“See the ruins of Tikal” had been sitting near the top of my bucket list for a long time before I finally got the opportunity to go. Preceding my visit to Guatemala’s premiere archeological site I did tons of research. However, even after all of that reading, I found that I still had a lot of questions about how to best navigate my visit to this magical place.
Overall, I’d rate my Tikal experience as truly exceptional. I’d like to share the things that I did correctly on that trip - some were intentional, others happy accidents. There are also a few bits of wisdom that I wish I’d had before I went to Tikal that would have saved me confusion (and a couple of headaches). I hope this helps when you’re planning your visit.
1. DO Buy all of your tickets when entering the main park gate
2. DON’T Feel pressured to book a guide at that entrance
3. DO Spend at least one night inside the national park
4. DON’T Plan for less than a two day visit
5. DO See the sunset on a guided tour
6. DON’T Miss seeing the sun rise over Tikal
7. DO Hang on to your tickets and other personal items
8. DON’T Miss the opportunity to spend some time in the island town of Flores
Tikal is located in the northeast part of Guatemala known as the El Peten. It’s very close to the borders of Mexico and Belize. There are multiple ways that you may be traveling to this region. I flew into the Flores Airport (FRS) from Guatemala City. A handful of flights are scheduled on this route daily. They are relatively inexpensive and the flight time is about one hour. I took one of the morning flights so that I would still be able to spend at least part of that day at Tikal and not waste the entirety of it in transit.
The airport and nearby towns are very far away from the main park entrance - it’s a long drive. Since I am always keeping an eye on my budget, I had to be brave and talk to some of the other passengers on my flight who were heading directly to the park as well.
There were five of us, and together we were able to negotiate a shared van. In the end it saved us quite a bit of money to do it that way. The driver was nice and made a stop so we could buy snacks and drinks and use the ATM. I would recommend doing this because you will undoubtedly spend a lot more money buying these things once you get into Tikal.
I did not find Guatemala to be an expensive country to visit in general, but there is no reason to be throwing away your Quetzales. I say use the money you save to tip someone a little extra who is working hard to give you a memorable visit.
Whether you fly or drive to Tikal, everyone has to stop at the main gate to purchase their park tickets. This was the part of the experience that I found the most confusing. Visitors must purchase a seperate ticket for each day they plan to enter the park. Also, if you want to watch the sunrise or watch the sunset you will need to buy those tickets in addition to the regular entrance tickets you are purchasing.
For example: I was planning on seeing Tikal on the day of my arrival, staying in the park for sunset, waking up to see the sunrise the next day and then exploring the grounds more thoroughly after that. I needed four tickets.
As if buying all of the tickets that you need isn’t confusing enough, Tikal has strict rules that no one can do a sunrise or sunset visit without a guide. The main gate is swarming with guides trying to sign you up for their services. Our van driver tried to steer us to a certain group of guides, but we weren’t the only ones there being given the hard sell.
Everyone coming into Tikal was being pressured on all sides to book these guided tours at the main gate.The whole network of local people at this entrance work in tandem. Even the ticket agents ask if you have a guide before selling you a ticket, implying you need already have arranged a guide before you can buy it. It was frustrating and a little overwhelming.
At the time, I felt like they were trying to take advantage of our disorientation and confusion. There is no clear signage explaining how everything works, and there are no park officials policing the touts at the entrance.
In hindsight, I see that there’s no reason to be upset about it. These locals are just trying to make a living. I’m sure some of the guides are actually wonderful. I just didn’t want to be rushed into deciding before I even set down my bags. Sure I was worried about getting overcharged but more importantly about handing my Tikal experience over to a person that I didn’t know anything about.
My advice is to be firm and polite and buy your tickets for the days and activities you are interested in (you’ll need your passport). The sunrise and sunset tickets do not have to be used on any specific date, so you have some flexibility with those. You have time to arrange a guide later, once inside the park.
Now that you know what's up, this ticket buying experience should be nothing to be intimidated about - it is similar to any tourist place that has pushy salespeople. I just want to be clear - because no one there will be - You can buy all of your tickets when you stop at this entrance gate and make your decisions regarding guides later.
This leads me to another important point. You need to buy all of the tickets you plan on using when entering the park at this first gate.
The distance from this first entrance to the visitor center, parking lot, lodges, campsites and the actual park grounds is FAR - more than 20 minutes by car. They do not sell any tickets past this first gate - not at the visitor’s center nor the various lodges. You do not want to waste time traveling back to this gate (trust me on this). Have your ticket needs figured out before you get here.
LENGTH OF STAY
I did the absolute shortest visit to Tikal that I would ever suggest, which was to arrive at Tikal mid-day, take the sunset tour, spend the night in the park, take the sunrise tour the following morning, explore Tikal on my own for the rest of the morning, and leave Tikal late in the afternoon on the second day. In a perfect world I think that three to four days is the time you should allot for your visit to this area. It will allow you some wiggle room in case the weather is bad or anything goes wrong.
Two days left me no room for error. I was really lucky, with perfect weather and some guardian angels looking over me (when things went wrong), so in my case, two days were enough.
