I woke up on my second day in Flores, bright and early at 4 in the morning. Today was the day that I would be exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal located in the northern jungle-covered Peten region of Guatemala.
Tikal is a must-visit ruins site in Guatemala and it is one of the most spectacular, fascinating and impressive Mayan ruins that I have had the opportunity to explore (and I have been to more than thirteen Mayan ruins sites throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) and visiting them was one of my favourite experiences during my trip to Guatemala.
The Tikal Ruins
The Tikal ruins are situated deep in the jungle with various temples, pyramids, plazas and palaces spread out over a large area and hidden among the thick tropical vegetation, with some of them rising high above the jungle canopy. Many of the structures are only partially uncovered and many more are still completely engulfed in the jungle and are waiting to be restored and discovered. You can also climb to the top of the temples to get spectacular views of the jungle treetops from above.
The archeological site is inhabited by a wide variety of plants and animals including howler and spider monkeys which swing through the jungle canopy above you, exotic colourful birds, crocodiles, agoutis, termites, spiders, snakes and many others. Tikal was one of the most powerful cities in the ancient Mayan world and it flourished between roughly 600 BC and 900 AD. It is also one of the largest archeological sites of the Mayan civilization and it is estimated that between 10,000 and 90,000 people once lived there. In the 4th Century AD, there is evidence that Tikal was conquered by Teotihuacan in Mexico and as a result of this event and other factors (such as potential drought), the population gradually began to decline and the site was abandoned at the end of the 10th Century. The structures were eventually reclaimed by the jungle and became overgrown with thick vegetation.
I love exploring Mayan ruins and I find it fascinating to learn about these ancient cities and civilizations and Tikal had been high on my list of ruins to visit for awhile and its remote location in the natural jungle setting really appealed to me.
I had been staying in the small and charming colonial town of Flores located on a tiny island on Lake Peten Itza and connected to the mainland via a causeway. Flores was a peaceful and pretty town with lots of colourful buildings and the lake was surrounded by the jungle. I had taken a one-hour flight from Guatemala City to Flores but you could also take a nine-hour long overnight bus as well (but if you have limited time, I highly recommend taking the flight). Although there are a few hotels and lodges inside Tikal National Park, most visitors to the ruins stay in the town of Flores as it’s only an hour and a half from Tikal. The town has narrow winding cobblestone streets and pastel-coloured colonial buildings and it provides lots of great photo opportunities. When you visit Tikal, I recommend spending at least half a day exploring the colourful beauty of Flores and experiencing its laid-back and relaxed vibe.
The previous day, I had booked a day tour of the ancient Tikal ruins at a local travel agency in the tiny town and island of Flores called Crasborn Travel Agency. I had read good reviews about this agency online and was pleased with my choice. The staff were very friendly and helpful and the individual that I booked with also spoke English, which made communication so much easier. I paid Q90 for the tour which included round-trip shuttle transportation and an English-speaking guide. There are quite a few travel agencies in Flores and all of them sell the same tours to Tikal for roughly the same price. You can choose to take a sunrise tour (leaves at 3 am), early bird tour (leaves at 4:30 am and arrives at 6 am), morning tour, afternoon tour or sunset tour. I chose the early bird tour. When you book a tour, you can choose to just book the transportation or include a guide as well.
Getting to Tikal
I waited at my hostel until 4:30 am when my shuttle arrived to pick me up. There were already quite a few other tourists inside and we stopped at a few more hostels and hotels to pick up more people before heading off to the ruins. It was pitch dark outside as our shuttle drove through the thick jungle on the way to Tikal. The drive took around an hour and a half and we arrived to the park entrance shortly after 6 in the morning. The sun had risen at this point and I was able to see how dense and lush the surrounding jungle was. I’d never seen anything like that before and couldn’t wait to explore! We all had to pay Q150 for the entrance fee to Tikal (this was not included in the tour price) and then we continued driving into the park. I noticed a couple of interesting signs along the road, including a jaguar and snake crossing sign! We were definitely in the jungle.
Exploring the Ruins
We arrived to the ruins shortly after and the shuttle dropped us off along the paved road. There was a small restaurant just outside the entrance to the ruins on the right side of the road which sold sandwiches, hot and cold beverages and snacks and then a few rustic outhouse-style washrooms a little ways past the restaurant. After stepping outside the shuttle, I could hear loud roaring sounds all around me that sounded like jaguars but it was actually howler monkeys! I couldn’t see them but their noises sure were distinctive and frightening. The weather was cool but very humid. Our small group was given some time to grab a snack and use the washrooms before entering the ruins (these are the only washrooms at Tikal, so make sure to use them). Aside from our group, there were no other tourist groups in sight despite the fact that Tikal was a popular attraction in Guatemala. The atmosphere was peaceful and relaxed.
