Travellers head to the island town of Flores in the north of Guatemala for one main reason: to visit Tikal National Park. Located just outside of Flores, Tikal is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in existence and is a highlight of any trip through Central America.
The whole area is so impressive that it was used as a filming location in Star Wars IV, which sums up Tikal perfectly. It’s quite simply…out of this world (sorry, had to say it).
There are a lot of different ways you can see Tikal, from going by yourself for just a couple of hours, or by dedicating days to exploring every stone and engraving on all 3,000 or so monuments. You can also camp overnight right near the entrance to the park, with the night’s soundtrack compliments of the howler monkeys running amok.
I’ve visited several Mayan ruins recently, including Chichen Itza and the Palenque Ruins in Mexico. Tikal was easily the best site I’ve been to, due to the sheer size and intricacy of the temples and monuments, along with the wild jungle surroundings and the vast array of wildlife.
This guide will outline everything you need to know about planning a visit to Tikal in Guatemala.
About Tikal in Guatemala
Tikal flourished between 200-900 AD as one of the most important Mayan cities in Central America.
Soon after 900 AD, the city was abandoned due to reasons historians can’t agree on. Some say it was a drought, or overpopulation, or disease.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that several expeditions started to investigate Tikal and the surrounding areas. By 1956, efforts to excavate the area began in earnest.
As more of the area was uncovered, Tikal was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourism boomed.
Getting to Flores and Tikal
The easiest way to get to Tikal is from the city of Flores in the Peten region of Guatemala.
In Guatemala, you can reach Flores by a tourist shuttle or bus from Lake Atitlan, Antigua, Guatemala City, Semuc Champey or Rio Dulce. Most of these trips take a full day, or there is an overnight bus from Guatemala City, so be prepared for a long journey.
If the budget can stretch, there are also daily flights from Guatemala City to Flores, but at around $300 USD return, they are expensive.
In Belize, it’s easiest to get to Flores from San Ignacio. This three-hour journey is best done by public transport, as shuttle prices can be exorbitant in Belize.
Or if you’re in Mexico, you can depart from Palenque in the Chiapas region to get to Flores. This route uses a sequence of public buses and takes a full day, crossing the border at El Ceibo.
From Flores, Tikal is a 90-minute drive away.
Public microbuses go from Flores to Tikal and back at regular intervals during the day. The price is $30 Quetzals ($4 USD) each way.
Tourist shuttles can be pre-booked and they normally cost $100 Q ($13 USD) return. This price doesn’t include the entrance fee.
Or the other option is to get to Tikal with a tour, which is my recommendation. More details on that below.
What’s the best way to see Tikal
You will need at least half a day to see Tikal’s most important areas, although some people spend days wandering around every inch of the site.
You can either explore Tikal by yourself, join a tour or pay for a private guide.
It costs $150 Q ($20 USD) to enter Tikal, with this ticket allowing you in the park from 6 am to 6 pm. But if you want to enter the park for either sunrise or sunset, it’s another $100 Q ($13 USD), and you have to be with a guide or tour.
When I visited, I didn’t join a tour or hire a guide. Instead, I chose to explore the site with a friend. In hindsight, this was a mistake. We should have joined a tour as the area is just so big we ended up walking around a bit aimlessly.
I also wouldn’t recommend going with a private guide as the cost is very high for budget travellers.
So a tour it is.
One of the best-regarded and most affordable tours is run by Los Amigos Hostel, who offer four tours a day – sunrise, early morning, daytime and sunset – for $110 Q ($14.50 USD). This price includes transportation and an English or Spanish speaking guide, but it doesn’t include the entrance fee or the additional sunrise/sunset fee. So in total, the cost will be $260 Q ($34 USD) for a daytime tour, or $360 Q ($47 USD) for a sunrise/sunset tour.
Due to Tikal’s location in a thick rainforest, the temperature is normally very hot and steamy. As there’s a large amount of walking involved in seeing the area, it’s best to plan your visit for early in the morning or later in the day. There is normally more fog around in the morning, which can obstruct the view of the temples for sunrise, so if I went back to Tikal, I would opt for the sunset tour.
Camping or staying at Tikal
For the ultimate Tikal experience, spend a night camping next to the entrance, beside the untamed jungle, and under a dazzling night’s sky.
Be warned though, you may not have the best night’s sleep here. At night, the jungle sounds like something out of Jurassic Park. I spent a large portion of the night listening to the howler monkeys and other unknown animals flex their vocal cords.
It costs $50 Q ($6.50 USD) to camp and you can also pay an extra fee to hire hammocks and tents for the night if you need them. You can’t pre-book a spot, you just need to purchase a separate camping ticket when you arrive at the main entrance booth.
I would recommend arriving early in the afternoon to grab a good spot, and also to hire a tent or hammock if needed.
I used the public microbuses to get to Tikal in order to camp, but I’m sure you could also arrange with a tour company to drop you off and pick you up, as well as join in on a tour when it starts.
If camping isn’t your thing, there are a few hotels located near the entrance. The Jungle Lodge Hotel is the best-reviewed and rooms start at $85 USD.
Where to stay and what to do in Flores
Flores is one of those places where one hostel is far and above all the other options. That place is Los Amigos hostel which has a huge selection of dorms and privates. Add in a great restaurant and bar, on-site tour agency, movie room, noise-proof nightclub (crazy, I know), and you have a seriously decked out hostel.
Dorms start at $75 Q ($10 USD) a night while private rooms are $215 Q ($28 USD) and up.
While Flores is a lovable little island set on a lake, there really isn’t that much to do. You can walk around the island and the majority of the streets in less than an hour. One full day here is enough.
If Tikal doesn’t satisfy your quench for Mayan sites, then the nearby site of Yaxha is worth a visit. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the 2005 season of Survivor was filmed here.
Serious hikers may be interested in the 5-day, 40km hike to El Mirador, which is another expansive Mayan site. El Mirador can only be reached by foot, horse or helicopter, so you will be guaranteed a much quieter experience than Tikal.
Jorge’s rope swing, just across the lake from Flores, is a fun way to spend an afternoon swinging into the lake. It’s easy to get there. Either join the Los Amigos tour, hire a kayak and paddle over or pay one of the many boat captains hanging out around the island to take you across.
Flores is also a hot-spot for learning Spanish, with numerous schools around.
For food, check out the tantalizing array of street food stores that are set up by the lake on the west side of the island. I’m sure Flores has nice restaurants as well, but I can’t see anything being better or more affordable than the street food served up here.
A larger supermarket (La Torre) is just across the bridge on the mainland. This is a good place to stock up on food and snacks for Tikal, as most of the smaller shops in Flores are very expensive.