Tikal National Park: The Complete Guide

Tikal National Park in Guatemala

 TripSavvy / Chris VR

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Tikal

Address
Tikal, Guatemala
Phone +502 2239 5000

Located deep in the rainforests of Guatemala, the ancient ruins at Tikal National Park are one of the best-preserved ancient cities from pre-Columbian America. The ancient Maya city rivals other grand Indigenous sites such as Chizén Itzá in Mexico or Machu Pichu in Peru, but Tikal feels much more off the beaten track than its tourist-heavy counterparts.

The Maya people settled in the area of Tikal around the year 900 B.C., but its reign as one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms in the area was from the years A.D. 200–900, which is also when the majority of the current buildings were constructed. By the end of the ninth century, the city had fallen into decline and was eventually abandoned, with the jungle eventually reclaiming the pyramids. The local Indigenous community kept watch over the land for centuries, but it wasn't until 1951 when researchers began to excavate and realized the significance of what was buried there. There are estimated to be thousands of structures around Tikal, but only a fraction of them have yet to be unearthed.

Things to Do

Even though the entire national park stretches over 220 square miles, the part that is open to visitors is just about 6 square miles and most people spend a day or two exploring the park. The most prominent structures are six surviving pyramids that are labeled Temples I–VI, some of them over 200 feet high. Temple I is a burial pyramid that contains the remains of a Maya king, while Temple IV is not just the tallest structure at Tikal, but it's the tallest pre-Columbian structure that currently stands in all of the Americas.

The core of the park is the Great Plaza, which is surrounded by two massive complexes: the Central Acropolis and the North Acropolis. Together, they are two of the most archeologically important sites in the Americas and much of what we know today about Maya culture comes from the palaces, royal homes, burial sites, and temples that are inside of them.

For an extra special experience, you can pay a bit more for a sunrise or sunset tour of the park that allows you to enter before the park opens (from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m) or stay after it closes (from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.). Not only is the light at dawn or dusk extra radiant, but you'll also get to enjoy the park when most tourists are gone.

A guided tour through the park is one of the best ways to fully comprehend the rich history of Tikal, but it's worth doing some research before choosing a guide. Unfortunately, scams are common when visiting Tikal and tourists are frequently duped by seemingly legitimate companies. The best way to find a guide is to ask your hotel for a reputable source.

Ruins aren't the only thing you'll find at Tikal, since the jungle is also home to over 50 different types of mammals and over 300 bird species. Colorful hummingbirds, toucans, and several types of parrots are just some of the birds you'll come across, while other animals include the raccoon-like coatis, howler and spider monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, and even the occasional jaguar.

Where to Camp

Sleeping outside in the jungle is a wild experience and sure to be one you never forget. The campground is located inside the national park for easy access to the ruins, and guests can either pitch their own tent or rent out a hammock to sleep in (hammocks are completely draped under a mosquito net and hung up below awnings in case it rains). You can't make reservations for the campsite, so be sure to request one when you enter the park.

If you're a light sleeper or feel skittish at night, you may want to consider one of the nearby hotels. Most wildlife is active at night and while the sounds of animals are what draw many people to camp out, it's definitely not for everyone. If you decide to camp, definitely pack some earplugs to drown out the chorus of howler monkeys; their name is not a joke.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are a few lodging options located in Tikal and spending one night there to experience the jungle after dark is really a one-of-a-kind experience. Plus, they're just a few minutes' walking distance away from the ruins. Outside of the park, Flores is the nearest big city and considered the gateway to Tikal, so many travelers end up spending a night there, as well.

  • Hotel Tikal Inn: This cozy inn offers suites or bungalows to choose from, and the property includes a restaurant, a pool to relax at, and even Wi-Fi (which is amazing considering the location). The hotel also offers tours that guests can add on, so you don't have to worry about being scammed.
  • Jungle Lodge: The Jungle Lodge at Tikal is the most luxurious option in the park. The suites were once used by the original archeologists who excavated the park, although they've been lavishly upgraded since then. The high-end suites even have private terraces with their own jacuzzis.
  • Hotel Casona de la Isla: Located in Flores about 90 minutes away from the park, this trendy hotel overlooks the scenic Lake Petén Itzá. Apart from the spectacular views, the hotel stands out for having easy access to the nearest regional airport.

How to Get There

Almost any journey to Tikal first has to stop in Flores, the capital city of the Petén department in Guatemala. The easiest and quickest way to get there is to fly into the Mundo Maya International Airport, located in Flores and with direct flights from Guatemala City and Belize. If you want to save money, buses from Guatemala City to Flores are very cheap but the journey takes about 10 hours.

Once in Flores, you'll find plenty of transportation options to get to the national park. The journey is about an hour and a half and you can choose from shared vans or hire a private taxi. Be prepared to feel bombarded by drivers and guides offering all kinds of services, and try to travel in a group to share a shuttle and save money. If you're spending the night at one of the Tikal hotels, they'll likely provide transportation to and from Flores so you don't have to worry about it.

Accessibility

Tikal National Park has little infrastructure to assist visitors with mobility challenges, and the trails are difficult—if not impossible—for travelers who use wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, or simply have trouble walking. There is a shuttle to assist visitors in getting around, but it's not always reliable. Tour guides have been known to make deals with park rangers to drive tourists with accessibility needs into the park, and the best way to inquire about how to enter is to ask your hotel to help arrange it.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The rainy season in Tikal lasts from May to October, when frequent downpours make it hard to enjoy the park. The most crowded time is December and January, so try to visit in February or March for a good balance of mild weather and fewer tourists.
  • If you want to see wildlife, book the sunrise or sunset tour to see animals when they're most active.
  • Your sunrise or sunset tour does not need to be the same day as your general entrance. For example, you can arrive at the park in the afternoon, leave when it closes, spend the night nearby, and then enjoy sunrise the following morning.
  • A common scam is that guides at the park entrance will tell visitors that they're not allowed to enter Tikal unless accompanied by a licensed guide. However, the only time you must enter with a guide is during the sunrise or sunset tour.
  • The hotels in Tikal accept credit cards, but you'll need cash for everything else. There are no ATMs in the park, so make sure to have quetzales with you before you arrive.
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Tikal National Park: The Complete Guide