The Ultimate Guide to Tikal National Park in Guatemala

Once a powerful empire with 120,000+ inhabitants at its peak, Tikal remains one of the largest and most iconic Maya ruins in Central America. Whether you’re a history junkie or Star Wars fan (or just an average Jane/Joe), I think it’s safe to say that nobody travels to Guatemala or mainland Belize without visiting Tikal.

Located in the Peten Region of Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is very close to Belize. It made sense for Tikal to be our final stop in Guatemala before crossing the border.

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

on top of Temple 4, which is the filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope

What to bring when you’re visiting Tikal

  • Water
  • Comfortable closed-toe shoes
  • Flashlight
  • Mosquito repellent with DEET
  • Clothes with breathable fabric
  • Binoculars for wildlife

We visited our local travel clinic to consult a doctor regarding Zika risks and precautions.

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

our 6am Avianca flight from GUA to FRS

Getting here; visiting Tikal from Guatemala City or mainland Belize

From Guatemala City

BY LAND: If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hop on a chicken bus (and pray that you’ll arrive in one piece after a rough 15hr+ ride). Otherwise, take the comfortable, air-conditioned buses operated by Linea Dorada. This journey will take you around 10 hours for $30USD+.

Tip: Take the ‘luxury’ overnight bus to save on a night’s accommodation.

BY AIR: We chose to fly instead because of my sciatica. Avianca and TAG offer daily hour-long flights from Guatemala City to Flores ($120USD+, one way). The airport is another hour, by car, to Tikal.

From Belize

BY LAND:  The easiest way is to ask tour operators in San Ignacio if you can catch a ride with their day tour groups to Tikal. We did the reverse; border crossing was easy peasy and the whole trip took 4 hours from our hotel in Tikal to San Ignacio town center. If you’re coming from Belize City, take the local bus to San Ignacio first.

Tip: There are tons of tour operators in San Ignacio and they’ll quote you anywhere from $25-45USD per person, one way. Shop around and haggle. We had a very pleasant experience with Sergio from Explore Inland Tours who bent backwards for us at the very last minute. 

BY AIR: You can fly to Flores from Belize City via Tropic Air ($190USD+, one way). This flight is 45 minutes and again, you’ll have to arrange a ride to Tikal once you land. Ask your guide to include this in your tour.

READ MORE: Eating like a local in Belize – cheap eats and where to find them

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

Where to stay when visiting Tikal

Stay in the Park

To get the most out of your Tikal experience, stay in one of three ‘hotels’ located in the park: Jungle Lodge, Tikal Inn, and Jaguar Inn. Rates start at $40USD for something very basic and $120USD+ for nicer rooms. Chances are, you’ll hear howler monkeys and see coatimundi roaming around. You’ll also be the first ones to enter the park and the last to leave. Little to no crowds is always a bonus!

We stayed in one of the newly renovated rooms at Hotel Jungle Lodge. It was clean and spacious but service was nonexistent and the overpriced food sucked. My fettuccine alfredo was more like a noodle soup and AS’s steak was so rare that we could still smell the hay the cow fed on.

Tip: Food is slightly better at Jaguar Inn.

Electricity is only available from 7-10am and 5-9:30pm, but an emergency generator keeps the ceiling fan running through the night. Even though we were there in the dry season, it was hella humid and the sheets felt damp. Multiply this discomfort by over 9000 if you’re visiting Tikal outside of the December to February period.

Stay in Flores

If you want to save some money (who doesn’t!), there are lots of affordable options in Flores. Shared dorm rooms at hostels start at $10USD (80GTQ) per person and basic private rooms range between $30-70USD. A major setback is the travel time; it takes more than an hour by car to reach Tikal which complicates things if you’re interested in the sunrise tour.

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

Visiting Tikal for the sunset vs sunrise

It’s rare to actually witness the sunrise. Because of the high humidity, a thick layer of fog usually covers the forest canopy. That said, the sunrise tour is still magical as you listen to the jungle wake up to the first light of day.

We opted for the sunset tour instead. We entered the park at around 1pm, visited all the temples and complexes, and ended our day at the Grand Plaza with a quiet, beautiful sunset. Dusk rolled in quickly and soon it became pitch black. There couldn’t have been more than 4 others with us at the time. It was a phenomenal experience!

READ MORE: Chasing sunrise at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

Choosing a tour guide

Because anybody with a highschool diploma can become a National Tour Guide in Guatemala, you’ll find that many tour guides lack proper knowledge and/or are only in it for the money (see below: the ugly side of Tikal).