Give yourself three.
The first excellent decision I made was to book a room at the Hotel Jungle Lodge in Tikal National Park. There are a couple of different lodging and campsite options within the park, and I implore you to spend at least one night at any of them. I understand that many travelers are on a budget, but this is one of those times you should feel okay about splurging (The Jungle Lodge bungalow that I stayed in was just under $100 per night, which is pretty expensive for Guatemala, but not expensive in the scheme of things).
The convenience, the facilities, and the experience of staying inside the park along with the assistance of the staff made the extra cost worth it. I didn’t have time to check out any of the other lodging or camping options, but I can absolutely recommend the Jungle Lodge. And they have a pool!
Upon arrival, I talked with the excellent staff at the Jungle Lodge regarding recommendations for sunset & sunrise tours. The lodge offered in-house guides and they were able to set me up with tours that left right from the lobby. It couldn’t have been more convenient and I felt secure knowing that these were tours affiliated with the lodge as opposed to some random guide loitering around the park entrance.
The facilities at the Jungle Lodge were excellent. I already mentioned the gorgeous pool, which I know sounds kind of frivolous - you didn’t come all the way to Tikal to swim! However, the jungle is steamy and hot and you’ll be glad to take a dip in the cool water after a long day of trekking around Tikal (plus they have a pool bar). There is also a second bar and a restaurant right off the lobby.
I thought the restaurant food was ok, but the prices weren’t outrageous and the staff worked really hard to make sure that I was having a nice experience.
There are other food offerings within the park, but I didn’t get to explore those. The Lodge had wi-fi available in the lobby. There are designated portions of the day when they shut off the electricity, but luckily you have a light, fan and outlet in your room that operate 24/7.
Please, please, please stay at one of the accommodations inside Tikal National Park. Aside from the convenience and travel time you’ll save, it will be a highlight of your visit. I loved it!
You’ve come all the way to this remote corner of Guatemala to see Tikal in its splendor. Now is not the time to be cheap or lazy. Do the sunset tour! As I mentioned, I booked my guide through the lodge and we met in the lobby at 3PM. It was just me, the guide and two other people. I had all of my tickets with me because the tickets were printed in very hard to read Spanish and I wasn’t sure exactly which ones I needed. Put any tickets you aren’t using in a safe, secure place!
When entering the park, you’ll trade your tickets for wristbands (one for entrance to the park, one for the sunset viewing). This is why I would not recommend trying to cheat the system and stay for sunrise without a guide, they check these wristbands. I personally witnessed someone getting caught in the park at sunset without a wristband and neither he nor the guards looked too happy about it.
The tour starts at 3PM, because it’s quite a long walk from the ticket taker to the actual ruins. One of the best parts of doing the sunset tour is that you get to the Gran Plaza, just as everyone else is leaving for the day. You get to experience this incredible place with almost no one else around. In addition, arriving at that time coincides with “magic hour” and the setting sun is lighting everything with a magical glow, which is great for pictures.
After getting free time in the Gran Plaza, which included a climb of Templo II, we headed to the sunset viewing platform. Everyone staying for sunset watches from atop a huge pyramid in the Mundo Perdido (Lost World). You get excellent views of the surrounding jungle with the tops of various temples poking through the canopy (this is also the only place in the park I could get a cell phone signal).
There were about thirty people up there, it wasn’t insanely crowded. I really enjoyed the fact that the guides asked for total silence for the last thirty minutes before sunset. It was awesome to hear the sounds of the jungle preparing for nightfall as the sun was going down.
When the sun finally fell below the horizon, I thanked the travel gods for granting me such an amazing experience. What I didn’t realize was that the tour wasn’t near over. Getting back to the park entrance is just as good.
We went back the way we came and stopped again in the Gran Plaza. To see this place at night, with the moon and stars as your only light source is something you’ll never ever forget. They have strict rules about climbing on the temples during regular park hours, but after dark the guides let us sit on the temple stairs and stargaze. Please don’t miss this opportunity.
I use an iPhone to take pictures, so I couldn’t capture the starry night in the Gran Plaza. I didn’t mind. I put the phone away and was present in the moment and it was really moving. Put your camera away once in a while.
The night ends with the hike back to the park entrance/hotel. It’s about forty minutes on a trail with only a shaky flashlight guiding you. All around you’ll hear the sounds of the jungle coming alive for the night. I was giddy with adrenaline and fear and tripped multiple times.
Arriving back at the hotel it already seemed like the whole thing was a dream. If the weather is good and the skies are clear do not miss this opportunity - Do the sunset tour!
You may be asking “Why do I need to get up early and do the sunrise tour if I’m already doing the ‘must do’ sunset tour?” My answer is simple - Because I say so!
The sunrise tour is its own separate experience from the sunset visit and it offers its own unique WOW moments that you won’t want to miss out on. As I said before, if you’ve made such an effort to get to Tikal, now is not the time to be cheap or lazy. Sleep-in later.
