This is a guide for Tikal National Park. Here are some tips & advice, an overview of its ticket options, and my experience along with the total cost. Tikal temples are a must for any Guatemalan itinerary!
It was 2008, I just learned that the world will end in four years. I was standing in the living room of our family’s one-bedroom apartment, looking at my friend as she nodded knowingly towards an o-zone segment on our small screen: “Ya, that global warming thing, it’s all part of 2012. Its the end of the world!” (Btw, all this doomsday mumble-jumble is disputed by Mayan scholars.)
My 14-year-old self was enthralled with the idea of fortune-telling and read up on a handful of websites with regards to doomsday. But like all preteens that exhibit childhood curiosity and teenage angst, I quickly forgot about the whole conversation and moved on to something more important in my life, like how to get my hands on Silverstein tickets or something.
Yet in the back of my mind, I had a dedicated space to the what-ifs. You know that little tingle picturing a universe of possibilities?
But 2012 came and went.
I finished high school and completed my first semi-backpacking trip with a friend around China. Otherwise, life went on as per usual. The world remained as it was.
It took another half a decade before I had my first real encounter with Mayan ruins.
It was 2018, I was exploring my 22nd country-Mexico. During a 10-day trip across the Yucatan Peninsula, I visited Uxmal, an ancient Maya city. These millennial old ruins were incredibly different from what I’ve experienced in other parts of the world. They stood tall and proud in the forest, towering over the greenery beneath. There was a sacredness to them, as if they owned the land they stood on. They did
As if they held secrets none can decipher. They do
After Uxmal and Chechen Itza, I was eager to explore more ancient ruins. When the time came for Guatemala, I didn’t hesitate to plan a trip to the Tikal temples.
A Guide to Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Tikal National Park is home to one of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in the world. The site holds 6 giant pyramids and several other structures.
During the Spanish inquisition, Mayan civilization was decimated by the European invaders. The colonizers thought the practice of spiritual worship as sacrilegious so they forced the Mayan people to learn European script.
To convert the New World to Catholicism, Diego de Landa, a Spanish bishop arrested and punished those who practiced their beliefs. He held a burning ceremony that attempted to disappear all traces of Maya hieroglyphics. Only three and a heavily damaged fourth book survived the destruction.
The Mayan people were stripped of their history and language.
Today, about 85% of Mayan glyphs are said to have been deciphered.
In Tikal, these glyphs helped translate the complex history of a city once lost.
And now, I had the privilege of wandering amongst the ancient architecture, exploring a ground nearly forgotten.
Walking through Tikal, I could vividly picture the lively social gatherings, the devoted spiritual offerings, the passionate duels, and blessings.
The privilege of feeling connected to a past that may or may not be yours, is an incredibly mystical experience. I am but a block of moving atoms amongst a large block of atoms that carried other atoms, you know?
Getting to Tikal isn’t difficult. There are direct flights between Guate City and the Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores. There are also direct flights between Belize and said airport. It is important to note that despite the short distance, it can be quite costly to fly into Flores.
As such, direct shuttles and public buses may be a more economical alternative. Here’s a complete list of the schedule and operators between Guate City and Flores.
Flores is a small lake-side town with plenty of hostels and hotels. It isn’t difficult to arrange a stay and tuk-tuks are readily available. I opt to couchsurf in San Benito, a small village 10 minutes away from Flores.
My couchsurfing host was a single mother running for Congress. Since my visit was weeks before the Guatemalan general election, the campaigning was quite intense. She invited me to come along to the marketplace to canvass despite my 3-worded Spanish skills.
Maria tells me that although there is a slight improvement over the years, Guatemala still has one of the worst gender-equality stats in Latin America. She explains that much effort goes into minimizing the gender gap, but the everyday lives of women remain stagnant.
Maria looked over at her 2-year old daughter lovingly: “You know, I wrapped her like a caterpillar every night since she was born. So she doesn’t wake up at night anymore.” Then she winked at me “Mayan secrets.”
