Visiting the ancient Mayan city of Tikal was one of the most beautiful experiences that I had in Guatemala – and I climbed volcanoes, swam in hot springs, splashed in turquoise waterfalls and ate myself silly – yet Tikal eclipses them all which is why I recommend it.
- Where: Northern Guatemala, near the border of Mexico.
- How: You can arrange a tour from El Remante or Flores. You can also stay in the park. There is also a local chicken bus that goes there a couple of times a day
- Cost: 150 Quetzale for standard entrance, 250 Quetzales to enter before sunrise or 350 Quetzales (with guide and transport from Flores)
Where to stay to see Tikal?
- You can stay at Tikal National Park – which I think would be great if you are an archology enthusiast. I love history but in small doses so this didn’t appeal to me as there isn’t much else to do there apart from the National Park… oh and it is a lot more expensive.
- El Remante is considered a more “authentic” tourist town and is closer to Tikal… though you still have to get up super early to do the sunrise tour and there isn’t much to do in the sleepy town.
- Flores would be my suggestion – not only is the mini island town beautiful, easy to get around, full of great food, connected to public transport and a great way to see the lake, it is also has some great hostels at affordable prices. The main one is Amigos, however, there are more than a few others that you can find if you go for a walk.
Best time to see Tikal? Sunrise – of course! Or sunset if weather has been bad.
Part of my bias towards falling in love with Tikal may be based on having an amazing sunrise show. Getting up at 3am to meet my tour from Flores was a bit of a challenge, but nothing a quick splash of water and a pep talk couldn’t fix. Walking through the dark on the way to the temple my head was in my chest the whole way thinking longingly of my hostel bed. After convincing my legs to climb up a steep staircase to the top of the pyramid my mind finally started to wake up. For the next half an hour I sat with about 30 other people in near silence and anticipation, watching the horizon turn from purple, to grey and then to orange. Suddenly as though a secret signal had been given on some level that humans are not aware of, the whole jungle woke up. Howlers monkeys started… well howling, birds were screeching and singing, insects were buzzing and clicking and a soft breeze jingled through the jungle canopy. It was magical. But the moment of glory was still a few heart beats away. As suddenly as the howler monkeys had erupted, the sunshine plopped over the horizon, illuminating a neighboring pyramid perfectly… one might think by design! The whole performance lasted an hour – and was one of the best hours of my life.
Even though the weather may not be ideal I would still suggest doing the sunrise tour for the monkeys and having the park to yourself for a few hours before the crowds arrive.
Travel Tip: Wear closed toe shoes and bring a flash light… or failing that your smart phone which has a flash light
Should I get a guide for Tikal?
You can only do the sunrise tour with a guide… and it’s easy to see why, there is no way I would have been able to find my way to that staircase in the pitch black without someone leading me. My guide was also able to point out things like tarantulas, toucans and spice trees all while giving us a colorful history of Tikals people and culture. I definitely think it is worth it unless you are a history buff and know all about the sacrifices and what was really involved (hint – Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto is not considered factually correct). If you choose not to get a guide you can’t enter the park until opening hours – this is the same for if you were to stay at Tikal, El Remante or Flores, no matter what you may hear on the road. It will be cheaper though – by a long shot, which can be a bonus to the hungry backpacker.
Tikal or Chichen Itza?
Both are spectacular examples of human ingenuity and a long-lost society. It is how you interact with that distant past that separates the two sites.
Chichen Itza is one of the New 7 Wonders of the world… and therefore, constantly swarming with tourists and hawkers. You can’t move anywhere without someone trying to sell you a bird whistle or nearly having your eye poked out by a selfie stick. The backpacker affordable tours that go there are usually overcrowded and short… but they do give you enough interesting information to make the trip worthwhile. The ancient temples and pyramids are brilliantly preserved and give you a great idea of what the civilization would have been like. You just may have to wait for fifteen minutes or so to get an uninterrupted shot of these majestic demonstrations of a long-lost religion.
Tikal is not as well-known and although it is starting to appear on a lot of tour itineraries it is still often missed in favor of its more famous Mexican cousin. This means that the crowds are a lot smaller and so are the hawkers. They are still excavating and preserving temples at Tikal so unlike Chichen Itza a lot of the surrounding area is jungle… adding a surreal feel to the whole place. The pyramids and temples are just as big and impressive as at Chichen Itza but with the added bonus of staircases being built up and alongside some of them – you can climb up and look out on the jungle the way the ancient rules and priests did without ruining the old structure.
But what if I am not that into history and cultural stuff?
Then Tikal is the best place for you, not so much Chichen Itza.
I would visit Tikal even if I despised history, because how often can you walk through a jungle full of life in an ancient city. The feelings of insignificance and wilderness are a step beyond you usual historical location. So if you don’t like history, tune out and just let yourself wander through this jungle inhabited city.
So obviously I recommend Tikal
If you have limited time, only want to see one Mayan ruin or restricted funds I strongly recommend making Tikal your priority. I promise you won’t regret it!