My tour started at 4AM from the lobby of the lodge. There was a torch-lit coffee station set up for us to get our caffeine fix before the trek. After we helped ourselves to coffee we had a short informative meeting with our guide and the lodge handed out our breakfast boxes (which were included in the price of the tour).
The group set off on its hike towards Templo IV. (This is where I was denied entry to the park because I had lost my tickets, so what follows is hearsay). The guide leads the group through the jungles of Tikal by flashlight, stopping to explain various areas of the site.
The hike takes more than an hour and is unforgettable. It’s a hike in almost total darkness. The group arrives at Templo IV in plenty of time to catch the sunrise. (This is where, by a true miracle, I was able to rejoin the group just as the sun was coming up). Watching the sun rise over Tikal from the top of the temple is an indelible experience. Everyone watching maintains complete and respectful silence as the world wakes up all around you.
I’ve seen the sun rise at some iconic places, seeing it at Tikal is near the top of that list. The sounds of the jungle waking up rival the visuals. The birds and howler monkeys put on an excellent performance.
When the sun has risen, everyone descends from Templo IV and sets off on a guided tour of the park. This is still hours before the park opens for the regular tourists. You feel like you’ve got the entire place to yourself. The guide we had was great and he knew every inch of Tikal intimately. He took us around to all of the major ruins, a lot of times taking us on “short cuts” through the jungle. His detailed explanations helped make sense of everything. I am so glad I did not miss this.
We eventually were led back to the Gran Plaza and said goodbye to our guide. This was just as the park was opening for the day. Another great thing about being there for sunrise is that they allow you to remain inside the park when your guided tour is over. You are released to explore on your own and take tons of pictures before any other day visitors actually reach the site.
That kind of freedom and privilege in a place like Tikal is priceless. It was more than an hour before I even saw any of the day tourists arriving.
Please try and do the sunrise at Tikal! While the daytrippers are exploring the ruins during the hottest and most crowded time of the day, you’ll already be back at your lodge, totally satisfied and ready for lunch or a dip in the pool.
HANG ON TO YOUR STUFF
I managed to lose two park tickets AND my reading glasses during my visit to Tikal.
Do Not lose your tickets. During my sunset tour, I had my two tickets for the following day with me, loose in my pocket. At some point I must have dropped them and didn’t realize it. You can only buy tickets at the main entrance gate which is FAR away from the actual park entrance. To get back to that gate and re-buy tickets means an hour of wasted time at the very least. If one of those tickets is for a sunrise tour, which meets at 4AM, you’re simply out of luck. This was the position I found myself in and it was pretty devastating.
Luckily, I had some sort of travel guardian angel watching over me, and I ended up getting to watch the sunrise after all. But don’t be me. That was a really rough way to start an incredible day.
Towards the end of my Tikal visit, I set my glasses (you know, the ones I need to see and read with) on the steps of a temple to pose for a picture. I walked away after the photo was taken. When I realized I had forgotten the glasses five minutes later, I ran back to the place where I left them and they had vanished. Groan! (I promise I am not in the habit of losing stuff when I travel). I knew the minute those glasses weren’t where I had left them that I would never see them again.
The moral of the story is - hang onto your stuff at a place like Tikal! It’s a huge park and it’s very primitive (in the sense that you’re in a jungle, walking among ruins - there are no real facilities in the park, there’s not a “lost and found” or anywhere to get that kind of assistance).
You have to figure that if a jungle can swallow the grand and imposing monuments of an entire civilization, what chance do your small personal items have?
SPEND A DAY IN FLORES
I would highly recommend spending a night in Flores before or after your Tikal experience. There are some other towns in the vicinity of the park where you can find lodgings, but none of them offer the charms of this small island community.
Flores is just over an hour away from Tikal National Park. It sits in the middle of Lake Peten Itza and is connected to the mainland by a causeway. There are a ton of great little shops and restaurants in Flores. You’ll also have a nice selection of lodging options to choose from.
The entire island is encircled by a promenade, which is great for a leisurely stroll. I loved all of the brightly colored buildings and little Guatemalan taxis. There’s a big church and a central plaza to visit and cobblestone streets... I took a lot of pictures in Flores. Some of the locals were touting boat tours of the lake. I didn’t do this, but it looked fun. The sunset boat rides seemed especially popular. If I return to Flores, I will absolutely do a boat.
Flores is near the airport and also a great place to arrange transportation to (or tours of) Tikal. There are many tour companies based in Flores to choose from. I was traveling on to Belize from Guatemala and was able to book a shared van to Belize City from Flores. It’s a tourist destination, so you’ll find a lot of helpful services there. Did I mention it’s also really charming??? Go to Flores.
I really hope you get the chance to visit Tikal. Hopefully, you’ll find the insight I gained through trial and error useful. I went to Tikal in mid-December and the weather was glorious.
Tikal was part of a larger trip I took that included Guadalajara and Tulum in Mexico, the Belize Cayes, and some other (highly recommended) places in Guatemala including Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
This is a really rewarding part of the world to visit so make sure it’s on your to do list. Also, don’t lose your tickets! Que tengas buen viaje!