Equipped with the newly learned information, I headed towards the Tikal temple the very next day.
The easiest way between Flores and the Tikal temple is grabbing a shuttle. These shuttles can be caught at the Santa Elena Bus Station or arranged for pick up at your hostel/hotel.
The rides are Q 80 roundtrip and leave every hour between 6:30 and 10:30 in the morning. They usually pick up passengers from Tikal park at 2:00 pm.
Now, depending on the season, the bus schedule can change at last minute. When I arrived at 5:30 am hoping to catch the earliest shuttle, I found out that it was canceled since there weren’t enough passengers. And looking back, it seemed that the 7:30 am departure was the only one that day!
There are also sunrise and sunset tours that can be arranged with the company. I will touch on these below.
You can take a local bus from the square in front of the Santa Elena Bus Station. These buses are much cheaper than shuttles but can take an hour longer!
If you are looking for the chicken bus, do ask a local in the area. I asked a few bus operators, but they all told me that there weren’t any chicken buses running that day. In hindsight, I should have known that they’d prefer me to take a private shuttle from the station.
How much are tickets to Tikal National Park?
As of July 2019, tickets for the various excursions are listed below. Note that you must hire a guide in addition to the sunrise and sunset tours:
- Camping: Q 50 per person
- Uaxactún: Q 50 per person
- Museum: Q 30 per person
- Sunrise Ticket: Q 100 per person
- Sunset Ticket: Q 100 per person
- Regular Ticket: Q 150 per person
- Hammock: Q 70 per night (rent it on the campground)
- Tent: Q 50 per night (rent it on the campground)
Where can you purchase tickets for Tikal National Park?
You can get tickets at Banrural bank branches around Guatemala. They can be purchased up to 30 days in advance and are date-stamped once you pass the second gate (where you will receive a bracelet) into the park. There is also a Banrural at the main gates to Tikal that you can purchase your ticket at. They are open from 6 am-6 pm.
The Banrural at the main gates is around 20 minutes by car from the second gate and the Tikal hotels. So be sure to decide in advance and purchase all necessary tickets for the sunrise tour, sunset tour, Uaxactún, etc. before heading inside.
If you purchase the regular ticket for a different day, do let the ticket operator know. You do not need a ticket for the current date if you’re only staying in the hotel zone and won’t be entering the site of the ruins.
How does the sunrise and sunset tour for Tikal work?
You can arrange a sunrise and/or sunset tour with the shuttle services (or other tour companies). These leave at 4:30 am and aim to capture the sunrise at Tikal. Since sunrise and sunset tours are outside of park hours, there is an additional Q 100 entrance charge and a guide is mandatory. If you want to attend the sunrise tour for Tikal, you only need the sunrise ticket (4-8 am ONLY) and a guide. BUT you also need to show a regular ticket (that doesn’t have to be stamped) used a previous day or one you will use for another day. The regular ticket for Tikal park is needed to be shown for sunset tours (6-8 pm) as well.
Although the sunrise excursion is a popular option, it does get quite misty in the jungle during the mornings. Try for the sunset tour (or both), and you may have a better chance of catching the rays!
Although Flores has plenty of accommodation, you can opt to stay in a hotel in Tikal or camp in Tikal to fully experience the jungle life.
Hotels in Tikal
I’ve been told that staying in Tikal is a magical experience. Many people opt to spend a few nights in the jungle to truly absorb the experience. There is plenty of wildlife, which makes the experience all the more enchanting.
There are 3 hotels inside Tikal National Park that you can spend the night. :
They need to be booked online and it’s best if you opt to arrange them beforehand. The downside is that the stays are quite pricey, so for those looking for budget options, camping in Tikal may be a better alternative.
Camping in Tikal (Tent or Hammock)
Tents and hammocks can be rented and used at the designated Tikal campground. This is a much cheaper alternative and may even be more appealing to those looking to dive into the nature escape! As with hotels, you need to decide on the stay beforehand so you can purchase the needed camping permit (Q 50) at the main gate. The hammock costs Q 50 per night and the tent is Q 70 per night. The hammock comes with a sheet that prevents bugs. There is a storage room for baggage and cold water for showers.
