Tikal is one of Guatemala’s most visited destinations. Due to its mysterious atmosphere and amazing location in the dense jungle, it is one of the most impressive archaeological Maya sites. Tikal used to be the largest Maya city in the region, with more than 3000 buildings. What is special is that only 30% of the buildings have been discovered and excavated. The rest is still under the vegetation. A visit to Tikal National Park is an unforgettable experience where you will learn more about the fascinating Maya history and enjoy the beautiful jungle environment around you with countless monkeys, coatis, butterflies and species of birds. Read more about a trip to Tikal, including the highlights, lots of useful tips for a day tour, how to visit and where to stay.
Welcome in Tikal Guatemala
Tikal National Park is located in the province of Petén, in the north of Guatemala. The National Park covers an area of nearly 600 square kilometers and is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Tikal was built in the 4th century BC. It was one of the largest cities in the Maya empire between 200 and 900 AD, with around 100,000 inhabitants at its peak. At the end of the 10th century AD the city was abandoned for unclear reasons (perhaps due to overpopulation or drought). Tikal contains more than 3000 structures and only 30% of these have been discovered and excavated. Today, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and open to visitors.
Tikal Day tour Guatemala + highlights
I have been to Tikal Guatemala several times but still, during every visit I am again overwhelmed by the history, ruins and the beauty of this ancient city. Since most of my Tikal visits were for work, I decided to go on a private day tour during my last visit, so I went out with boutique agency Tikal Go. To learn more about the history and discover new places. In this article I’m telling you more about a trip to Tikal with many useful tips.
It is 4 am in the morning and guide Noel from Tikal Go is waiting for us. We’ve spent the night at Tikal Inn in the National Park, on the edge of the archaeological site, so we can walk to the entrance. Even though I am always on the site early, today there is just nobody there. It is pitch dark and quiet. You only hear the sounds from the jungle. And it’s beautiful to pay attention to it. I’m still secretly hoping of seeing a jaguar, but I realize that I have to give up this dream (as it’s so hard to see them in real life).
With a flashlight in our hands we walk easily, still a bit tired from our early wake up call, on the ancient Mayan roads towards temple number 4. Maybe you have seen the famous picture of the Mayan temples that rise above the green jungle? That view was taken from temple 4. The idea is to observe the sunrise here today.
The view of temple 4 during a Tikal sunrise tour
Of course you have to be a bit lucky for an amazing sunrise but when it is a nice day, this is something truly special. That being said, I don’t think this should be the sole purpose of a Tikal sunrise tour. The special thing about being in the park early is that you can really see the old city waking up. A magical feeling. The sound of owls and the flying of bats are slowly getting replaced by singing birds and monkeys. It’s beautiful! You can easily sit at the temple for an hour. During my visit, I was the only visitor, along with another couple from Guatemala.
Tikal consists of 5 high temples, which are surrounded by thousands of structures, of which only parts have been excavated. With a height of 65 meters, Temple 4 is the highest temple in the complex. You walk to the top of the temple via an attached wooden staircase construction. The view from this temple is amazing. You look far out over the jungle and Maya temples I, II and III.
Plaza Principal (temple I en II)
After our visit to this first temple, we walk towards the Plaza Principal, the central square of the former city. Here too we are the only visitors, except for a group of wild ocellated turkeys. I slowly walk towards one of the temples and it seems that the group of birds is leading me there. Very special!
Because we opted for a Tikal day tour, combining archaeology and birds, we pay special attention to the sound of birds. Our guide knows everything about each species. Usually the focus during a Tikal tour is (mostly) on the ruins, which is understandable, but also a shame. Because more than 372 bird species live in Tikal. And if you are patient, you will see so many species. From birds of prey to tropical birds. We see Orange Breasted Falcons, the Montezuma Oropendola, the summer tanager (a songbird), Great Curassow (a pheasant species), countless toucans and parrots and I think they are all pretty!
