With so many Mayan archeology sites in Guatemala and in Mexico, you might be wondering if visiting the Tikal ruins is worth the effort. After all, tickets are pricey, the bus ride is long, and perhaps you’re thinking that all ruins look the same.
But after our visit to Tikal, we came away agreeing that Tikal was one of the best Mayan archeology sites that we had visited on our trip through Mexico and Guatemala. The Tikal ruins were absolutely worth the trouble to get to.
Keep reading to learn why we loved Tikal and what are several of our top tips while visiting this amazing archeology site. Tips include when to get there, best photo spots, and a suggested route through this gigantic complex (spoiler alert: we were in Tikal for over 6 hours!)
Is Tikal Worth Visiting? (Why We Loved Tikal!)
With hundreds of major Mayan archaeology sites, and many of them considerably cheaper to visit, you might be wondering:
“Is Visiting Tikal Worth It?”
And we can confidently say, “We think so!” And here’s why:
- Tikal National Park: Not only are you visiting archeology ruins, but you are also wandering through the thicket of Tikal National Forests. Throughout your visit, you’ll likely see peacocks, macaws, howler monkeys, toucans, and turkeys. If you’re lucky, you might just catch a jaguar or leopard!
- Awesome Viewpoints: No other Mayan site that we visited allowed us to climb so many different pyramids as in Tikal for breathtaking treetop skyline views. We’ll discuss more below which pyramids have the best views.
- Less Crowded: Though Tikal gets their fair share of annual visitors, the overal numbers pale in comparison to Mexico’s major Mayan sites: Chichen Itza & Teotihuacan. Get off the beaten path in Tikal and you’re likely to find yourself all alone next to some forgotten ruin in the vast jungle. Tranquility!
How Much Does Visiting Tikal Cost?
Depending on where you are and your mode of transportation, prices to visit Tikal can vary.
- Entrance Tickets: 150Q (~$20)
- Private Guide (prices vary wildly): ~Q400 ($52)
- Roundtrip Bus Ticket (From Flores): 80Q (~$10)
- Group Guide From Travel Agency: 40Q (~$6)
Note: Entrance tickets can be purchased at the front gate when you arrive, but if you are in Flores you can purchase your ticket in advance at any “Banco Rural” branch. This can be useful if you don’t want to stand in line at the entrance gate or if you want to participate in the Tikal Sunrise Tour (more about the Tikal sunrise tour below).
Best Ways To Visit Tikal
For most visitors, there are 3 ways to visit Tikal:
- Visit Tikal as a day trip from Flores
- Sleep overnight at one of hotels (or campsite) that are situated within the Tikal ruins complex
- Sleep overnight in Uaxactun, a village 30 minutes north of Tikal
We opted to sleep in Uaxactún, so that we could visit the Uaxactún ruins there as well. We talk more about Uaxactún at the end of this article.
Option 1: Day Trip To Tikal From Flores
This is by far the most popular way to visit Tikal for most visitors.
To visit Tikal as a day trip, it’s best to stay in Flores; a beautiful and serene island town 1.5 hours away from the Mayan site. Finding a tour operator to take you from Flores to Tikal is easy and information for these trips should be provided at most hotels and hostels.
Pros of visiting Tikal as a day trip:
- Time efficient
- You get to unwind back in Flores after a day of exploring.
Cons of a day trip to visit Tikal:
- If you want to arrive at Tikal right when the gates open at 6:00am, you’ll need to get up at 4:00am
- You may feel rushed knowing that you have to catch the bus back in the afternoon. Last bus back to Flores = 5:30pm
Option 2: Stay Overnight Inside Tikal National Park
Several overnight options are available to those who wish to stay overnight in Tikal. Although not technically inside the Tikal ruins complex, you would still be sleeping inside Tikal National Park.
- Jaguar Inn: Clean beds, hot water showers, and even wifi (although slow).
- Camping: If you’re on a budget, you can either rent a tent or pitch your own here.
- Can wake up later in the morning
- Best if you plan to take the sunrise or sunset tour
- Allows you to enter Tikal twice in two days with only one ticket (read #9 of our Top Tikal Tips to learn more)
- Cost of rooms can be pricier than back in Flores
- Less time efficient if you’re in a rush
Do You Need A Guide To Visit Tikal?
Just like with virtually every other Mayan site, you’ll be inundated with offers to take a guide and it will be up to you to decide if you’d like to hire one or not.
