A backpackers guide to Tikal National Park. What to see, which temples to climb, where to find wildlife, plenty of tips and important information.
Hidden away in the northern reaches of Guatemala, lies the mysterious Mayan temple complex of Tikal. This jungle-shrouded site absolutely blew us away. If you’re visiting Guatemala, Tikal must be on your list of places to visit!!
Quick facts about Tikal
- Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. It was the largest city of the Mayan Classic Period and the centre of the Mayan civilisation.
- Tikal flourished during 300 to 850 CE and through this time, the city dominated much of the Mesoamerican region politically, economically and militarily.
- Tikal’s population peaked at around 90,000.
- By 900 AD, this Mayan city had been abandoned. Nobody really knows for certain why this happened.
- The ruins of this city were discovered officially for the first time in 1848, when an expedition was sent out by the Guatemalan government.
- UNESCO designated the ruins a World Heritage Site in 1979.
- It encompasses 575 square kilometres of jungle and thousands of ruined structures.
- Approximately only 30% of the ancient Mayan city Tikal has been uncovered. The remainder lies buried by earth and jungle.
Where is Tikal?
Tikal is found in the north of the Petén region of Guatemala. It is located 60km from Flores and 30km from El Remate.
What to see in Tikal
The main central area of the Tikal complex covers approximately 14sq kilometres and contains 3,000 structures. The architecture of Tikal is built from limestone. It includes the remains of steep-sided temples, large royal palaces, ceremonial platforms, plaza’s, residences, administrative buildings and inscribed stone monuments.
Arguably the most famous area of Tikal is the Great Plaza. Situated in the very heart of the complex, it is overlooked by temple-pyramids at either end. On the east end, stands Templo I. This west-facing temple is also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, because of a lintel found in the temple depicting a king sitting upon a jaguar throne. On the west stands Templo II, also known as the Templo Del Mascaras (Temple of the Masks). This temple stands 38m high and faces east to see the sunrise.
Templo IV, aka Templo de la Serpiente Bicéfala (Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent), is the tallest in Tikal. It sits on the far western edge of the main complex area. It is worth the walk to get there and the climb up. Sitting upon this lofty temple, you can enjoy unparalleled views over the park, with the tops of pyramids popping through the jungle canopy.
One of our favourite parts of Tikal was the far less busy Lost World complex, or the Mundo Perdido, consisting of 38 structures. Its centrepiece is the Great Pyramid standing 31m tall, sometimes referred to as the Lost World Pyramid or 5C-54. One of the other standouts in this complex is the 22m Temple 5C-54 , known as Talud-Tablero Temple, due to its different architectural style. This is the only example of a Tikal temple which utilised this style, with its protruding staircase and Talud-Tablero tiers. Many believe it was influenced, maybe even built by the people of Teotihuacan
There’s so much else to see and explore including the North Acropolis, Plaza of Seven Temples, Templo III -Templo del Gran Sacerdote (Temple of the Great Priest,) Templo VI (Temple of Inscriptions,) the Palace at the Central Acropolis and climbing Templo V (Tikal’s second tallest temple).
Our top 3 temples to climb
Being an ancient city surrounded by jungle, it’s unsurprising that people want to get as high as they to experience great views. But you need to remember that you can’t just climb every temple you see, as some are restricted. So here are our 3 favourite legit vantage points:
- From atop Temple II. This offers great views over the Great Plaza over to Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar) and over the surrounding jungle canopy. TIP: If you like your pic’s without people in them, then this is a good one to do early in the morning before the crowds fill the plaza, which they do!
- From atop Temple IV. For any Star Wars fans, this was the viewpoint for you. This is the spot where the Rebel sentry was tracking the Millenium Falcon as it landed at Yavin in Episode IV: A New Hope. You can see Temples I, II & III in the distance.
- From atop the Great Pyramid (5c-54) This is a much lesser climbed temple. The Great Pyramid, is the tallest structure in the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) area. Views from up here show the Talud-Tablero Temple (the second largest building in the Lost World complex) with Temple V in the background.