We started off the tour around 6:45 am with our English-speaking guide leading us into the jungle. We walked along a wide pathway through the dense vegetation. It was still early in the morning but the air was already so humid! We were the only people around and aside from the sounds of nature – exotic birds chirping, monkeys howling and insects making a variety of noises – it was so calm and quiet. It was fascinating to hear the jungle waking up.
Even though Tikal is quite a popular attraction in Guatemala, it never felt crowded or touristy at all during my visit due its vast size and tranquil jungle setting.
The first stop we made was at a couple of Ceiba trees along the pathway. I was amazed at how incredibly tall the trees were, with a straight, smooth and branchless trunk that rose high up to the sky! It was so tall that I could only fit half the tree in a photo. The top of the tree was also interesting consisting of clusters of leaves that almost had a fuzzy appearance. This tree was sacred to the Mayan civilizations and they believed that the tree was connected to the underworld, earth and heaven. It remains a highly respected tree to the modern-day Mayans. The Ceiba is also the national tree of Guatemala.
We continued on along the path and arrived at a small ruin which was called Group Q East Pyramid. Constructed in 771 AD, this was a small pyramid consisting of five platforms and steps leading to the top. Our guide informed us that it was a solid pyramid with no rooms inside. There were nine stone wheels in front of the pyramid where sacrifices and offerings had been made. I climbed to the top of the pyramid and discovered amazing views of the jungle and I could even see the top of Temple IV in the distance through the trees!
As we continued walking through the jungle, I noticed that there were lots of rounded jungle-covered mounds along the path, which were actually unexcavated ruins. I tried to imagine what the entire ruins site must have looked like before it was discovered, where all of the temples and structures would have been engulfed in the thick jungle. Our guide informed us that 80% of Tikal was still unexcavated and it was fascinating to think that there were still so many ruins to uncover and learn about! Many of the pyramids and temples within the ruins site were only partially excavated and still had lots of vegetation growing on them and in between the rocks. I noticed that there were lots of local workers at many of the structures, working to maintain them and keep them uncovered from the jungle by hacking away at the vegetation. Our guide told us that the ruins have to be uncovered often to keep the jungle from reclaiming them. Seeing so many undiscovered ruins gave Tikal an authentic and rugged feel, which I liked.
It was so peaceful and serene as we trekked through the jungle. Our group was the only one in sight and all I could hear was tropical birds and the frightening sound of howler monkeys as they swung through the treetops above us. The sound of the howler monkeys was so loud, yet I couldn’t see them at all, and then someone from our group pointed to up to the top of the jungle canopy and I spotted a family of these large black monkeys munching on leaves high in the treetops! I wasn’t able to get a photo but it was incredible to be able to see it with my own eyes.
There were so many interesting, exotic and unique varieties of plants and trees in the jungle that I had never seen before and thick vines hung everywhere around the vegetation. As we continued walking to the next temple, our guide pointed out a termite nest on the trunk of a tree which was really cool to see.
Tikal is a huge ruins site and the structures and temples were scattered throughout the jungle and quite spread out but it was fun simply walking through the jungle and being among such natural beauty and I loved seeing so many unique and exotic plants. The pathways between the ruins were all well-maintained and wide paths.
It took us about twenty minutes or so to walk from the first pyramid to our next step which was Temple IV (four). This is the temple that you most often see in photos of Tikal and it’s a very tall 22-storey structure that towers high above the jungle canopy and is the tallest temple at Tikal measuring 230 feet. The ruin was only partially restored and was still in the process of being worked out when I was there. We climbed to the top of this temple via wooden stairs that started from behind the structure and finally arrived at the top. We all sat on the stone steps at the top of the temple and were rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views I have ever witnessed. This temple was so high and it was mind blowing to think that human beings actually built this structure! I sat on the steps and simply admired the views of the lush green jungle treetops and other tall temples poking through the expansive jungle canopy. It was so beautiful and awe-inspiring. We were all silent as we listened to the horrendous loud sounds of the howler monkeys. It was one of the most amazing and memorable moments that I have ever experienced. We sat for awhile on top of Temple IV and I was glad that our guide allowed us plenty of time to take in these stunning views.
After sitting on the temple for maybe twenty minutes or so, we climbed back down and headed to the next ruin which was Templo Talud Tablero. This was an administrative building that featured a style of architecture that can also be seen at the ruins of Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Located beside this temple was the Gran Piramide, which is also known as the Pyramid of the Lost World. Our guide told us that this was the oldest pyramid at Tikal and this was evident by the dark stones.
As we continued on through the jungle, we walked past Temple III, which was still largely covered with jungle vegetation and the top half was being restored.