Two names stood out when we scoured the net for reputable guides: Roxy Ortiz and Marlon Diaz. The former was unresponsive but communication with Marlon was excellent. Having done this for 18 years now, he is very well educated and extremely passionate about Tikal. His English is near perfect and we were able to appreciate not only Tikal, but also Guatemala and Maya history that much more because of his wealth of knowledge.

Marlon’s the real MVP- he’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia. We tip our hats to this dude for recognizing the importance of sustainable tourism and striving for the preservation of these ruins. He’s the owner of EM Guatemala Travel and we highly recommend his service!

The ugly side of Tikal National Park

Bribery and corruption. Some tour guides collude with guards to let big groups into the park without paying the proper amount and taking a cut. Others bribe park rangers to enter restricted areas (i.e. the Great Pyramid).

Ignorance and disrespect. We saw people, tourists and incompetent guides included, feeding animals, climbing restricted areas, and being obnoxiously loud. These actions were even encouraged by so-called ‘licensed guides’!

Please don’t be like these idiots. Respect the ruins as well as the animals that live in the park.

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

brontosaurus or coatimundi?

Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

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Kollecting Koordinates - Visiting Tikal

 

47 Comments

  1. February 20, 2017 / 3:42 am

    Guatemala has such lovely ancient ruins. Tikal is on my list, thanks to you. Its great that you mention the names of the two guides for reference. A bad guide can be spoil the whole experience.

  2. February 20, 2017 / 10:41 am

    Tikal sounds incredible and something we’d enjoy – thanks for sharing, you have some great pictures too. It’s a shame to read about the corruption, disrespect and bribery, hopefully people will use your recommendation when looking for a legitimate tour guide. We’re hoping to visit Guatemala next year so this will come in handy!

  3. February 20, 2017 / 3:17 pm

    When I think of ruins, I always think of Incan ruins so it was great to see the ruins of Tikal as well. They look gorgeous butI am so glad you mentioned the down side.of corruption and how people need to be picky when selecting a tour guide. Thanks for preparing everyone who visits.

  4. February 20, 2017 / 6:00 pm

    We missed Tikal last year when we visited Guatemala and you are making me regret that decision! The ruins are very beautiful but also love that they are in the middle of the jungle, and is not as touristy as Chichen Itza. I am glad that you also talking about the negatives such as feeding the animals because it also educates others on how to be better tourists. Something that makes me go bananas is people who leave there trash everywhere especially in locations such as this.

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:48 pm

      Ugh! I feel ya. Litterbugs are just the worst 🙁

  5. February 20, 2017 / 6:02 pm

    I remember the end scene in Star Wars, it is exactly the same as your pin photograph. I didn’t know you could stay onsite, those prices seem reasonable too. I think I stayed in Flores but I’d have preferred to stay onsite. I definitely agree with you about the luxury bus over the chicken bus, nobody is patient enough to go on a chicken bus, surely!

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:52 pm

      I have a lot of respect for people that can endure long chicken bus rides!

  6. February 20, 2017 / 8:12 pm

    I really enjoyed visiting Tikal it is a beautiful place to visit. It’s great that you can climb the temples though I guess not great for restoration projects!! I really enjoyed climbing the temple and seeing the views over the top of the trees, a magical place to be.

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:53 pm

      Temple 4 is the only one that you can legitimately climb now- they built a staircase leading up to it so it’s nice that people aren’t destroying the ruins- or falling off and dying from it like some did on the Great Pyramid

  7. Kallsy
    February 20, 2017 / 9:03 pm

    I would love to go on the sunrise/sunset tour! Although you said the sunrise is harder to witness due to the fog, I think that fog sometimes adds a mysterious and beautiful element! But, seeing your photos I truly don’t think you could go wrong with either one! The sunset is so gorgeous.

  8. February 21, 2017 / 3:02 am

    Tikal looks so fun and interesting. Thanks for this great guide. All your tips are so helpful.

  9. February 21, 2017 / 3:04 am

    Wow~ a place to stay for $40 a night with monkeys running around, sounds like a fun experience to me, as that’s something I don’t experience very often. I have been to ruins in Mexico before and these look similar. Ruins often make it seem like a story book setting or a fairytale. There’s something magical about them, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s a definite experience for everyone.

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:54 pm

      This was our first time visiting a Maya ruin and magical is the right word to describe the experience! I’m a bit worried we might be spoiled now heh

  10. February 21, 2017 / 3:20 am

    This still remains one of the most iconic sites in the world till this day. Thank you for all the tips and the step by step to getting there and making the most of the trip. Central and South American is a part of the world that I still haven’t visited and so it fascinates me whenever I read about it. There’s so much history here it’s amazing.