The plaza principal consists of temple I and II and is often depicted in travel guides. The two temples face each other and are surrounded by former palaces. Temple I is the temple of the jaguar. This 44-meter-high temple is said to have contained a tomb of the great Mayan ruler Hasaw Chan K’awil, with jade and other valuable items. These attributes allowed the ruler to enter the underworld. Nowadays you can unfortunately no longer climb the temple. However, you can climb to the top of pyramid II, or the temple of the masks, via a wooden staircase construction. This 38 meter high temple was built for the wife of ruler Chan K’awil. From the temple you have a nice view over the plaza and buildings.
Wildlife and birds during a Tikal tour
After a short breakfast just outside the park, we re-enter the Tikal archaeological zone and continue our tour. Immediately we see the cute pisote, a kind of coati. For as long as I’ve been in Tikal, I’ve loved these animals so much and I can’t stop taking pictures. Usually they are busy looking for food with their noses in the ground, hoping to find a tarantula. We also see an agoetie hopping by. And not much later our guide points out a bird of prey, the roadside hawk. There appear to be three. Usually it is impossible to take a picture, but one of the three seems to be posing for me.
On the way we pass the famous Ceiba tree, the sacred tree of the Maya.
The twin pyramids – Tikal tour
We walk further towards the twin pyramid complex! It is fascinating to see how many buildings are still under the vegetation, such as in this zone. You see large jungle overgrown hills with immense pyramids underneath. The only thing that is still lacking is time and money to excavate them. Excavating one structure costs millions of dollars. In the case of the twin pyramid, one has been completely dug out and the other is still under the vegetation. You can climb the pyramid by taking a steep staircase. Which is special, because most pyramids can no longer be entered via original steps.
There are also remains of a palace with 9 entrances, a sacred number for the Maya. The 9 Steles that used to stand here are also displayed.
The central acropolis is a maze of rooms, stairs and squares surrounding different courtyards. We walk around and learn that this may have been the administrative center.
Mundo Perdido – Tikal tour
Mundo Perdido (the lost world) is the former center of astrology and wisdom of the Maya. When you listen to the guide’s stories about the knowledge and skills the Maya had, you will not believe your ears. It is bizarre to think that the Spanish erased all this information. The Spanish saw everything indigenous as a threat and witchcraft and destroyed it. Did the Maya really know so much more than we do today? What would the world have been like if all this knowledge had survived? Every time I am fascinated by the stories.
You can climb the Mundo Perdido via an adjacent staircase construction. At the top you have an incredible view of the jungle and pyramids that stick out.
The end of our day trip to Tikal
We finish our Tikal day tour aroud 3 PM, including a breakfast and lunch. And I can’t believe time went so fast. I realize that we spent almost 12 hours around the park and my legs started to feel it. What an incredible experience!
Tips for a day trip to Tikal
Excited to visit Tikal during your Guatemala itinerary? This is an overview with useful tips for your day trip to Tikal: from transportation, tours, packing lists to ticket prices.
From Flores and El Remate to Tikal
There are several ways to visit Tikal. By yourself, with an organized tour or with a private guide. You can book a shuttle bus to Tikal at any hotel in Flores and El Remate. But the best thing is to go out with a guide from Tikal Go. Tikal Go is a boutique agency, that takes care of everything. Your transportation, your entrance tickets, a professional guide, breakfast and lunch. This means you only have to focus on enjoying your time.
A private day tour and guide in Tikal
I cannot recommend enough to go out with a (private) guide in Tikal. There are so many archaeological sites that I recommend exploring by yourself, but Tikal is different. Here’s why:
- Tikal is large and it is easy to get lost. You also walk a lot to get from one pyramid to another complex. With a guide you walk around a little more efficiently.
- If it is busy, you can choose another route with your guide to avoid the crowds., such as secret jungle paths.
- The structures come to life through the stories.
- You can ask all your questions and have a real conversation about the theories and investigations.
- You see so much more than on your own. Think about the many birds and animals, hidden in the jungle.
- You do not have to care about other people. The guide is there for you.
- Sunrise and regular tickets are booked for you.
After a tour in Tikal Guatemala you can always decide to come back to a certain place, but usually that is not necessary.