Hire A Guide When Visiting Tikal
At Tikal’s main entrance, you can hire a guide to accompany you throughout your visit. Don’t worry, you don’t have to try to find them. They will find YOU!
Prices for guides vary wildly and depend on how many people are in your group and how long you’d like to hire the guide for. But 400Q for a guide is a good starting point for negotiations.
Most guides speak well-enough English and their knowledge of Tikal’s history and architecture will keep you entertained throughout your entire trip.
Visit By Yourself
Self explanatory. By visiting the Tikal ruins without a guide, you’re pretty much on your own. You’re free to wander wherever you like and at your own pace.
Though you won’t have a guide to teach you about the history of Tikal, you can download this handy app, which has a self-guided tour of Tikal.
Did We Go With A Guide When Visiting Tikal?
We opted to visit Tikal WITHOUT a guide because we valued being able to wander the complex and take in this massive site at our own pace. We loved simply sitting quietly at some of Tikal’s less popular ruins and soaking in the jungle wilderness all by ourselves.
To get a bit more understanding of Tikal’s history we did use the Tikal self-guided tour app, which was useful. But we admit that this app is not a replacement for the knowledge of an actual guide.
Sunrise or Sunset Tour At Tikal?
Visiting Tikal at sunrise and sunset is popular among visitors and provides a unique view of this Mayan site when the sunlight is low and less harsh.
In order to be inside the Tikal complex during sunrise or sunset, you will need to join a group tour, which costs 250Q (~$33) per person. This price includes your entry ticket.
Also taking part in a sunrise or sunset tour at Tikal may require you to get accommodation within the Tikal grounds, either at the Jaguar Inn or the nearby camping option.
Pros Of Tikal’s Sunrise and Sunset Tour:
- Cooler morning and evening temperatures
- Best times for photography
- Less tourists
Best Photo Spots In Tikal Guatemala
Tikal is full of great spots for photographs. And unlike many other popular Mayan ruins, you are able to climb up several of the pyramids here for awesome horizon views of the jungle.
Below are our favorite photo spots in Tikal:
Pyramid Of The Lost World: Although not along the main tourist drag, we felt the view atop this pyramid offered the best view of Tikal. From here, you’re able to clearly see the peaks of Temples I, II, III, & IV and gauge the distance between each of them.
Temple IV: Summiting Temple IV is a must for most visitors, as the view here also allows you to view the entire Tikal complex. But in peak times, it can get busy.
Temple II: To get a proper top-down view of the Grand Plaza and to properly photograph Temple I, climbing up Temple II is a must.
Central Acropolis: Wandering though this acropolis and it’s many courtyards and rooms, just south of the Grand Plaza, you’ll find numerous picturesque opportunities for photos.
10 Top Tips When Visiting Tikal
1. Bring Plenty Of Water
No matter the time of year that you visit, Tikal gets hot! This is the middle of the jungle that we’re talking about. Suffice to say, bringing plenty of water should be at the top of your list to help keep you hydrated. We knew we would be exploring among the Tikal ruins for at least 5 hours, so we brought 5 liters of water for the two of us.
2. Bring Your Own Food
Though there are several food stalls situated throughout the Tikal ruins complex, food is overpriced and unimaginative. You definitely don’t get your money’s worth here. If you’re able to, bringing your own food into Tikal is the better option.
3. You Must Bring Your Passport When Visiting Tikal
Your passport is needed to purchase Tikal’s entry ticket. They will type your passport # into their computer system and print a ticket specifically for you. So it’s vital to bring your passport with you when arriving at Tikal.
4. Plan Your Route In Advance
Because of how hot the weather gets, planning your walking route in advance can really help to improve your experience at Tikal. Without a pre-planned route, you might find yourself walking in circles and backtracking; wasting valuable time and energy.
Most of the Tikal ruins complex is covered in a thick layer of trees but Tikal’s best part, the Grand Plaza, has virtually no shade cover and can get brutally hot during mid-day.
Therefore, we recommend timing your arrival into the Grand Plaza either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the mid-day heat.
To learn more about the route we took, read: Our Itinerary & Experience At Tikal
5. Use Maps.me Instead Of Google Maps
Google Maps does an awful job displaying all the different walking paths in Tikal. We used an offline smartphone map app called “Maps.me” extensively, in conjunction with our paper map (tip #8), to plot out our walking course.
