Tikal ranks as one of Guatemala’s most important attractions: an ancient city that was of premier importance in the Mayan world for much of the classic Mayan period from around 400 to 900 A.D. Almost lost to the jungle after the fall of the Mayan civilisation, excavations began in 1956 and are ongoing today.
Tikal was filmed by George Lucas for the movie Star Wars, probably because it has another world-like atmosphere that fires the imagination of kids and adults alike. Pyramids and many other ancient structures loom out of the jungle within a huge park, just waiting to be explored. Along with the ruins, the park is full of animals to spot, including Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, Coatis, Toucans and possibly even a Jaguar if you get lucky. The calls of the Howler Monkeys around dawn or dusk create an especially eerie atmosphere. Tikal was one of the top three sites we were looking forward to visiting in South and Central America, along with Machu Picchu and Cartagena, and we were beyond excited to get there.
Or we would have been, if we hadn’t arrived dazed with fatigue after an 18-hour journey involving 4 different buses from the shores of Lake Atitlan, in southern Guatemala.
Guatemala isn’t very big, but if you plan to visit Tikal from the south of the country you need to appreciate just how bad the roads are, and how insane the traffic is, and be mentally and physically prepared for the journey, which involves both bone-chilling air-conditioning and sweltering heat. And the odd golden moment, such as when your bus stops so the driver can drink milk squeezed fresh from the udder of a goat on the side of the road!
Recommendation number 1: If possible, budget for a flight from Guatemala City to Santa Elena airport or drive from Belize. If this is not possible wear all your warmest clothes on the overnight bus ride. And thermal underwear.
We did one important thing right though – we splashed out on two nights’ accommodation at Jungle Lodge Hostel, literally right next door to the entrance to Tikal. When we arrived exhausted and hungry, we ate a huge brunch on the hotel veranda and literally fell into the swimming pool.
The pool area turned out to be a great place to view wildlife, with two types of monkeys visiting the surrounding trees and the closest view of a Toucan we have achieved in our travels through Central America.
Our lazy afternoon meant we were well rested and ready to walk into Tikal early the next morning, before the bus loads of tourists arrived from Flores and further afield, and before the heat of the day arrived.
Recommendation number 2: Stay at one of the 3 hotels within the Tikal park to avoid 3 hours travel time between Flores and Tikal. Your all-day pass to Tikal means you can come and go as you please, avoiding both the crowds and the heat.
Three hours of climbing pyramids and exploring the ruins turned out to be plenty of time for our initial visit. Particularly as it was stinking hot by 10.30am. We decided to head back to our hostel for a swim, lunch and a rest. As we walked down the path towards the exit, we felt SO sorry for the families we passed coming in – with their children already wilting in the heat.
Recommendation number 3: You might as well eat at your hotel rather than at one of the more local restaurants in the park. We tried a recommended one and it wasn’t good value, being almost as expensive as Jungle Lodge but with inferior quality food.
We returned to the main plaza not long before the 6pm closing time, to experience Tikal in the late afternoon light. Once again, it was almost deserted and we could appreciate the beauty of the setting sun making the pyramids glow.
Recommendation number 4: Visit Tikal at sunrise and/or sunset for the most magical experience.