Tickets voor Tikal National Park Guatemala
A ticket for Tikal National Park costs 150 quetzales. You can enter from 6 a.m. It is also possible to buy a special Tikal sunrise tour ticket. This means that you can enter from 4 am. You do need to buy an extra ticket of 100 quetzales for this Tikal sunrise tour. Tikal sunrise tickets must be purchased the day prior to your visit at a tour operator or in one of the Banrural banks. Regular tickets can also be bought at the entrance of the National Park, but there can be long queues here. It is also possible to buy an additional sunset ticket (around 6 pm) for 100 quetzales. Extra tip: When you use your regular ticket from 3 p.m., the ticket is also valid the next day.
Keep in mind that you must show your passport at all times when purchasing a ticket, regardless of your location. When you go out with Tikal Go, everything (tickets and transportation) is included and will be arranged for you.
What to bring for a day trip to Tikal National Park
- Passport, you need this to buy a ticket.
- Mosquito repellent.
- Sun screen / sunglasses / hat.
- Light clothing, it is warm and humid
- Rain gear
- A flashlight, if you plan to do a sunrise
- Enough money, there is no ATM
- Plenty of water and something to eat for during your Tikal tour. Drinks and snacks are sold in the park but restaurants and can only be found at the entrance.
- Solid and comfortable hiking shoes.
Where to stay in Tikal Guatemala
Flores and El Remate
Flores and El Remate are small towns, around Lake Peten Itzá. These towns have many hotel options, and are a perfect base for a day trip to Tikal. Flores is located 70 kilometers from Tikal and El Remate at 35 kilometers.
Are you looking for a unique place to stay? Then make sure to stay at La Lancha, by Francis Ford Coppola, the famous director. La Lancha is a jungle lodge in a tropical setting located at Lago Peten Itzá and a great starting point for a trip to Tikal. Read more about my stay at La Lancha by Francis Ford Coppola, in the next article.
Check the availability and rates of La Lancha in Guatemala here.
Spend the night in Tikal National Park Guatemala
If you want to do a Tikal sunrise tour, it is recommended to stay in the Tikal National Park the night before your visit. But even if you don’t want to do a sunrise, this is so worth it. You spend the night deep in the jungle, on the edge of the former Maya city. Moreover, you can walk to the archaeological site from the hotel within a few minutes. There are four hotels located around the entrance. I stayed several times in Tikal Inn, a simple but well-kept accommodation. If you are looking for a little more luxury, Hotel Jungle Lodge Tikal is a great option.
This is an overview with hotels in Tikal National Park.
How to reach Flores & Tikal
Tikal is located in the north of Guatemala, in the province of Petén. From Guatemala City you fly with Tag airlines within 40 minutes to Mundo Maya International Airport in Santa Elena / Flores. From here you can travel by taxi to Flores, El Remate or Tikal National Park. If you want to travel all the way by bus, you can book transportation directly from Guatemala City (something I don’t recommend) because of the long distance. Or travel from Guatemala City or Antigua via Lanquin and / or Rio Dulce to Flores.
Flores is a small town / island located on Lake Petén Itzá, connected to the mainland by a bridge. It used to be an ancient Maya city called Tayasal, one of the last independent cities during the Spanish conquest. But it was completely destroyed and rebuilt by the Spanish afterwards. Nowadays you will find photogenic colonial buildings with colored walls, shops, hotels and a boulevard with rooftop restaurants.
Best time to visit Tikal Guatemala
You can visit Tikal all year round. The dry period runs from November to April. But because Tikal is located in the tropical rainforest, it can rain all year round as well. On weekends and holidays it is busy with local people. It is therefore better to visit on a weekday. The great thing about a visit to Tikal is that it is less crowded than most archaeological Maya sites in Mexico.
More about Guatemala
Do you want to read more about this amazing country? In this article you’ll find the 20 best things to do in Guatemala, including off the beaten path destinations, best time to travel, travel itineraries and information about safety. Have a look in the Guatemala archive for a cityguide for Antigua and travel guides about Lake Atitlan, Lanquin, the famous market of Chichicastenango, the Acatenango volcano hike, a boat trip on the Rio Dulce to Caribbean Livingston and a Guatemala hotel guide. Interested in archaeology? In this article I’m taking you to Quiriguá, a smaller and less visited Maya site with beautiful Maya stelae.