6. Shorts & Bugspray Are Your Friends
Because it gets so hot and humid, wearing shorts is recommended. This allows you to stay cool and get rid of sweat. But depending on the season, there can be hoards of mosquitoes at Tikal, so bringing your favorite brand of mosquito spray is a must.
7. Get Off The Beaten Path
The Grand Plaza can get quite busy! So if you’re keen to have a corner of Tikal all to yourself, wander around the lesser known sites along the north and south edges of the Tikal complex. You may find how surprisingly easy it is to get away from the crowds.
For escaping the crowds, we enjoyed visiting the Group G ruins.
8. Buy The Map At The Entrance
Maps are sold at the ticket entrance gate for 20Q. The brochure folds out to a large map of the Tikal complex on one side and a few sentences of background history for each ruin site. For ~$2.5, the map offers great value and helps you plan your route while walking around inside.
9. Enter After 3pm And Visit The Next Day For Free
If you fancy yourself a history and ruins enthusiast and want to visit every single ruin in the Tikal complex, visiting for two days might be best for you. Generally, the Tikal entrance ticket is only good for the day you enter. But if you enter the complex after 3pm, you will be allowed to visit Tikal again the following day, for free.
If this is something that interests you, finding sleeping accommodation inside the Tikal complex might be right for you.
10. Don’t Make The Monkies Mad!
Look up and you might just see a few Macaws swinging above you in the jungle canopy! These macaws are actually not really afraid of humans. On the contrary, they are rather more annoyed by our presence and making noises to get their attention only makes them more angry. And when push comes to shove, angry Macaws have been known to urinate on trouble-making visitors. You’ve been warned!
Where To Sleep In Tikal Guatemala
If you’re interested to overnight within the Tikal area, options are limited. However you can also stay in Flores and take a bus to Tikal.
Sleeping Options In Tikal
The Jaguar Inn – Probably the best of the bunch. Rooms are clean, wifi is available, and breakfast is included to start your day of exploration off right.
Tikal National Park Campground – At 70Q a night for a tent, this is by far the most affordable option within the Tikal park. Hard to reserve in advance, but show up early and ask for the campground.
Hotel room can be purchased either at the ticketed entry gate (20km south of the ruins) or online.
Sleeping Options In Flores
- Best Budget: Hostal Don Cenobio – Excellent hostal by the water with a wonderful 2nd floor terrace to watch sunrise and the boats go by.
- Best Mid-Range: Hotel Casazul – A picturesque hotel by the water with a relaxing lake-view terrace. Great value!
- Best Luxury: Bolontiku Hotel – Located 15 minutes, by boat, to Flores island, this hotel features a gorgeous swimming pool and delicious international restaurant. Spa on-site.
Is Tikal Safe To Travel To?
We heard from someone that the entire state of Petén, which includes Tikal, was unsafe to travel. But after our visit to Tikal, we could not disagree more.
We felt safe all throughout our visit and never had any negative experiences in Tikal, Flores, or at any other nearby towns.
As usual, it pays to keep your wits up and learn some street smarts. But overall, we think you’ll love your visit to Tikal. We sure did!
Brief History Of Tikal
We believe learning a little bit of the history before visiting any archeological ruin is integral to understanding not only the site’s historical significance, but also to get a glimpse of a once great city’s cultural and political importance.
Otherwise, we’re just looking at a bunch of rocks, right?
Though some of Tikal’s oldest structures date all the way as far back as the 400BC, the city did not fully reach it’s prime until roughly 750AD. There have been at least 33 confirmed rulers of Tikal, but the most important two leaders to know are the father and son duo, Jasaw & Yik’in K’awiil.
The son, Yik’in, was especially known for building the grandest structures, including the great Temple I, which is a funerary pyramid dedicated to his father, Jasaw.
In the city’s prime, Tikal was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in ancient Maya. Tikal dominated economic trade, political rule, and had the strongest military in the region. And at the height of Tikal’s reign, the city’s population reached up to 90,000 people.
And Tikal's Demise...
However, as with all ancient cities, success and power didn’t last. And by the 9th century A.D. Tikal, as well as many other surrounding Mayan cities, began a slow, irreversible collapse. And by around 950 A.D., Tikal was just a shell of its former glory.
By the time Hernan Cortéz, the famed Spanish conquistador set foot in Mayan territory in 1525, Tikal was almost completely taken over by the jungle. In fact, Tikal was so well hidden by the trees that Cortez failed to discover the site, even though notes suggest he passed by the ruins just a few kilometers away.
