Visiting the mighty Tikal Ruins in Guatemala has always been on my personal bucket list. Above everything else…including famous sites such as Machu Picchu and Chichen-Itza, I have always wanted to wander through the massive archeological site of the Tikal Ruins. To climb the pyramids and to imagine as if I was there at the height of its importance. For years I have been looking at pictures of the Tikal Ruins on social media just waiting for my time to visit. Well finally, it came, and the ruins were as awesome as I had hoped.
Tikal national park encompasses 756km2 of dense Guatemalan jungle and over 3,000 detectable ruined structures. The main city of the Tikal ruins covers approximately 16km2 itself. The Tikal ruins just happen to be part of a one-million-hectare biosphere reserve, created in 1990 making it the first UNSECO site in the America’s to contain both natural and archeological certifications. It is a must on any Guatemala itinerary.
The history of Tikal is vivid, colourful and like the Mayan people, a little bit mysterious. Archeologists estimate that the Maya settled in Tikal around 900 BC. Tikal was an important ceremonial, cultural and commercial centre for the Mayan people and grew to be the greatest city in the Mayan world with over 100,000 residents. Shrouded in mystery, the city and the Mayan empire collapsed and the great city of Tikal was overtaken by lush jungle, so thick not even Cortez was able to discover it.
Ok that’s enough history, let’s talk about my experience.
I arrived at the Tikal Ruins the night before my morning tour. I was staying at the Jungle Lodge Hotel, a lovely property situated only 1km from the site of the ruins. Staying at a hotel on the site meant that I could wake up at 3:30 in the morning and take the 4:00am sunrise tour. Staying in Flores would have made for a much earlier start, 2:00am and no one wants that. Initially I mucked up. Apparently tickets to the ruins need to be purchased in the bank in Santa Elena, and not at the actual site…weird right? I thought so. Luckily our hotel helped work out the ticket issue via some sort of dance of the shuttles.
4:00am Sunrise Tour
3:30 am came early. We met our tour guide Tony for coffee and a light snack at the main building of the Jungle Lodge Hotel before we made our way to the Tikal Ruins…1km walking in the dark. These guys are good. They know where they are going in the dark. I, however, had no idea where we were, but I knew we were heading to the tallest structure in order to see the sunrise. Along the way, our guide Tony occasionally stopped to explain where we were, pointing out things like city walls and giant looming structures. He took us by a variety of carved stones, and by shining a flashlight at the edge of it, we were able to see the carvings significantly better in the dark. This is a result of the light coming from just one direct source rather than the more global light source as provided by sunlight. Tony used these carvings to help explain to us the history of Tikal in a somewhat interactive way…with a haunting flashlight.
The jungle was quiet as we headed out to the far end of the park and towards the tallest pyramid. Tony took us to a set of stairs which we would climb up to see the sunrise from one of the many temples. Up, up, and up we went until we reached the top of the ancient Mayan structure. Not many people take this tour so we were able to sit on the edge of the pyramid amidst a few others and wait in silence for the jungle to wake up. The jungle awakening is a very cool experience that I never take for granted as a traveler. It is a very special moment to watch the world come to life as the night ends. As the sun rose the monkeys started to howl, the birds started to chirp, and the beetles began to sing. It was a cloudy morning so the sun was blocked by the humid jungle mist, but this did not detract from the experience. It is possible it enhanced it by highlighting the mystery of the Mayan people. As it got lighter outside I was able to see 2…3….4 other pyramids poking out from the jungle canopy. A view I will never forget.
Continuing on, we headed down the pyramid where Tony guided us to the area where archeologists are still hard at work today. He gave an interesting explanation of the UNESCO rules, explaining to us how they chose to restore certain areas and why they felt it should be rebuilt in certain ways. Tony, who has lived in Tikal all of his life due to his grandfather owning the gum tree farm on which Tikal was situated and hence discovered. His father was an archeologist himself, and able to explain to Tony in detail the restoration process. As a historian, I found this interesting. The archeologists here were not using modern building materials, but working with the exact same materials they believed the Mayans used to build the original city of Tikal. Did you know they can only rebuild 1/3 of each building by UNESCO rules?
Onwards. Following Tony as he navigated the site, we arrived at each one of the major temples, received an explanation of what and why they were, and were allotted time to climb to the top of each.
Eventually we made our way to the grand plaza, you know, the one you see in pictures and my gosh, was it ever breathtaking. Two huge pyramids facing one another with a city of ruins on either side. A ceremonial space in the centre used freely by the Mayan people of today. While protected by UNESCO, Tikal spiritually still belongs to the Mayans.
The ruins were so expansive that a 4 hour exclusive tour was not even near sufficient time to appreciate it. This is where staying at the Jungle Lodge Hotel came in handy. Back to the resort for breakfast, a swim, and a nap before returning to all of the places I saw on the tour which I felt needed more time.
Why Tikal Ruins?
The Tikal ruins are beyond special as a result of a variety of unique aspects. This would include the sheer size, the freedom one has while exploring them, and the amount of history they hold within them. The fact that the Mayan people still celebrate their ceremonies in the grand plaza denotes the importance of Tikal linking the modern world to the ancient.
As a visitor you are not only allowed to walk the Tikal Ruins, but are encouraged to climb them. To take the steps that the ancient Mayans took and to experience for just one day the world that they lived in is inspiring. It is easy to feel closer to these ruins compared to other archeological sites because you can touch the structures, feel the atmosphere, and be one within its history. To stand at the top of a pyramid and look out among an ancient city is by far one of the most significant moments I have had in my traveling life. To walk through doorways to the streets of the ancient Mayans and have the freedom to imagine life in that time and place is an irreplaceable experience.
