Tikal National Park in Guatemala is an architectural and cultural marvel that transports you back in time to the fascinating Mayan civilization. It’s a place where history, nature and adventure coalesce to create a once in a lifetime experience for intrepid travelers. In this article, we explain why this archaeological gem should be at the top of your bucket-list and highlight some of the best tours in Tikal to help you have an immersive trip.
Nestled in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, close to Flores, Tikal sprawls for 576 km². It was once a thriving Mayan city and is now a UNESCO site. As you enter, the dense canopy of trees envelopes you and the air becomes heavy with a sense of mystery. Over 3,000 ancient structures are to be found here, dating back to the 2nd century B.C. Tikal reached its peak during the Classic period, which lasted from 200 to 900 AD, and boasted a population of up to 90,000. The area was a center of trade, politics and culture, and the impressive architecture still stands to this day.
Perhaps the most iconic structure in Tikal is Temple I or the Temple of the Great Jaguar. The monument rises majestically above the treetops and makes for a fantastic photo-op, particularly from Temple II – the Temple of the Masks – which is one of the only structures in the park that you are allowed to climb. From there, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Great Jaguar as well as other temples peeking out from the jungle.
Temple II got its name from the haunting stone masks that adorn its facade. These masks represent deities and provide a glimpse into the spiritual beliefs of the Maya. For those seeking an Indiana Jones adventure, Temple IV is an absolute must. Dubbed the Two-Headed Serpent Temple, this is the tallest structure in Tikal – standing at close to 70 meters. The wooden staircase has almost 200 steps, so it’s a decent workout, but the views from the top make it worth the effort – especially at sunrise or sunset where you can see the outstretched jungle blanked in gorgeous light.
Beyond these famous temples, Tikal offers a plethora of other extraordinary structures to appreciate. For example: the Central Acropolis is a complex of palaces, plazas and buildings that make you feel like you have stepped into an ancient neighborhood; while the Lost World Complex, tucked away in a remote corner of the park, showcases an enormous pyramid and a handful other small temples that hint at mysteries yet to be unraveled.
What makes Tikal even more incredible is its natural surroundings. By hiking in the rainforest, you will encounter a variety of flora and fauna. The jungle teems with colorful birds, monkeys swing through the trees and you might be lucky enough to spot a jaguar prowling in the distance. Tikal truly is a paradise for archaeology buffs and nature enthusiasts alike. To make the most of your visit, we suggest booking one of the experiences with Tikal VIP Tours – a 5-star rated company that runs responsibly guided educational trips to Mayan archaeological sites, led by local legend Elmer.
4 Best Tours of Tikal National Park
1. Private Day Tour of Tikal
The private day tour of Tikal is perfect for groups of between 1 – 15 people – with pick-up and drop-off options for hotels in Flores or El Remate, or the Flores Airport. The tour can be delivered in Spanish or English and includes the following: round-trip transport, park fees, lunch, water, and photo taking from the guide (Elmer). After being collected at 7:00 am, you will have the chance to explore Tikal for five hours with Elmer taking you to impressive temples and sharing interesting stories about the sites.
Lunch takes place near the park and then there is two hours of free time to walk around Flores (ideal for those based in El Remate or for people flying in and out in a day who haven’t seen Flores yet). At 17:00 pm, you will arrive back at your hotel or the airport. Entrance tickets need to be purchased ahead of time so ensure you bring your passport as that is required for foreigners. Other items to pack in your bag for the day are cash, a camera, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray and any personal medications.
2. Private Day Tour of Tikal from Belize
The private day tour of Tikal from Belize is similar to the one above but with a few logistical differences. For starters, you need to cross the border and then you can be picked up by Elmer on the Guatemalan side. From the border, you are transported to Tikal National Park to commence the walking tour. About four hours of time visiting the most impressive Mayan complexes and temples is afforded, before stopping for a delicious lunch at a local restaurant near the park. At 16:00 pm, your private group of between 1 – 15 people will be dropped back at the border to cross back into Belize.
If you rent a car in Belize and drive to the border, there is a parking lot to use (sometimes a small fee is charged). It’s safe to park here as security guards and cameras protect the area. When going through Belize customs, a $20 USD fee is charged to leave the country but not to re-enter. This can be paid with cash. Check to ensure you receive a stamp in your passport and then, as you leave customs, you will see Elmer. He will take you through Guatemala customs. The final stop before the tour begins is to an ATM to withdraw quetzal, so you have spending money for the day.
3. Private Sunrise Tour of Tikal
Make sure you get a good night’s sleep, and set your alarm early (before 3:00 am), because Elmer will pick you up at your hotel at 3:15 am for arrival at Tikal National Park at 4:20 am. The tour starts by enjoying a nice walk through the Mayan archaeological site en-route to Temple IV – the Two-Headed Serpent Temple. Once here, your group is led up the stairway to the top where the lookout point is located. After soaking up a glorious sunset and taking plenty of photos, you descend the temple to check out the rest of Tikal. At 9:30 am, the tour ends with a drive back to Flores.
4. Private Sunset Tour of Tikal
The sunset version is more suited to those who don’t like the idea of waking up at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am, as the pick-up time is 12:00 pm. The first stop will be for lunch and then it’s time to tour around the temples of Tikal. By staying until 18:30 pm, your group will be given the opportunity to witness a beautiful sunset over the Mayan structures and the surrounding rainforest. Drop-off at your Flores hotel or at the airport will be at around 20:00 pm, giving you just enough time to grab a late night dinner.