A Visitor's Guide to the Maya Ruins of Tikal
Nestled in the jungle of northern Guatemala lies an ancient Maya complex sure to make your heart skip a beat. The impressive ruins of Tikal will transport you to a time of power, mystique, and ritual polytheism.
Unfold history as you stand before towering pyramids, elaborate palaces, ball courts, and weathered stelae. Walk in the footsteps of a renowned civilization while exotic animals swing overhead in the surrounding canopy.
Brad and I enjoyed a day trip to Tikal on his birthday. Celebrating his special day at this bucket list destination was an experience of a lifetime. Below I cover logistics, recommendations, and a bit of history to make your visit to Tikal unforgettable!
More than likely your city, budget, and travel preferences will determine your mode of transportation. Did you know tours even operate from as far as the islands of Belize?!
In Guatemala, El Remate and Flores are the two most popular cities to stay when visiting Tikal for a day trip. El Remate is a rural village on Lake Petén Itzá directly south of Tikal and a 45 minute drive away.
Flores is a charming island in Lake Petén Itzá with restaurants, boutique hotels, and cobblestone streets. Brad and I began our Guatemala adventure with four days in Flores. If you are looking to socialize with other travelers, come here!
After shopping around for the cheapest price, we decided to book transportation with Los Amigos Hostel for 100 GTQ ($13 USD) per person. A tour guide was only 30 GTQ ($4 USD) more per person, but Brad and I wanted the freedom to roam by ourselves. The comfortable ride in the shuttle van took 1.5 hours to reach Tikal.
Initially we wanted to take shared public transit to Tikal via colectivos, but couldn't find a reliable timetable online. If you want to go this route, I would suggest heading to the Terminal Central de Buses on the mainland and asking the drivers for information.
What to Expect Upon Arrival
Before you arrive at the main entrance, you need to purchase a ticket for 150 GTQ ($20 USD) per person at the yellow gate. If you decide to do a sunrise or sunset visit, an additional cost of 100 GTQ ($13 USD) is required. A passport or ID is necessary. Brad and I had no problem using our Texas driver's licenses.
The complex is open every day, 6:00 AM-6:00 PM. As with many tourist sites, weekends are the busiest. We visited on a Friday between 8:00 AM-12:30 PM. I would recommend getting to Tikal as early as possible to beat the afternoon tour groups.
After we were dropped off, we encountered English and Spanish speaking guides offering their services nearby the main entrance. Be sure to bargain and settle on a price beforehand if you employ a local tour guide.
Information placards are scarce at Tikal, so either do some research ahead of time if DIY is your preferred method or opt for a tour. Brad and I watched a few documentaries on YouTube the night before our visit to prepare.
A great way to orient yourself is with a foldable map available for purchase at the main entrance for 20 GTQ ($2.50 USD). The map was especially useful for us since we decided to forgo a guide and explore the site on our own.
Entry tickets and vendor stalls are cash only.
Bathrooms are located in the center and opposite ends of the site. Vendors are stationed at the pavilions if you need beverages or light snacks.
Tikal prohibits plastic bags and outside food. Water is allowed. Brad and I packed electrolyte drinks, fruit, and trail mix inside of our backpack which was never searched.
Tikal's rainforest environment has intense humidity. I recommend bringing sunscreen and sunglasses. There are plenty of shady spots and benches to rest your feet. The mornings are pleasant, but the afternoons heat up!
Wearing sneakers or hiking shoes is a good idea since there are a lot of steep wooden stairs and limestone steps to traverse. Comfortable shoes are a must with all of the walking and climbing.
Whatever you do, make sure to pack bug repellent for menacing mosquitos, horseflies, and ants. Bug bites are not the type of souvenirs you want to take home!
Lastly, don't forget a camera to capture your amazing visit!
Although Tikal's origins can be traced as far back as 1000 BC, the height of its power was between 200-900 AD.
Hieroglyphic inscriptions at Tikal reference the Maya ruler, Yax Ehb Xook, who ruled the region during the 1st Century AD. The city of Yax Mutal (Tikal) was named in his honor.
The following centuries were often plagued by warfare including a devastating battle with Teotihuacán in the 4th Century AD. Tikal didn't break free from the outsider's grip until the end of the 7th Century AD.
Jasaw Chan K'awil, and his heir, Yik'in Chan K'awiil, expanded Tikal's territory resulting in a period of prosperity. The rulers initiated various construction projects including the main structures of the complex visible today.
