Tikal is a large archaeological site in the Guatemalan department of Petén. During the Classic Period it was one of the largest and most important of the Mayan cities. Today it's one of the most fascinating and enjoyable of the Mayan sites to visit, largely due to its remoteness, but also its jungle setting. Tourists still descend on it by the busload, but it's far from feeling overrun like Chichen Itza and other sites. Some of the temples are still being uncovered, and you can watch archaeologists busy at work. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
HistoryTikal dates back as far as 400 BC, and grew into one of the largest and most powerful of the Mayan cities during the Classic Period (AD 200-900). It often clashed with other cities in the region, and was eventually defeated by Caracol in 562 AD. King Ah Cacau returned Tikal to its former glory about a century later, and it remained somewhat prosperous until the general decline of Mayan civilization set in around AD 900.
Tikal was eventually abandoned completely, consumed by the jungle, and pretty much fell off the map. Stories of its existence started to surface in the 17th & 18th centuries, but it wasn't until the mid-1800s that expeditions were hatched to explore and map it. After a hundred years of roughing it overland by horse and foot to reach the site, a small airstrip was built in the mid-1950s. The University of Pennsylvania oversaw major excavation work at Tikal during the 1960s, and the in the late 1970s, the government of Guatemala began the work you still see being done today.
During colonial times there was a legend spoken among the indigenous peoples in Guatemala of a lost city inside the jungle where their ancestors had thrived. In 1848 this legend became a reality. Tikal was discovered, arousing curiosity around the world.
LandscapeLots of very tall trees provide shade along the wide trails as you trek from one ruin to the next. With the exception of Temple IV the elevations are small. Very steep wooden staircases lead up to the temples that are open to the public. Only minimal disabled access is provided.
Flora and fauna
ClimateIt's sunny, hot and humid in winter so dress lightly and bring water since you will be sweating climbing up the many steep steps of the monuments which are spread out. The trails are also muddy in a few places but there is plenty of shade under the canopy of trees. Winter nights can be cool.
The San Juan Travel Agency has a virtual monopoly on the minibuses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores in the morning on the hour and costs Q120 roundtrip or Q60 one way leaving hourly from 4 to 10am, and then possibly one more at 2pm (travel time: 75 mins). Return trips are at 12:30pm, and then hourly from 2 to 6pm.
Regular Q30 second class buses leave from the Santa Elena bus station to Tikal at 6AM, 6:30AM, 7AM, 8:30AM, 10AM, 11:30AM and 12:30PM, arriving two hours later. Later ones leaving at 1PM and 3PM continue onward to Uaxactún. The local buses do not run on Sundays. Beware about buying a round trip ticket from "Exploradores de la Cultura Maya" from the Santa Elena bus station as they may sell you a return ticket for a bus that doesn't exist.
Flores is the nearest gateway city and airport.
Fees and permits
Tickets purchased after 3PM are not valid the next day.
Also if you are a citizen you can get into Tikal for free on Sundays. This not only gives you two different times of day (and thus two different experiences) but also two chances to have good weather for photography.
- are available outside the Visitor's Center for Q20 or (if you have a digital camera) just take a photo of the sign with the map on it shortly after you pass the ticket box.
- Walking trails wind through the temple complexes.
- There are buses to Uaxactun that leave around 3 and 6PM (times approximate). The price is Q15 for the bus and Q25 for park entry. The buses return at 5AM and 6AM the following day, and can be well worth it if you are planning to camp at Tikal anyway. Take food, water and sleeping gear with you (a hammock or sleeping mat and mosquito net should be adequate).
Great PlazaFlanked on the east and west sides by two great temple-pyramids
North AcropolisTogether with the Great Plaza, it is one of the most studied architectural groups in the Maya area.
Central AcropolisA palace complex just south of the Great Plaza
Mundo PerdidoTo the west of the Plaza of the Seven Temples. It is the largest ceremonial complex dating from the Preclassic period at Tikal
Temple IVThe tallest temple in the park, measuring .
You will also see a few black monkeys jumping high up among the trees.
Tikal Visitor CenterGet your bearings at the visitor center which features a relief map of the ancient site, as well as a restaurant, restrooms, gift shops and a post-office
Stelae MuseumsCost for non-locals is Q10.
Sylvanus G. Morley Museum
phone: +502 7926-2411 (Reservations)A thrill ride along cables slung between tall trees in the jungle just outside the gate to Tikal National Park. You sit in a harness, slide from tree to tree, then climb up the tree to the next platform for the next cable. The highest trees poke above most of the canopy so you can see a long way. The longest cable ride is some 150 m.
UaxactunThere is a bus to Uaxactun that leaves at 4PM, the price is Q15 for the bus and Q25 for park entry, the bus returns at 6AM the following day, well worth it if your camping at Tikal. Take food, water and sleeping gear with you (a hammock or sleeping mat and mosquito net should be adequate).
Guatemalan highland’s textiles are also sold in a small rancho near the parking area.
There are a few nice Internet terminals in the Tikal Inn restaurant but they charge a hefty US$1 for 5 minutes.
There is no ATM in the Visitor Center nor at the hotels.
The Jungle Lodge offers dinners, and some travellers report that it is better than the Tikal Inn.
There are several comedores (food stalls) on the road leading from the ruins entrance to Flores.
The Jaguar Inn is cheaper than the visitors centre and a little more expensive than Tikal Comedor, they used to have high quality local meals, but now they have been removed from their menu, meals now are very average and service is really slow. That being said don´t buy bus tickets there, they charge Q500 for a ticket to Uaxactun whereas if you buy it from the ticket booth they charge Q25 for park entry and Q15 for the bus.
Around the Grand Plaza small covered shops offer water. These close pretty early so plan ahead and carry some extra water in the afternoon.
HotelsThree hotels next to the park entrance provide decent but basic accommodation. All three cater to Western travellers and their amenities and prices reflect this. For those on a shoestring, try asking if you can rent a hammock, or just a spot to hang your own, under a palapa roof.
Jaguar InnClean, simple rooms.
Jungle LodgeNice hotel with semi-luxurious rooms and a pool.
Tikal InnSimple rooms and bungalows with private bathrooms, and a nice swimming pool.
CampingPark's camp site: Basic showers with no hot water, if they are not occupied you can get a "plapa" (shack) to camp under a roof. Prices:
- Your own tent - Q50 p/p
- Renting a tent - Q65 p/p
Jaguar Inn: You can camp inside the hotel parameters and enjoy their wifi, hot showers, nice bathrooms, Good atmosphere and more security. There is also a restaurant but it is really expensive. Prices:
- Your own tent - Q50 p/p
- Renting a tent - Q75 p/p (better tents than the ones of the park's camp site)
- Hammock - Q10 p/p
If you need your bags kept securely there is an additional Q5 (US$0.80) fee. There are a lot of insects that bite, mosquitoes aren't that bad during the dryer months but there are other nasty insects about. Keep the fly wire screen on your tent zipped tight and get in and out of your tent as quickly as possible. A can of bug spray would be very helpful. There are a lot of bees on the lawn in the camp area so wear something on your feet.
Be especially careful with the bus rides from Flores to Tikal, as there have been a recent rash of robberies on the main highway. Only take a bus that leaves on the hour and is on time. A bus that leaves Flores late will not have the security of police protection that an on-time bus will have. Either way, do not carry more money than you will need at Tikal.