Finally, we arrived at the impressive Gran Plaza, which was one of my favourite places at Tikal and one of the most restored areas as well. There was a large grassy courtyard in the centre surrounded by various temples and structures. Temple I was the most prominent temple facing the plaza that was tall and narrow pyramid with a series of steps leading to the top. Unfortunately, this one could not be climbed. Other structures bordering the plaza included the Central Acropolis, the North Acropolis and Temple II. There were stairs leading up Temple II where I found an amazing view overlooking the entire plaza and all of the surrounding ruins. There were quite a few more people and groups at this area of the ruins, but it was far from feeling overrun by tourists.
Our guided tour ended at the Gran Plaza around 10 am and from this point onward, we were free to explore more of the ruins on our own until we wanted to head back to Flores. There were shuttles leaving the ruins at 11 am, 12:30 pm or 3 pm and I decided to take the 12:30 pm one back, which gave me more time to check out the ruins at a relaxed pace. Tikal is such a huge ruins site and there are so many structures and ruins to explore, so I definitely recommend taking the extra time to do so and not heading back right after the tour is finished. I could have spent an entire day or more at these ruins, but the weather was starting to get very hot, humid and uncomfortable in the afternoon.
After spending some time exploring and climbing on some of the ruins and taking photos, I walked down a long, peaceful and lesser-traveled jungle path to Temple VI (six). This temple was partially uncovered and featured quite a few inscriptions on it, which were interesting to see. I loved having this place to myself and was completely alone there.
My only regret about my visit to Tikal, was the fact that our guide never took us to see Temple V and I completely forgot to check this one out on my own after the tour ended. It was disappointing but I suppose it gives me a reason to come back and explore the ruins again one day.
The tour of Tikal was great and although I am not usually one to book tours, I was glad that I did so for Tikal. I learned so much about the history and architecture of the ruins and also about the vegetation and animals that inhabited the area from my knowledgeable guide. I enjoyed the leisurely pace of our tour and our guide gave us plenty of time to take photos and explore at each of the temples and structures that we stopped at. There was very poor signage along the pathways inside the ruins site and it would have been easy to get lost if I hadn’t had a guide leading the way.
Although Tikal is a popular attraction in Guatemala, I loved how the ruins didn’t feel overrun with tourists at all and we didn’t see any other groups during our tour except at the Gran Plaza. It was completely peaceful and felt very authentic, almost like we were the first explorers to this area. I also appreciated that there were no vendors yelling at you to buy their overpriced and cheap souvenirs, like there are at Chichen Itza in Mexico.
I left the ruins at 12:30 pm on a shuttle back to Flores and arrived in the town around 2 pm. I spent a total of 6.5 hours at Tikal, but you could spend more or less. It was a wonderful day exploring the impressive ancient temples and ruins at Tikal and I can’t wait to return one day again and see more.
If you are traveling to Guatemala, Tikal is definitely a must-see. The ruins site has an authentic feel and is fascinating to discover, explore and learn about and the jungle setting was magical and so serene. Exploring these ruins was one of the highlights from my trip.
Getting To and From Tikal
I took a one-hour flight from Guatemala City to Flores, a small town on an island about an hour and a half away from Tikal, where I based myself for three days in order to explore the ruins. You can also take an longer overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores or a shuttle from various other destinations around the country.
Flores is where most travelers choose to stay when visiting Tikal as it is a charming and colourful town with a peaceful, relaxed vibe that is relatively close to the ruins. There are a variety of hotels, guesthouses and hostels in the town as well.
From Flores, there are tours and shuttles that run every day, at various times throughout the day to the Tikal ruins which can be booked through any of the travel agencies in Flores. The shuttles offer door-to-door service and they will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and drop you back off there. The sunrise tour departs Flores at 3 am and arrives to Tikal at 4:30 am (tour price including shuttle and guide is around Q110 and entrance fee is Q250); the early bird tour departs Flores at 4:30 am and arrives to Tikal at 6 am (the tour is around Q110 and entrance fee is Q150); the day tour departs Flores at 8 am and arrive to Tikal at 9:30 am (tour is Q110 and entrance is Q150); and the sunset tour departs at 12:30 pm and arrives to the ruins at 2 pm (tour is Q110 and entrance is Q250).
You can choose to book a shuttle and guide or just a shuttle. I recommend getting a guide as they are very knowledgeable about the history of the ruins and the ancient Mayan peoples and can provide lots of interesting facts. Another good reason to have a guide is because the ruins site is massive and it would be very easy to get lost, as there is a complete lack of signs. My tour started at 6 am when we arrived to the ruins and ended at around 10 am but I stayed until 12:30 pm to explore more of the ruins before heading back to Flores.
If you want to arrive to the ruins when they open at 6 am, take the 4:30 am shuttle like I did.
There are multiple shuttles leaving the ruins for Flores (at 11 am, 12:30 pm, 3 pm and 7 pm) so you can choose which time you want to go back at.