Tourists began flocking to Tikal as early as 1850 and in 1979, Tikal was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our Tikal Itinerary
Because we have our own campervan, our experience and itinerary might differ from a usual visitor or backpacker.
Day 1: First We Visited The Uaxactún Ruins
We actually reached the ticket entrance the day before we wanted to explore Tikal so that we could visit the Uaxactún ruins first. When we arrived at the main ticket entrance we bought tickets for both Tikal (150Q) and the Uaxactún (50Q).
We visited Uaxactun first and slept overnight in the northern village.
To learn more about Uaxactun, we have a write up about the Uaxactún ruins below.
Day 2: Visiting Tikal
The next day, we drove south from Uaxactún and entered Tikal at 10am. The day was already starting to get warm, but we walked along the southern rim, which was cool and shaded by the trees. The main sights on the southern rim include the Group G ruins, Temple V, and the Pyramid of the Lost World.
We enjoyed visiting the south rim first because most visitor head straight to the Grand Plaza first. Therefore, we found many of the ruins along the south rim almost devoid of tourists and we had many of these sites to ourselves.
Lunch Atop Tikal's Temple IV
By 2pm, we arrived at the top of the famous Temple IV, which offers one of the best skyline views of Tikal. Mid-afternoon was a good time to summit this temple because the temple’s apex was already casting shade across us as we sat near the top to eat our lunch. Had we arrived earlier, the sun would have been right in our eyes and temperatures would have been uncomfortably hot.
Late Afternoon Arrival Into The Grand Plaza
Finally, by the time we reached the Grand Plaza at ~3:45pm, where Temple I and II are situated, it was already late-afternoon and the day had already begun to cool off.
We felt that a late afternoon arrival into the Grand Plaza was ideal because not only are there less tourists during this time, but the sun was at our back and shining directly at Temple I. Which is ideal for photos.
By 5:00pm we were already heading for the exit. If you took a bus to get to Tikal, the last bus leaving the complex leaves at 5:30pm.
Tips For Visiting Uaxactún Ruins
The ruins of Uaxactún are located 20km north of Tikal. This ancient city used to be a rival of Tikal until 378 A.D, when the city was overrun by Tikal’s forces. Though the city had been defeated, residents of Uaxactún were still allowed to grow and prosper, under Tikal. But the decline of the city coincided with Tikal’s decline by the mid-1700s.
Is Uaxactún Worth Visiting?
Getting to Uaxactún can be tricky but we felt visiting these ruins were worth the effort. At first we were hesitant to visit, knowing that Tikal would have the more impressive ruins, but we came away grateful that we took the time and effort to visit Uaxactún as well.
1. Less Crowds
To say that Uaxactún had less visitors would be an extreme understatement. When we visited the ruins there, we literally saw just four other people all throughout the complex. The jungle was peaceful and we spent several hours just sitting and day dreaming amonst the ruins all by ourselves.
2. Astrological Significance
Site E was the most impressive group of ruins in the Uaxactún complex. This site is of major astrological significance and is comprised of three small temples and a pyramid viewing point. During the summer solstice, equinox, and winter solstice, visitors can climb the viewing pyramid during sunrise and watch as the sun rises exactly behind one of the three temples.
Although we did not visit during those occasions, we appreciated the view from the pyramid anyways. We even took a pleasant mid-day nap by ourselves on the viewing platform.
How To Get To Uaxactún? (And How To Leave)
There are several ways to get to Uaxactún, depending on where you are and your mode of transportation.
- Tour Agency From Flores: Tour agencies in Tikal can easily arrange tours for you to visit Uaxactún. You should be able to pair your visit with Tikal as well.
- Public Transport From Flores: Public transportation (colectivos) leave from the market in Santa Elena at around 2pm. This bus will pass through Tikal first before heading up to Uaxactun.
- From Tikal: You can catch the same public bus from Tikal. The bus arrives in Tikal sometime between 4:00pm – 4:30pm.
- Your Own Vehicle: We drove up with our own vehicle.
The public bus leaves Uaxactún early at 6:00am for Flores. So you’ll likely need to sleep 2 nights in the Uaxactuún village.
Or you could hitchhike on the small road back south to Tikal. There aren’t many vehicles traveling along this road, but we’re confident that friendly locals would pick you up.