  11. February 21, 2017 / 8:25 am

    Wow! I’m a total sucker for UNESCO Sites and the Mayan history & architecture has been in my wishlist for long. Unfortunately I’m yet to visit the American continent!!!! Hope future has it in store for me.

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:54 pm

      Yes! Fingers crossed you’ll be able to make it here in the near future 🙂

  12. February 21, 2017 / 10:17 am

    Tikal sounds amazing, I’d love to visit sometime! The sunset / sunrise tour sounds like a great idea, although I have a feeling I’d opt for the sunset one as well. The fact that it wasn’t swarming with tourists is great, though – so many places I’ve visited were overcrowded, to the point where you can barely see anything, or enjoy the experience.

    • March 8, 2017 / 5:55 pm

      We were surprised at how few people there were! A small crowd is always a nice bonus 🙂

  13. February 21, 2017 / 4:09 pm

    I have yet to make it to Guatemala but I’d love to explore the ruins! It’s a shame that people behave badly at sites like this – we need to work harder at preserving our archaeological complexes and the nature around it!

  14. February 21, 2017 / 8:40 pm

    I teach ancient civilizations so I would love visiting these ruins. I appreciate the tips, like sunrise vs. sunset. I hate being confined in a car or bus, so the travel tips were welcomed!

  15. February 22, 2017 / 6:29 am

    I am trying to hold my excitement as I look at your photos. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the Mayan culture and civilization and this is one spot in the world that I’ve been longing to visit to get a glimpse of that. Those Mayan temple ruins are unbelievable. I hope to visit it someday! Thank you for sharing your experience there.

  16. February 22, 2017 / 11:19 am

    It’s such a magical place with all the mysterious components of its architecture, let alone what that says about the people who built it (or may have built it!) I’m a bit distressed to hear again about the hooligans who have taken over this special site, but I rest assured that there’s plenty plenty more incredible sites well off the trodden path just waiting to be explored. Have you heard of any such sites Ivy?

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:23 pm

      Yes! The ranch we stayed on has acres of unexcavated ruins- the area stretches out for a few miles actually! A 20min ride from San Ignacio is a little town called Unitedville. Lower Dover is a Maya archaeological site in the Belize River Valley and I highly recommend staying there!

  17. February 23, 2017 / 3:56 pm

    The place looks beautiful and Guatemala is one of the least visited countries, though. I think being a guide after graduation is due to lack of job opportunities but thanks for sharing some good tour guides Would love to visit someday.

  18. February 23, 2017 / 5:39 pm

    Wow! What a cool experience! We travel with the kids and love giving them information regarding the destination before we go. This gets them really interested. Fun tidbits like ‘Star Wars’ was filmed here would really get their attention!! The food, on the other hand, hmmmm…..sounds like you need to bring your own. I cracked up at your line describing how rare the steak was!! LOL!! Funny now….but I’m sure it wasn’t then!!

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:24 pm

      I’m pretty sure we had our food spat on when we sent it back to be cooked more because they didn’t look very happy. Hahah! *shrugs*

  19. February 24, 2017 / 3:35 am

    I am not sure if I can go to Guatemala without acquiring a tourist visa. One of the attractions that I want to see when I travel are the ruins. I love to see those places that I only witnessed on pages of a book.

  20. February 24, 2017 / 5:28 am

    That flight from Belize City is quite a bargain. For one, you don’t spend a day driving through eastern Guatemala. East of Flores you go from Guatemala to Guatepeor. The other reason is if you put Tikal on either end of you Belize trip you don’t have to pay Belize entry tax twice which will save you about $40. Best of all, you’ll be in the airport anyway.

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:25 pm

      Good point! We didn’t have to pay tax entering Belize from Flores and I actually don’t remember paying when we departed from San Pedro! It was very weird because we kept being told to keep a couple of 20’s on us to pay upon departure but we never actually used it

  21. February 24, 2017 / 7:05 am

    I’m a bit obsessed with Central + South America, but I haven’t visited Guatemala yet. I though Mayan ruins having visited Chichen Itza in Mexico, but Tikal feels a bit more off the beaten track and less touristy! In fact, I’d never heard of it, so I’m pleased to learn about it! I love the idea that you can stay in Jungle Lodge, Tikal Inn, and Jaguar Inn in the park itself – what a unique experience!

  22. February 24, 2017 / 7:15 am

    Wow, I love the pictures. This isn’t somewhere I’ve heard of before but I’d love to go! Reminds me a lot of Chichen Itza in Mexico but seems like there are less tourists which is great!