Tips for Visiting Tikal
- Bring cash (local currency) – You have to pay Q150 for the entrance fee into Tikal. There are some overpriced snacks and water available at a small restaurant before entering the ruins, but there are no ATMs inside the park, so make sure to bring enough cash to cover you. Credit cards are also not accepted anywhere in Tikal.
- Dress appropriately – Tikal is located among the jungle and it is very humid, so dress accordingly. I wore long lightweight pants to protect my legs from bug bites and a long sleeve moisture-wicking athletic shirt and was quite comfortable in the morning, but started to feel very hot when I left Tikal around noon. I also wore closed-toe comfortable running shoes which were great for the walking and climbing the ruins. There is a lot of walking involved at Tikal as the ruins are quite spread out in the jungle so wear good shoes (not flip flops or sandals of any sort). I recommend wearing comfortable, lightweight, and loose fitting clothing as well.
- Shop around the best tour price – The prices of a tour to Tikal can vary from agency to agency in Flores, so make sure to shop around, do your research and compare prices before booking a tour. I stayed at Los Amigos Hostel but found that their tours were priced higher than other local agencies so I ended up booking with Crasborn Agency in Flores. Also know that sunrise and sunset tours are more expensive at an extra Q100 than the morning and day tours. None of the tours include the admission fee which is Q150 and is payable at the national park gates, but they do include round-trip shuttle transportation and a local guide.
- Pack plenty of water and snacks – The only place in Tikal where you can buy snacks and water is at a small restaurant at the entrance to the site. There is nothing available once you actually get into the ruins so make sure to pack a reusable water bottle (click here to see my favourite one – Amazon link) with purified water to sustain yourself as you walk through the jungle (you will be sweating a lot due to the humidity). Also bring some snacks with you like fresh fruit, nuts or energy bars.
- Pack a rain jacket and bug spray – Although it didn’t rain during my visit, I recommend bringing a rain jacket or poncho as the jungle is incredibly humid and the weather is unpredictable, so rain is always a possibility. Bug spray is also a good idea. I was actually pleasantly surprised that I didn’t see too many mosquitoes there, except on the walk to Temple VI, so you may or may not even need the bug repellent.
- Bring/use a map if exploring on your own – If you are just taking a shuttle to Tikal to explore the ruins on your own and not a tour (this is a good option if you are on a budget), I would recommend bringing a map of the ruins or taking a photo of the map posted at the entrance of the ruins to help guide you. Bringing a good guidebook (the Guatemala one from Moon is my favourite) that explains the history of some of the structures is also a good idea. There is very poor and sometimes confusing signage on the pathways connecting the ruins and it would be easy to get lost if you don’t have a guide or a map – so make sure to have at least one of these.
- Remain aware of your surroundings – Although exploring Tikal is considered safe for the most part, there have been robberies within the ruins site in the past. This is why it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are wandering around alone and without a tour guide. Tikal is a large site and some of the pathways are more remote and lesser-traveled than others. I recommend only bringing what you need with you to the ruins and just enough money for the day. Always trust your gut instincts and if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
- Arrive early – Getting to the ruins earlier in the morning means that you will be able to beat the intense humidity and heat that starts around midday and be able to avoid the increasing numbers of people who will arrive in the afternoon for the sunset tours.
- Park entrance fee is not included in the price of a tour – When you book a tour to Tikal, the price you pay to the travel agency only includes the round-trip shuttle transportation and your guide. The entrance fee to the Tikal National Park is paid separately when you arrive to the park and costs Q150 if you visit after opening hours or Q250 for the sunrise and sunset tours.
What to Wear and Pack
Tikal is situated deep in the jungle and as a result, it is usually hot and incredibly humid there.
Dress in lightweight and comfortable clothing like loose pants and a moisture-wicking shirt and wear good sturdy hiking or athletic shoes to support your feet during all the walking involved in exploring the ruins site and for climbing some of the structures. Also remember to wear a hat as the sun can be quite intense during midday at the ruins.
As for what to pack, bring a reusable water bottle with purified water, some snacks, sunscreen, bug repellent, a camera and enough cash to cover you for the day.
Location – 64 km northeast of the island and town of Flores in Guatemala’s northern Peten region.
Costs – The entrance fee to Tikal is Q150 after 6 am and Q250 for the sunrise and sunset tours (this is paid at the gate to the national park) and a tour including a guide and round-trip shuttle transportation costs around Q90 (to be paid to the travel agency where you book).
Facilities/Services – There are a few rustic washrooms behind the small restaurant at the entrance to the ruins and then more modern washrooms inside the Visitor’s Centre. The restaurant sells overpriced processed snacks, sandwiches and water bottles. The Visitor’s Centre also has a souvenir shop and some vendors selling local handicrafts, t-shirts, guidebooks for Tikal, etc.
Have you visited the ruins of Tikal or are you planning to in the future? Was this guide helpful for your planning? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!