By the 8th Century AD, Tikal reached its peak with a population of approximately 90,000 people. Similar to other Maya cities, Tikal was abandoned by 900 AD as a result of drought and disease.
The Tikal Complex
Don't underestimate the size of the site. Tikal is HUGE! We covered about 60% of the ruins with a moderate pace in roughly 4.5 hours.
Having a game plan is crucial to fit as much as you can in one day. The main urban area spans roughly 988 acres, which is a lot of ground to cover. The complex seems too vast to complete in one day, but not impossible with a heavy dose of determination!
Below is a list (in order) of the structures we explored. My only regret was running out of time to see the roof-comb hieroglyphics of Temple VI (Temple of the Inscriptions).
Temple I (Temple of the Grand Jaguar)
Perhaps the most iconic structure within the Grand Plaza (main square of Tikal) is the 154 ft (47 m) high Temple of the Grand Jaguar. The funerary pyramid was constructed for Jasaw Chan K'awil who died in 734 AD. Artifacts including inscribed bones, jade ornaments, and ceramics filled with food were discovered inside.
Temple II (Temple of the Mask)
Facing directly opposite of Temple I is the Temple of the Mask. Built in 700 AD, the 125 ft (38 m) high pyramid was commissioned in honor of Jasaw Chan K'awil's wife. A portrait of the queen was carved into one of the wooden lintels spanning the three consecutive shrine chambers.
Adjacent to the Grand Plaza on the north side is the North Acropolis. The large funerary complex evolved with each additional royal burial since its construction in 350 BC. Pyramids, roof-combs, altars, and stelae with hieroglyphics abound the structure.
South of the Grand Plaza is the multi-level Central Acropolis. The massive complex functioned as both an administrative and residential space for the royal families. Numerous passageways and rooms are decorated with ornate mythic scenes and hieroglyphics.
Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest)
To the west of the Grand Plaza behind Temple II is the Temple of the Jaguar Priest. The 180 ft (55 m) high pyramid was the last of the great structures to be built at Tikal. A carved wooden lintel was found depicting the ruler Dark Sun dressed in jaguar skins performing a ritual dance.
On the western edge of the urban area is the tallest pyramid at Tikal measuring 230 ft (70 m). The giant structure was built to commemorate the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil in 741 AD. The views from Temple IV are spectacular because the roof-combs of Temples I, II, III, and V can be seen protruding from the misty rainforest canopy. George Lucas even filmed a scene for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope from this vantage point!
Lost World Complex (Mundo Perdido)
One of the most important structures at Tikal is the Lost World Complex. Ceremonial platforms, pyramids, and tombs make up the 650,000 sq ft (60,000 sq m) surface area. Continued construction began in 700 BC up until the decline of the city in 900 AD. Climb up to the platform atop one of the pyramids to see a breathtaking panoramic view of Tikal!
South of the Central Acropolis is Temple V; the second-tallest pyramid in Tikal. The architecturally unique wide balustrades bordering the stairway and rounded temple corners are not found anywhere else at the site. Dating to 700 AD, the partially moss-covered structure has a shrine with masks of the rain god Chaac decorating the cornice.
The dirt and gravel paths connecting the structures offer great vantage points for birdwatching. Undoubtedly you will hear exotic calls high above in the lush canopy during your visit. Brad and I saw multicolored keel-billed toucans, parrots, and collared aracaris feeding in the trees.
We also spotted turkeys, slaty-tailed trogons, and cuckoos. I highly recommend downloading the Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which identifies over 450 bird species by sound. I swear it brought the aforementioned birds a bit closer to us; a Tikal highlight!
After visiting several Maya sites, I must say Tikal takes first place! I felt my jaw drop in pure amazement as my eyes moved up the mirroring pyramids of the Grand Plaza. The bright sun peeking above the roof-comb of the Temple of the Grand Jaguar made my eyes swell with happiness.
One of the perks of Tikal is the ability to climb some of the structures and pyramids. To witness the stone temples rising out of the rainforest canopy was an unforgettable sight.
Archaeologists are still unraveling the pieces of this incredible city. The mysterious allure is irresistible. I couldn't help but wonder what else was hidden beyond the excavations. A tomb filled with priceless artifacts? A chamber of preserved Maya codices? Only time will tell.
Now this is what traveling is all about!