Man at Tikal Temple I - Temple of the Great Jaguar - Tikal Guatemala

For lovers of history or for those looking for the perfect Instagram shot, Tikal is a must visit destination in Guatemala!

Short on time? Here are our Tikal Guatemala top recommendations:

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About Tikal

Tikal Sacrifice Stone
Tikal Disemboweling Sacrifice Stone

Tikal is the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Yax Mutal. It is located in the rainforest of northern Guatemala. Buildings on the site date back as far as the 4th century BC. Furthermore, the city was inhabited up to 900 AD. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. It was also a filming location for Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. We liked the combination of meticulously restored buildings as well as the jungle setting. There are projects underway to excavate more of the site, so it will be interesting to see what it’s like in the coming years.

Tours of Tikal Guatemala

We booked a morning tour of Tikal Guatemala through Los Amigos Hostel. We paid 110 quetzales per person for the bus to and from Flores and the tour. The tour lasted 4 hours and covered the four main temples. You can climb up 2 of the temples. There’s also the grand pyramid which you can climb up as well for 360 degree views of the whole area. The views from the grand pyramid were the highlight of our trip. Our tour catered more a Spanish speaking audience, with a brief English translation given at the end. We therefore would recommend skipping the tour and downloading an audio tour of the area on your phone beforehand. This will also allow you to explore the area at your own pace.

Tikal Tour Group
Tikal Tour Group

Getting to Tikal Guatemala

Getting to Tikal from Flores there are morning buses at 4:30am, 6am and 8am. There are also buses that leave in the afternoon for sunset.

The 4:30am bus will get you to Tikal in time for sunrise, however it’s quite rare to actually get the sun at sunrise due to cloud cover. If you are keen to see Tikal at sunrise or sunset we’d recommend that you do a sunset tour instead.

We preferred having a bit of a sleep in, so we took the 6am bus. We saw everything we wanted to see by lunchtime and then caught the bus back to Flores just after lunch.

How long to spend at Tikal Guatemala

Tikal Woman on Temple of the Skulls
Temple of the Skulls

Tikal is a massive complex and other travellers that we spoke to explored the Tikal complex for a couple of days. If you really love your ruins take more than one day here. For those with just a passing interest in ruins, you should be able to see the major attractions in half a day.

What to bring to Tikal Guatemala

To make the most of your trip to Tikal, remember to bring the following items

  • The entry fee for Tikal is 150 quetzals per person (prices as at July 2021) and you need to have that in cash
  • Make sure you bring photo ID to show the people when you pay your entry fee because they won’t let you in without photo ID
  • Insect repellent – very important as this is a tropical area
  • Long pants and long sleeve shirts recommended as well and plenty of sun protection, so hat and sunglasses
  • Plenty of water to drink as it is a very hot area
  • Either bring a packed lunch or you can buy food from the cafe at the entrance. We’d recommend just bringing a packed lunch and make sure you bring your rubbish out with you when you leave

What to see at Tikal Guatemala

Tikal National Park spans over 57,600 hectares and the main city area of Tikal covers an area of around 16 square kilometres with about 3,000 structures. Archaeologists have now completely mapped out the main city area. However the excavating and mapping of the area is still ongoing. The area is one of the few places in the world to have UNESCO World Heritage listing due to both its natural and cultural significance. As such there are plenty of things to see while in the area!

The main attractions that you must see at Tikal are:

The Great Plaza

The Great Plaza is the main square of Tikal. It includes both Temples I and II as well as the ball court.

Tikal The Great Plaza
The Great Plaza

Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar or the Temple of Ah Cacao)

This is one of the major structures in Tikal and the one most associated with Tikal in any brochures or articles that you read. The 50 centavo Guatemalan bank note displays a picture of Temple I. It is the final resting place of the ruler Ah Cacao and dates back to approximately 732 AD. Temple I is located on the eastern side of the Great Plaza. It is a limestone stepped pyramid. You can look but don’t touch. You aren’t allowed to scale this temple, but instead admire it’s majesty.

Tikal Temple I - Temple of the Great Jaguar
Temple I – Temple of the Great Jaguar

Temple II (Temple of the Masks)

Directly opposite Temple I is Temple II. You’ll be happy to know that you can climb this using a wooden scaffolding staircase. You get great views here over the Great Plaza and Temple I. This temple was believed to have been built in the 8th century AD. The temple was built by king Jasaw Chan K’awiil I honour of his queen, Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’.

Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest)

This temple is an interesting example of what the temples look like before they are excavated. As this temple has not yet been excavated, you can only see the top of the tower jutting out of the top of the forest canopy. Our guide told us that there are plans to excavate this temple in the next couple of years, so until then it will remain as a monolithic feature of the jungle. This temple was known as the ‘Temple of the Jaguar Priest’ and was built around 810AD. It was the last of the temples built at Tikal. The city subsequently fell into ruin by the end of the 9th century.

Temple IV

Tikal Tour Group Walking Up Stairs on Temple IV
Tikal Tour Group Walking Up Stairs on Temple IV

This temple is famous for its views across the Tikal complex. This vantage point was in Starwars Episode IV, ‘A New Hope’. It was the site for the Rebel base on the planet Yavin 4! You can scale this temple using another scaffolding of wooden stairs. The temple was built around 741AD. It was the second largest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas. The temple was built either in honour of the king Yik’in Chan K’awiil, the son of king Jasaw Chan K’awiil of Temple II fame, or as his funerary temple.

Tikal Star Wars Episode IV View from Temple IV
‘Star Wars’ View from Temple IV

If you are on a tight timeline, you will want to visit Temple I and II in the Gland Plaza and Temple IV. Most tours will take you to these features. If you have a bit more time to explore, we recommend you also check out the following structures:

The Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Temple

Tikal Stairs Up To The Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Temple
The Steep Climb Up the Lost World Temple

You can also climb the lost world pyramid and we believe that the lookout here top offers you the best views across the whole Tikal complex. This complex had multiple phases of construction in it’s lifetime, with the earliest version of the complex built as early as 600BC!

Woman on Platform at the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Temple Tikal
View from Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Temple

The Central Acropolis

This is directly south of the Great Plaza and is a palace complex. The Central Acropolis complex includes 43 structures, including a five-storey royal palace.

The North Acropolis

This is just north of the Great Plaza and is the site of many royal burial grounds. More buildings were added to this complex with every royal burial that was performed here.

Where to stay when visiting Tikal

Tikal is about 2 hours from the border of Belize. When visiting Tikal you usually would stay either overnight in Tikal or overnight in Flores. Both options have their pros and cons.

If you’re in Tikal it’s easier to come to the sunrise or the sunset tours which are here. But it is a bit more expensive. You can camp onsite which is a bit of a unique experience, so that’s an interesting option.

Woman eating oreo and ice cream sundae at Los Amigos Hostel Flores Guatemala
Enjoying the Oreo Ice Cream Sundae at Los Amigos Hostel Flores Guatemala

We stayed in Flores which is 2 hours drive away and it’s in a lakeside region. It’s a bit less expensive to stay there than staying in Tikal and it’s a really beautiful area. We recommend staying in either Casa Itzayana for a great low budget option for private rooms or Los Amigos Hostel for a hostel with a great atmosphere and an amazing tropical garden in the common area. Be sure to try the Oreo and Ice Cream dessert at their restaurant while you’re there!

Is Tikal safe?

Tikal Sacrifice Altar
Tikal Head Chopping Sacrifice Altar

Being a dense jungle area, the Tikal Area has a risk of mosquito transmitted diseases. As such, we made sure we used plenty of insect repellent in that area. We recommend talking to your doctor about whether anti malarial medication is right for you.

Other general safety considerations for travel in Tikal:

  • Drinking water – The tap water in Tikal is not safe to drink. There are shops in Tikal where you can buy drinks or you can bring water with you. Make sure you stay hydrated as it gets hot in Tikal
  • Road safety – The roads were in good condition from Flores to Tikal. Exercise your normal road safety precautions
  • Sun safety – The UV Index is very high in Central America, Therefore sun protection such as sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses is very important to ensure you don’t get burnt

As with any destination, take all of your normal safety precautions.

Final thoughts on Tikal

Tikal is one of the most impressive ruins sites in Central America and its jungle setting adds an extra layer of mystique. We also liked that it wasn’t as crowded as other ruins sites like Chitzen Itza in Mexico.

If you want to learn more about visiting Tikal, check out our Tikal video.

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