Date visited: 18 April 2019
Tikal was an incredible site to visit, but there were a few things we wish we had known before visiting site. Here are the top 10 tips and tricks, for your visit to Tikal.
For most travellers to Guatemala or even Belize, Tikal and its sprawling 16km2 of Mayan ruins are a must-see on their travel plans. Set within 576km2 of jungle it is an awe inspiring UNESCO world heritage site that genuinely showcases the ingenuity and might of the Mayan civilisation before its gradual decline. With over 3,000 structures spanning grand palaces, pyramids and plazas, Tikal expanded and flourished to become one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya until the late 800 AD. Historians debate the cause of the Mayan decline, but it is commonly attributed to several factors including famine, climate change, disease, warfare and unsustainable agricultural practices.
The collapse of Tikal was relatively rapid for a city that had stood for 700 years, with Tikal crumbling in an estimated 100 years and eventually abandoned with the forest quickly reclaiming the settled land.
As with many other famous sites though, it was not until a thousand years later in the 1950’s when dedicated study, excavation and restoration work began to reclaim the forgotten history back from the jungle.
Below are 10 tips, tricks and things learned from our trip to Tikal!
1) Bring your passport or ID
Surprisingly not all tour agencies seem to mention this significant fact, but to purchase tickets, you will need this!
2) As in most of Guatemala, cash is king
While there are EFTPOS facilities, there are no ATM’s around, and on the day we went, the machine was down! Make sure you bring at least Q150 p.p in cash just in case to cover your entry fee.
3) Going early
Tikal is open every day from 6am to 6pm. While we opted out of the sunrise option (which required a bus leaving Flores at 3am), we did opt for the first bus after sunrise which meant the 4.30am bus depart Flores from the ‘Le Peten’ sign at the start of the bridge. (and yes, a 4:30am bus still does not get you there in time for sunrise!). It is a 1.5-hour bus ride, but you should factor in buffer time for delayed leaving times (ours was delayed by 20 minutes) and time for the whole bus to alight and purchase tickets before you are driven to the entry gates to walk through. All in all, we only arrived at the park ready to start walking at 6:50am.
Also, just a note if you are interested in the sunrise option, it is only an extra Q100 park entry fee p.p.
4) Going early for animals
Another reason to opt for the earlier bus is your chances of spotting animals in the national park is much higher! You will be there before the heat sets in and while we did not see the elusive jaguar, we did manage to see howler monkeys, toucans, woodpeckers and plenty of pisotes, all by 9am.
5) Travel quietly
If you are on the lookout for wildlife, it may seem like an obvious one, but travel silently on the trails around Tikal. You are much more likely to not scare them away and spot animals that way.
6) If you’re a Star Wars fan, bring an X-Wing model for a fun photo
George Lucas famously used Tikal as a backdrop to Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. When we visited, a dedicated fan pulled out a tiny x wing model to take a fantastic and fun shot with it. Our only regret was not being so prepared and doing the same!
7) Beeline to the Grand Plaza, then climb the big temple
When we entered Tikal, we made a beeline for the back of the park via the Grand Plaza and worked our way forward. This meant we could get shots of the central area and larger template with relatively few people in it, as well as climb in the relative cool of the morning before the heat set in. Trust me when we say Tikal gets hot.
8) Alternate restroom
When alighting from the bus in the morning, don’t rush to use the bathrooms at the restaurant next to the bus drop off area. By then there are typically queues from the busload of people arriving, and the toilets themselves are in a less than appealing state. Instead, there are many bathrooms dotted around Tikal with some just inside the main entrance where there are no queues, so I recommend going there!
9) Bring comfortable walking shoes
Tikal is large, and you’ll be walking on trails through the forest or climbing up steps, so something comfortable with good grip is best.
10) What else you need to bring
Bring snacks, enough water (1.5L – 2L) and sunscreen and a hat! While there are a few stands dotted around, it’s best to bring your own snacks (particularly if you want something healthy). Also, make sure you have enough water as you’ll be walking around a lot, and while there is shade at Tikal, there are open areas you need to cross as well that are unforgiving in the sun!