There is a handful of things that every visitor to Guatemala should do or see. Tikal National Park is one of them – no questions asked. Tikal is not only one of the most significant archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is one of the most important archaeological sights, period. If you happen to be travelling in Guatemala, visiting Tikal is one of the most magical things you could do. And here is your best guide to visiting Tikal.
Located in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest, Tikal is one of the best excavated Maya ruins in the world. With over 3,000 structures on the site and many still buried and not completely excavated, travelling to Tikal is a great adventure, especially if you find Maya history as fascinating as I do.
We are still learning about the culture, lifestyle and history of the mysterious Maya civilization. Until very recently, it was said that Maya were peaceful philosophers and astronomers. However, the most recent findings in the form of hieroglyphs portrayed Mayas are fighters and often sacrifice, and torture was a regular occurrence.
Yet Tikal was an incredibly progressive kingdom. The state had had a stadium, schools and libraries, palaces and administrative buildings, hospitals, and much more.
It is said that the first people lived in Tikal as far as 1000 B.B (3000 thousand years ago).
But the population of Tikal began a continuous growth starting in the Preclassic Period (around 4000 years ago). At the peak of its glory (around 1200 years ago/750 a.d.) Tikal was home to at least 66.000 Maya and was spread all the way to the Yukatan Penisula and Honduras. At this time, the city-state dominated politically, culturally and militarily over the whole region. Yet, the ruins of Tikal visible today represent just a portion of the original state.
We are also still not sure how this powerful civilization came to quite an abrupt end and why the rich and powerful city-states were completely abandoned.
Although many historians claim that it was primarily due to droughts and crises caused by deforestation and overpopulation, we still cannot know for sure.
After Tikal was abandoned, even though it had grown over a dense forest, the legend didn’t die, and coming generations passed a story of the city. Local people guided Guatemalan expeditions to the ruins in the 1850s but given its remotness it was very challanging to get to the site and explore.
It wasn’t until 1984 when the first modern explorers and archaeologists started visiting the site and gradually started to clear, map and record the ruins. Due to Tikal’s remoteness and lack of roads, it was very challenging to explore the ruins. Only when the small airstrip was built in 1951 its when the true work has began.
Now, Tikal National Park is the largest excavated site in the American continent, and one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. It bears testimony not only to the greatness of ancient Mayan civilization but also and the majesty of nature.
Undoubtedly, exploring this magnificent site of Tikal is one of the best things you could do in Guatemala.
How to get to Tikal / Guide to Visiting Tikal
The best way to visit Tikal is basing yourself in Flores or El Remate and taking a trip from there. Flores is a lovely, charming island/town, hence I highly recommend heading to Flores first. From there, you will be able to organize a day trip via your hostel or local tour agency. It takes around 2 hours to get to Tikal from Flores, and the best way is to go by shuttle or as part of an organized tour.
How to get to Tikal from Antigua or Guatemala City – Tikal is further away from Antigua than you might think. The majority of the roads leading there are winding mountainous roads, so it takes a while.
There are really only two feasible ways of getting to Tikal from Antigua or Guatemala City. The first one is to take a shuttle to Guatemala City and then an overnight bus to Flores/Santa Elena. Those are great, comfortable busses and the journey isn’t too bad at all. The bus will stop at the bus station just outside of Flores island (Santa Elena). From there you can take a tuk-tuk to Flores.
From here, you have two options. Book a hostel in Flores, enjoy the rest of the day and take a trip to Tikal the next day – highly recommended!
The other option is to book a hotel closer to Tikal (especially if you want to do the sunrise tour), but you will have to continue travelling from Flores. If you decide to do it this way, I recommend contacting the hotel owner to arrange the best way to arrive there.
The other, easier yet more expensive way of getting from Antigua or Guatemala City to Tikal is by taking a direct flight from Guatemala to Flores. It is, however, an unpopular way mainly due to its cost. However, if money isn’t the issue, that is probably the most comfortable way.
You can also get to Tikal from Rio Dulce if you are exploring this part of Guatemala or travelling from Honduras. It is very straightforward to get to Tikal from Rio Dulce. Just Book a shuttle from there (around Q175), and around 5 hours later, it will drop you right in front of your hotel in Flores.
I highly recommend exploring Rio Dulce in the process and you can read about it in my Rio Dulce article here. If you are coming from Livingston, the best way to get to Flores/Tikal is by first taking a boat to Rio Dulce and then booking a direct shuttle to Flores.
There is also direct shuttles between Flores/Tikal and Lanquin/Semuc Champey. Those cost around Q200 and the journey takes between 8 and 10 hours (depending if the roadworks in front of Lanqin are still in progress)
How many days do you need to visit Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Visiting Tikal is a day trip. You can opt for guided two days comprehensive tour, but a day trip is the most popular option. You will only need one day to explore Tikal fully, and you can opt in to stay in Flores for couple more nights or book a hotel near the park. I would, however, suggest reserving three days for visiting Tikal. Why?