After picking up a few passengers along the way, we arrived at Tikal at around 9:00 am.
The shuttle stopped at the front gates for us to purchase tickets, then made its way into the parking lot that sat beside the second pair of gates. After receiving my bracelet from the guards at the desk, I walked into the park.
There are many ways to explore Tikal National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is 570 square kilometers and has many routes that you can visit. I barely saw a soul while making my way around the Tikal grounds but well, mainly because I got lost aha.
For those interested in exploring the jungle, head straight down the main road. I opted for the jungle because, well, why not.
Once I reached the end of the road, there were a few paths to choose from. Thinking that the Tikal temples *should* sit towards the back of the park, I followed the twist and turn of the forest path towards what I thought was the back.
But it wasn’t. I was going rounds in the forest and couldn’t find my way out.
After a good 30 minutes, confused with where I went wrong, yet too stubborn to turn around, I spotted little arrows on various tree trunks. I followed these life-saving signs, which popped up every 10 minutes or so and finally made it back onto the main road.
There were still no people and I remained lost.
After wandering around some more, I heard footsteps and sounds of sweeping on the path ahead. Shortly after, I see a worker cleaning the rest area and jogged over for some directions.
I finally found my way to the Tikal temples.
Tikal Temples & Monuments
There is a total of 6 main temples in Tikal National Park. They are:
1) Temple I/ Temple of the Great Jaguar serves as the tomb for king Jasaw Chan K’awil
2) Temple II/ Temple of the Mask was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil
3) Temple III/ Temple of the Jaguar Priest was the last great pyramid to be built at Tikal.
4) Temple IV is currently the tallest standing structure in pre-Columbian in the Americas. It is dedicated to Yik’in Chan Kawil, son and successor of Jasaw Chan K’awil
5) Temple V is dedicated to an unidentified ruler
6) Temple VI/ Temple of the Inscriptions
Some several smaller structures and temples lay around Tikal park.
I took a seat on the ground in front of the Temple of the Great Jaguar. It was around 10:30 am and tour groups were starting to trail in. The sky was a tad cloudy and the weather humid and hot.
I watched groups of people strolling through the temple grounds and chatted with a local guide under a tree.
Tikal is a mysterious place. The steep stone steps create a steady pathway towards the top of the temples. Much of these structures withstood the test of time.
In-between trees and grass, Coatamundis came out sniffing and playing. They were clearly the real boss here.
Time flew by. It wasn’t long before we headed back and met the shuttle that brought us home.
I passed out for a glorious nap on the ride back
Best Time to Visit Tikal Park
Tikal National Park is open year-round. It is gigantic and absorbs crowds quite well. However, high season is between April and December. Guatemalan citizens can enter for free on Sundays, so it would be a good idea to avoid this day. Like most tourist destinations, holidays can be a busy time. Another way to avoid crowds is to take on a sunset or sunrise tour as mentioned above.
Looking for a tour group around Guatemala?
Other than the Acatenango Volcano, I didn’t use any tours. However, for those that’d like a smoother trip, below are a few tour options that may help ease your travels.
Things to Bring to Tikal National Park
In total, I spent Q 520 (~US 67) for this three-day trip. The breakdown is as follows:
- Q 160 (~ US 20) for the bus from Guate City to Flores
- Q 80 (~ US 10) for the shuttle between Flores and Tikal
- Q 150 (~ US 19) for the entrance to Tikal
- Q 60 (~US 8) for tuk-tuks around Flores
- Q 70 (~US 9) for food & water
If you’d like to camp in Tikal, budget Q 100 and Q 50 (hammock) or Q 70 (tent) for additional nights. Hotels are US 60-70 in Tikal National Park and hostels are ~US 10-20 in Flores/night.
Following my journey around the Tikal Temples, I headed onwards toward Semuc Champey in Lanquin!