Wildlife of Tikal National Park
Tikal is also part of the one-million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve. This was created in 1990 to protect the dense forests of the Petén. As well as experiencing the stunning Mayan Ruins, you also have the opportunity to see some of the amazing wildlife which fills the park, from the abundant tiny Leaf-cutter ants to the elusive Jaguar (no we didn’t see one). You’ll have a good chance of seeing White-nosed Coati, Agouti, Geoffrey’s Spider Monkey and Howler Monkeys (if you don’t see them, there’s a good chance you’ll hear them).
There are also over 330 bird species (migratory and resident) living in the park. We saw Kiskadees, Tanagers, Oriole, Red-Loured Amazons, Keel-Billed Toucans, Slaty-Tailed Trogons a Pale-billed Woodpeckers. We had hoped to see a Red Capped Manakin, but no luck. The Lonely Planet has a useful guide for what to see and where, when Birdwatching in Tikal.
The Red-Loured Amazons (parrots) were particularly active first thing in the morning and easily visible from atop Temple II. The vantage points at Tikal were not only great for views over the site but also offered canopy height shots of the birds and howler monkeys.
We came across the beautiful Keel-billed Toucan whilst wandering around the South Acropolis. We found it by hearing its distinctive ‘frog-like’ call and found it lunching on a large cicada. Using the stairs on Temple V, we finally got a vantage point with a clear view.
We saw Slaty-Tailed Trogons and Pale-billed Woodpeckers towards the end of our time at Tikal. This was in Complex R and Q whilst looking for Toucanets and Manakins.
Getting to/from Tikal from Flores
- The easiest way to get to Tikal is by taking a return shuttle bus, which can be booked at hostel/hotels or at tour agencies, with or without a guide.
- The most popular morning departure times are 3.30am (gets you there for sunrise) or 4am (the departure we took, got us there at 6am, the official opening time). The afternoon shuttle is at 13.30pm (gets you there around 3pm). **NOTE: Tikal closes at 5pm.
- Once we arrived at the ticket office, we got off the bus, bought our tickets, got back on the bus along with the other passengers and our allocated guide and drove 20km inside the park to the car park.
- The driver issued us tickets which had an open return time of 11am, 12.30am or 3pm. You must get a physical ticket from the driver to return to Flores, or you will have to pay again!
- We then went off on our own and met the driver at the same point we were dropped off at 12.30pm.
There are plenty of hostels in Flores for the budget-minded backpackers. After reading some average hostel reviews, we opted to stay in a casa. This only cost a little more than a room in a hostel, but had great reviews. We had a big, clean room at Casa Itzayana, which also provided a fan, drinking water and basic kitchen facilities. We self-catered for our time in Flores, in order to save some extra money. The staff were lovely and only made themselves present when we needed them. They could also arrange shuttles to Tikal and onward bus tickets. Highly recommended.
- Shuttle prices vary depending on whether or not you have a guide and where you book your ticket from. So it’s worth shopping around.
- We paid GTQ90 p/p which included a return shuttle and guide.
- There were passengers on our bus who had just paid for the shuttle GTQ70p/p. They were given the option to join the group tour at an additional cost of GTQ50p/p, paid directly to the guide.
- Entrance to Tikal National Park is paid at the park and costs GTQ150p/p (approx US$20) for foreigners.
- It costs and extra GTQ100 to enter the site for sunrise.
- Entrance to Tikal can only be paid for in local currency. They DO NOT accept USD and there are NO ATM’s at Tikal.
Do you need a guide?
Having a guide is very much a personal choice and is not compulsory to visit Tikal. There’s no doubt that having a guide is very informative. They can explain the history, translate glyphs, point out great photo spots and many also have a great eye and ear for wildlife. When we arrived at Tikal, we chose to fly solo as there were quite a lot of people on our bus and in our group. We wanted to stroll around at our own pace and not be stuck in a large group, waiting around for stragglers. Likewise, we didn’t want to hold a group up while we were taking photos. If you’re not paying for a guide, we would definitely recommend doing a little research as to what you want to see, so you don’t miss the best bits. Tikal is huge!