  23. February 24, 2017 / 7:40 am

    This ruin truly looks ancient! Pity I have never seen such a Mayan ruin with my own eyes and Tikal seems to be truly a gem! I really like that you mention here “the ugly side” of the park, because this is also helpful and interesting. It is a shame that obviously some tourists have no idea how to behave or to show respect. For such people it might be better to stay home and watch a documentation on Nat GEO 😉
    Great and interesting post, the Star Wars photo is truly epic, I like a lot!

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:27 pm

      Haha you’d think right?! If only there’s a way to vet people like that 😛

  24. February 24, 2017 / 9:41 am

    Tikal sounds like an amazing place to visit. Your tips on the choosing a guide, and also what to expect from some of the less reputable tour companies are really valuable. I think I’d be pretty annoyed if I had made the mistake of booking with one of the corrupt or dodgy ones who don’t respect the area. You guys were so lucky to almost have the whole place to yourself on that sunset tour!

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:31 pm

      Marlon actually got into an argument with another guide because the guide himself climbed an area where there was a clear sign saying “PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB”. That guide’s clients felt so awkward and actually apologized to Marlon on their guide’s behalf when they left. Quite embarrassing really 😛

  25. February 24, 2017 / 2:03 pm

    Seems like getting here is the hardest part and I really like your suggestion of the overnight bus to save on accommodation but I think like you I would wind up taking the flight. I love your suggestions on where to stay. Unfortunate that the food was not great but it is good to keep in mind and I appreciate you sharing this tid bit. I honestly do not know why I have not put South America on my list yet. This certainly makes me want to book my next vacation here. It seems reasonably priced and I am sure the kids would enjoy the wildlife in the area.

  26. February 24, 2017 / 4:33 pm

    I’m a Sunset/sunrise lover and this place looks perfect for it. I didn’t visit Tikal yet, but your post motivated me to do it such a stunning views. it’s sad that people dont show respect :/. I loved all photos, great post

  27. February 24, 2017 / 11:14 pm

    We visited Tikal last year. It is so impressive! We weren’t able to do the sunrise tour or the sunset tour, but I can imagine it was great. I tell everyone they need to visit Tikal

  28. February 25, 2017 / 3:54 pm

    I’ve been wanting to travel a lot more to South America, and have heard only great things about Guatemala! I loved this guide and shared it via Pinterest, as well! I can’t believe that tour guides would bribe park rangers and disrespect that grounds like that, just for an extra cut. It really makes me sad that things like this happen

  29. February 25, 2017 / 7:01 pm

    Guatemala sounds like a fun place to visit. I think the overnight bus works be an ideal way to make the trek with kids! It’s too bad what you about the bribery in the ruins, for some tourism is an opportunity for self serving access to extra moola!

  30. February 25, 2017 / 11:02 pm

    That’s so interesting that electricity is only available at certain hours at that hotel! I’d go crazy trying to charge batteries! Is it like this everywhere?

  31. February 26, 2017 / 1:02 am

    Your pictures of Tikal look gorgeous! I would join a sunset tour as well and opt to stay in the park! Were there a lot of mosquitoes?

    • March 8, 2017 / 6:36 pm

      I was wearing long sleeves and pants and still got 2 BAOs on my forehead and eyebrow haha

  32. Sheena
    February 26, 2017 / 10:37 pm

    I visited Tikal last year, it’s an incredible site. The ruins of course are fantastic but I also loved the jungle setting & all the wildlife in the park. I preferred not visiting without a guide too, so I could go at my own pace but I did miss out on a lot of the history as the signage is not very good there. Informative post for those planning a trip!

  33. February 28, 2017 / 3:01 am

    It does sound like it’s a little difficult to get here from your post it is well worth it, the ruins look amazing! It’s sad that people don’t show respect especially when visiting sites such as this, I had a similar experience when visiting the My Son ruins in Vietnam and it was really disappointing to see. Thank you for sharing your tips, I’ll be bookmarking this post 🙂

  34. April 25, 2017 / 10:41 am

    Tikal was by far the most impressive temple I visited in the Yucatan area – it doesn’t feel like being a “tidily dug out archeological site presented on a silver platter” for tourists to see. Especially the walking up of the jungle (howler monkeys going nuts) was an awesome experience. Have to return there someday and visit El Mirador.

    • May 3, 2017 / 8:36 pm

      I agree with you 100%! We liked that a lot of the pyramids are still underground. Will have to check out El Mirador when we go back!

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