of getting to Flores.
Sunrise or Sunset Trips
The best Tikal excursions are the dawn trips that allow you to enter the park for a beautiful sunrise. The best way witness sunrise or sunset is to stay near the park. If you’re visiting Tikal from Flores, the first chicken buses leave Flores around 3:30 am and it takes about an hour and fifteen to bus from Flores to the ruins—you must take this first shuttle to enter the park and get to the top of a temple in time for sunrise. For sunset, the last chicken buses leave Tikal at 5:30 pm, before you’ll even have a hint of that stunning after-sunset glow that tints the sky all sorts of pinks and oranges. Sure, the sun will be low before you leave, but it will not have set by the time you’ll have to catch a bus to Flores.
Buy Your Tickets Early! Note that if you’re staying near the park, the key hotels are not located near the main entrance, meaning you must buy your ticket in Flores before traveling out to your accommodation. Plus, for sunrise, the Banrural Bank of Guatemala (which functions as the ticket office) is not open before 6:00 am, and you must enter before then for a sunrise experience. Extra Note: Bring your passport and cash! You need a national ID to buy a ticket, and you can only purchase tickets with cash (Q150 for a regular ticket, or Q250 for sunrise).
Where to Stay
To visit Tikal, I recommend staying at one of the lodges right on the site so that you are the first guests allowed in the complex, and thus able to climb one of the restored temples for a beautiful sunrise. This is a one-of-a-kind experience and unless you’re a budget backpacker, it’s not even that much of a splurge. Otherwise, hire one of the tours from Flores (perfect for budget backpackers) and they will bus you to the site from your hostel at dawn, show you around with history and a guide, and then deliver you back into town by late afternoon.
Where to Stay Near the Park for Sunrise/Sunset
For sunrise and sunset, stay right near the entrance to Tikal National Park—you have a few options on where to stay, and your budget. Note that the last bus to Tikal from Flores leaves around 2:30 pm—this is an easy option and far more affordable than paying for a taxi. If you do this, then note that a ticket purchased after 3 pm will get you double entrance for both sunset and sunrise over the temples.
- Jaguar Inn: The Jaguar Inn close to the ruins and represents the one of the best budget places to stay for sunrise or sunset. You can rent a hotel room, or camp in tents (provided) behind the Inn.
- Jungle Lodge Tikal: This has too options. One is a bit spendier than the other options in Tikal National Park, and the other is the the Jungle Lodge Hostel, making this is a great choice for all travelers, and it’s located near the second entrance (the one that does not sell tickets).
Where to Stay in Flores
Transportation from Flores to Tikal comes in three varieties depending on the level of independence you’d like at the site. The Guatemalan chicken buses run from 3:30 am to 5:30 pm (and they’re prompt, so be on time!). All of the tour companies also offer shuttles—you can either pay for just their shuttling service and they’ll drop you at the entrance with a time you must meet them to return, or you can pay a bit more for a round trip shuttle and guide (this rarely costs much more and I highly recommend a guide).
- Amigos Hostel. This is a top backpacker spot in Flores, and it’s a cute, well-appointed hostel with great vibes. They have the routine down pat and will get you to and from Tikal, and then onto your onward shuttle without issue. The on-site restaurant was also tasty and affordable.
- Hotel Casa Amelia. This spot is a bit nicer but still affordable and it distinctly lacks that busy backpacker vibe. Families, couples, and older backpackers might like the vibes better here.
What to Wear to Tikal
Tikal is a major tourist site for Guatemala, so it’s well maintained. I recommended wearing lightweight, comfortable clothes with an SPF rating on your shirt, closed-toed shoes, and breathable bottoms. You’ll be walking through the Guatemalan jungle for hours, and you’ll need to easily climb stone temples. Plus, it’s likely going to be scorching hot in the dry winter months. During the wet summer season, expect hot and humid, if not some rain. Note that although you certainly need to prepare for strong direct sun, Tikal is buried in the jungle and the paths are quite shady. That means you might not need full head-to-toe sun coverage unless you are very fair. Here are the basics of not only what you should wear when visiting Tikal, but what else you should pack to ensure an easy visit.
- Lightweight shirt: Unlike my outfit in the photos above, you should have at least cap sleeves to prevent burning your shoulders. Very fair travels should wear a short-sleeved SPF sports shirt or a long-sleeved SPF shirt with rolled cuffs and built for warm weather (I own both of these items and use them when hiking in hot, sunny climates).
- Breathable shorts or convertible pants: Unlike recommendations you’ll read elsewhere, you don’t need to wear pants to Tikal. Sure there’s a lot of forest, but the paths are well-maintained and the right shoes and some good socks will keep the forest from your ankles. It’s also incredibly hot and by mid-day you’ll be very hot. If you have convertible travel pants, that’s what I wore and I rolled them into capris. Otherwise, aim for something comfortable that you have in your bag. It needs to allow you to move easily, and you should not wear a skirt since you’ll be climbing temples and might trip on the hem, or give other travelers a free show on the ladders.
- Closed-toed shoes: Wear good walking shoes and avoid flip flops or sandals—I’ve bought a version of these New Balance shoes as my go-to travel shoe for more than 12 years, sticking with the comfort and style whenever I wear out one pair.
- Large hat: It’s sunny! Grab a brimmed hat and protect your face from the strong Guatemalan song. I go wide-brimmed and packable, though the short-brimmed would suffice too.
- Rain jacket or poncho (optional): If you’re visiting in the dry winter season, you don’t need rain gear, but if you’re visiting from late spring to fall, you may face rain. It will still be very hot though, so go with a lightweight raincoat or a travel poncho!
What to Bring
Pack a daypack for the day with the essentials as there’s not a lot on offer in Tikal National Park. Plus, the on-site food options are grossly overpriced and not tasty. Here’s the bare minimum you should bring:
- Insect repellent
- Refillable water bottle
- Flashlight for sunrise/sunset
- Snacks (fruit, nuts, granola bars)
- Lunch (sandwiches are easy to create at your hostel or find a grocery store the day before)
- Cash for any additional snacks/drinks
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I used World Nomads for this trip (and since 2008!) and highly recommend it! It also covers COVID—a very important consideration for travel in 2021 and beyond.