All the recommendations out there saying that you can get in and out in a day are not very practical. Why? Tikal is located just under 2 hours of a car journey from Flores, with no larger cities nearby. The best and stress-free way to visit Tikal is to book a couple of nights in Flores or El Remate and dedicate the whole day to exploring Tikal. You would probably return to the hostel around 5 pm so you can enjoy an evening in Flores and then leave the next day. That is if you don’t want to explore everything that Flores has to offer.
Where should you base yourself for visiting Tikal National Park, Guatemala
There are three main options as to where could you stay in Tikal. You can base yourself either in Flores or El Remate and get your shuttle or tour organized from there. You could also stay in a hotel or lodge located closer to the Tikal National Park, yet there won’t be much more to do in those locations apart from visiting Tikal itself.
If you decide to stay in Flores, I wholeheartedly recommend Los Amigos Hostel. It is a spectacular hostel, a true hidden garden with great value dorms and wonderful private rooms as well. This hostel is where most of the travellers stay, and my visit to Flores wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t stay in Los Amigos.
Tour or no tour for visiting Tikal
The most popular and easy way to visit Tikal is to book a guided tour. You can book it easily at your hotel or from a tourist office in Flores or any larger town. If you book your tour in Flores, it will cost you around Q120 and will include transportation and a tour guide.
If you are wondering if you can visit Tikal without an organized tour – the answer is yes. In fact, I did it without the guide, but the price wasn’t much lower. So if saving money would be the only reason for you to go without the tour – you wouldn’t be saving that much.
I don’t like joining organized groups as I really like exploring at my own pace, especially because I take a long time taking photos. Still, if you don’t book a guide and just book a shuttle, you will be in the same car as others who will be part of the tour. That’s exactly what happened to me and I received a free introduction to Tikal history from a tour guide – free of charge!
The difference was that once we had arrived at Tikal, I was free to roam on my own. If you decide to go independently, I recommend purchasing a map at the gate (Q20) or taking a photo of the map after the entrance and doing some research beforehand, so you actually know what you are looking at. I paid Q85for the shuttle (but probably could get it a bit cheaper), so my decision wasn’t based on the value for money. I just wanted to be free to go and explore what I wanted. But if you enjoy learning about this magnificent site, listening to exciting stories and don’t mind tagging along with other travellers – by all means, go with the guided tour.
If you wish to visit Tikal from Antigua or any other town, the guided tour is the most feasible option as this will require an overnight stay. There are also many companies offering sunrise guided tours with meals included. If that’s what you like to do – check those organized tours here.
Important tips for visiting Tikal / Guide to Visiting Tikal
Is Tikal Safe to visit? Tikal is very safe to visit, and you can roam the park on your own. The only thing that could happen to you is getting a bit lost, but with many tourists and guides around, you will always be able to ask where to go. That is if you decide to go independently. Tikal Park is well signposted and all paths are clear and easy to see.
Tikal National Park is large, and it can take anything from 5 to 20 minutes to walk between the points of interest. In total, it takes around 4 hours to see the whole of Tikal, and this would include stops for a picnic or a beverage.
There are no restaurants on site of Tikal National Park, but there are few places to get drinks and snacks (and use the bathroom). It is advised that you eat and drink at those designated places as you can safely dispose of the rubbish there. I have seen small groups and families having small picnics here and there, so it is not prohibited, but please be mindful and collect your garbage.
I recommend packing your own snacks and water as anything purchased just before or inside the park will be very much overpriced.
The fee to enter Tikal national Park is Q150 for foreigners, and most of the time, it is not included in the tour cost. Also, there are no ATMs near Tikal, so bring cash with you.
There are options to enter Tikal for either sunrise or sunset, but this will cost you an additional Q100. For the sunrise entry, the tickets need to be purchased the day before so check with your hotel or tour operator where can this be done. I recommend sunset as I have heard that Tikal is covered in mist during early hours, and there is not much of sunrise to be seen.
Remember to take your passport – It will be needed to purchase the entrance ticket!
Pack mosquito repellant. I was so glad I brought mine! Tikal is located in the middle of the tropical jungle.
It is hot and humid in Tikal. And you will walk a lot. Wear breathable and comfortable clothing and pack plenty of water.
Take your time! ! If you take a regular 8 am departure, you will have between 4 and 5 hours to explore. Take photos, rest and enjoy
Is Tikal National Park worth visiting
Tikal is one of the most captivating places to see in Guatemala and is definitely worth visiting. In fact, Tikal National Park is one of the best things to do in Guatemala period. Maya history is captivating and still filled with mysteries which makes visiting Tikal even more fascinating.
If you are fascinated by Mayan history and love visiting ancient ruins – Tikal is a must-visit! Tikal is larger than Honduras’s Copan and Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico and is one of the most excavated sites of this type.
And if you are a Star Wars fan, you’d like to know that George Lucas used Tikal as a filming location for the moon Yavin 4 in the first Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope.
The fauna and flora in Tikal are spectacular. Make sure you look out for exotic birds and fascinating animals as well as flowers and magnificent trees.
There is something magical and unforgettable about strolling beside the ancient buildings, pyramids and temples built by the powerful civilization surrounded by an air of mystery.
I hope you found my guide to visiting Tikal helpful. Enjoy your adventure, and please share your thoughts with me once you have returned!I