If you want a guide but don’t want to be in a group environment, you can always arrange a private guide and transport, but this will come at a cost.
Unlike other national parks around Central America, there weren’t excess guides waiting at the entrance. Each bus entering the park was allocated a guide. In our experience, it was possible to pay the guide directly if you had only paid for transport and decided you wanted a guide when you got there. It was, however, cheaper to book a ticket inclusive of a guide (GTQ90p/p) than to book transport only (GTQ70p/p) and pay for the guide directly (GTQ50p/p). We wouldn’t recommend relying on this though as things may have changed and each guide may demand a different price.
Important information & tips
- You need ID (passport or drivers license) to obtain an entrance ticket to Tikal. ID is checked at the ticket office. They did let us in by just showing scanned passport copies we had on our phone, but we wouldn’t rely on that.
- Sunrise or Sunset? We had planned to go for sunrise, but as it was wet season. We spoke to some travellers who recommended against it. At that time of year, the views are often covered by a thick layer of mist with no sight of the sun rising. That said, we met people who visited Tikal for sunrise at drier times of the year and loved it. To be honest, if we revisited, we would probably stay in accommodation closer to Tikal and do both!
- **NOTE: As the park closes at 5pm, tickets purchased AFTER 3PM are also valid for the following day.
- If you’re not visiting for sunrise, we recommend getting there early. As with all the temples we visited in Central America, by 10am many large tour groups had rolled in, making it really busy. In peak season, weekends and national holidays, Tikal can get mobbed.
- As Tikal is located within thick jungle, it experiences tropical weather, which gets super hot and humid. It’s a little cooler earlier in the morning.
- Food and drink is not particularly cheap in or around the park. We recommend taking plenty of water with you. It’s also a great place for a picnic. If you’re staying in Flores, you can easily walk to the supermarket in Santa Elana to grab supplies. It’s not far and the supermarket is well stocked.
- You’re going to be doing a lot of walking and climbing upstairs, so make sure you’ve got a good pair of shoes or super comfy flip flops.
- There were lots of mozzies around in the wet season. Take insect repellant with you (even in the dry season – just in case!!)
- Regardless of whether you’re a wildlife or nerd/bird enthusiast like us, Tikal is a great place to see a universally-popular Toucan.
- TIP: To find a Keel-billed Toucan, listen out for its call. It actually has a croak which sounds a bit like a frog. It’s an unusual sound, but does help in locating them!
- There are some pretty shifty agencies and operators in Flores. It’s worth having a look at who to avoid online and in guide books, to ensure you’re not ripped off and or disappointed. Talk to other travellers to compare deal prices and experiences too.
Getting to Flores from Lanquin (Semuc Champey)
- We took an 8am tourist shuttle from Lanquin to Flores GTQ110p/p (booked at our hotel)
- The shuttle was quite late, departing at 8.40.
- All bags went on the roof, which was covered with a tarpaulin. We would recommend covering your bag with a waterproof cover or garbage bag in the wet season – just in case!
- The first hour’s drive was on unsealed bumpy roads.
- The rest of the drive was on sealed roads. They were ok but broken up and bad in parts.
- We made 2x stops: one mid-morning loo and stretch stop (chance to buy snacks), then one for lunch at a roadside gas station.
- The food at the lunch stop was average at best, we recommend taking lunch with you (we ended up buying pot noodles!)
- We arrived at Santa Elana at around 4.30pm and transferred to smaller minivans which took us across the bridge and to Flores (no extra charge) arriving around 5pm.
- ATM was available at the supermarket in Santa Elana as there is no ATM on Flores itself.
NOTE: The minivan will drop you at a tour agency and someone will probably get on the bus with you and try to sell you tickets to Tikal and onwards tickets to Belize etc. We did, in fact, buy these tickets to both Tikal and bus tickets to Belize) and all was fine (not ripped off and the buses did exist), but don’t rush into anything. We checked prices and timetables before we committed to buying anything. As mentioned above, there are some truly shifty operators in Flores who will rip you off and lie to you, just to make a quick buck. We heard stories of buses not existing and agencies literally disappearing. So just do some research first!