The ruins go on and on into the jungle. While it is special to stand atop one of the major temples in the grand plaza, the Tikal Ruins are so expansive that you are able to walk through a much larger range of history. One has the opportunity to explore and experience the ruined homes of the Mayan people, government buildings, royal palaces and everything in between. Each pyramid and ruin is so unique and individual resulting in a personal education on a much larger scale. By being at the Tikal Ruins, I so quickly learnt that there is more to Mayan architecture than the great pyramids we are so accustomed to seeing in the media.
Unlike a variety of ruined locations whose grounds are perfectly manicured commercial properties, Tikal has the advantage of being a naturally preserved site as well. This means that while at the Tikal Ruins you will be meandering between archeological sites via Guatemalan jungle. The jungle around and within Tikal remains intact, with some of the buildings still being covered in the earth as it was found before the excavation began. You will walk through jungle paths with a selection of monkeys playing high in the canopy, with the sounds of beetles singing from the trees and the occasional colourful toucan flying through your line of sight. See, this is it, this is what makes the Tikal Ruins such a surreal experience. It is the way you can enjoy the ruins, walking among them with a view of natural Guatemalan jungle from every angle. The environment creates the feeling as if you are standing in history. At Tikal, you will walk amongst the jungle trees, the flora, the fauna, and enjoy the ruins at the same time.
Finally, the ruins of Tikal are simply inconvenient to get to. These are not the ruins that every tourist visits because of proximity to all-inclusive resorts such as Chichen-Itza and Tulum. These are the ruins you have to want to see. They are truly in the middle of the jungle. A plane ride to Guatemala City, followed by another plane ride or a 9 hour bus ride to Flores, and once again followed by another hour long jungle ride to the ruins, arriving at Tikal is in itself a minor mission, and transportation in Guatemala does not help, find out here. This journey means one major thing…there are less people at Tikal. Since the ruins of Tikal are so expansive, instead of feeling overpowered by large cluttered crowds, frustrated by masses of people making an experience short of inauthentic, Tikal presents a special moment of freedom among heritage sites. Walk the jungle paths in peace and freedom, sharing this 576 km2 archeological site, with16 km2 uncovered and open for exploration with just a few people.
Hours: Tikal is open from 6:00am to 5:00pm
Price: An adult ticket costs 150 GTQ ($20.00USD), children under 12 are free. Guatemalan’s have free access on Sundays.
If you want to take the sunrise tour from 4:00 am – 8:00 am. The tour costs an additional 100 GTQ ($10.00USD) and these tours can be purchased at the entrance the day before, or through your hotel or hostel. Rumour has it that the sunrise tour is cheaper if purchased at the gate, but I used my hotel for convenience sake…that’s right, I paid for convenience.
*Note* you must purchase a new ticket every day. However, if you purchase a ticket after 3:00 pm it is valid the next day as well.
Ticket Purchase: While you used to be able to purchase the tickets to Tikal online, through hotels, and at the gate…the rules have changed. YOU MUST PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS AT THE BANK IN SANTA ELENA. A hostel may take your money to do it for you, or may take you to the bank to get your tickets, either way…it goes down at the bank so don’t expect to get them at the entrance to the park.
Getting there: There are a variety of tour companies that have mini buses which will pick you up from your hotel in Flores for 70 GTQ return. Some even offer 4 hour guided tours for an extra 25 GTQ. The journey takes 1 hour 15 minutes.
There are also minivans which leave for the Tikal ruins from the bus terminal in Santa Elena starting at 6:00 am with the first return trip at 12:30 pm. These vans cost 70 GTQ but involve a long walk to the bus terminal. I would use an organized tour company for the same price.
There are regular Guatemalan second class buses which leave from the Santa Elena terminal for 30 GTQ leaving to Tikal at 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:30, 10:00, 11:30, 12:30, 13:00 and 15:00. This bus takes 2 hours .
From Guatemala City, Antigua, or Lake Atitlan: It is best to find your way to the Guatemalan city airport and catch a flight to Flores from Guatemala city for $140 USD and make your way to Tikal from here.
Where to Stay: The best way to see the ruins is by staying in them! The Jungle Lodge Hotel and hostel is situated 1 km walk to the grand plaza. This is the best way to see the ruins. Take the 4:00 am tour, and enjoy mini pool breaks at your hotel throughout the day. Interested in a little more detail? I stayed with them and reviewed the hotel here!
Staying in Flores: You can reach Tikal from a number of hotels in Flores… here are some good ones. I stayed at the Hotel Isla de Flores and reviewed it here!
Eating: There are a few restaurants attached to the hotels in Tikal National Park which will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. However if you are not staying the night at one of these hotels I would suggest taking a lunch to the ruins with you. The food is not amazing. It takes a little extra time, is expensive, and it is a long walk from the ruins to the restaurant and back. However, if you are using the hotels as a base, eat at the hotel as you are not as restricted in time.
There are small kiosks within Tikal but they do not sell more than water, beer, and chips, so do not depend on them.
**My #1 Tip**
It is hot! You will be hot! It is the jungle so bring water. Don’t be like me and think you can hike without water. Then spend 3 hours staring at the tap at the public washroom wondering if it is worth it to play toilet roulette and drink just a little. Bring water, or money to buy water. This you will not regret. Usually I depend on my Hydro Flask or S’well Bottle to keep me refreshed, but on this day I guess I forgot to think.
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