One of the absolute HIGHLIGHTS of my trip to Guatemala was exploring and learning more about Tikal. Tikal is a ruin of an ancient Maya city (dating back to 900 BC) and in my opinion an even more impressive Mayan site than Chichen-Itza in Mexico. It’s also one of the largest archaeological sites in the world. Back in the day, it was “one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya” (according to my tour guide and Wikipedia). It was also the LARGEST Mayan city in Mesoamerica. Archaeologists estimate roughly half a million people lived in this area over time.
Thanks to the University of Pennsylvania, in the ’50’s – ’70’s, archaeologists uncovered over 200 monuments at Tikal. They helped map, excavate, and restore Tikal. According to Smithsonian Magazine, to date, only 15% of Tikal is uncovered! There’s still so much more work to be done here.
The park itself is massive, the jungle covers about 222 square miles and the Tikal residential site covers 23 square miles. The guided tour of Tikal wraps through palaces, ball courts, monuments, temples and stones with carvings on them. When you visit, you get to climb to the top of the temples where the Maya astronomers made calculations to determine their calendar. On the tour, you’ll also learn more about the theories as to why the Maya empire collapsed (including a drought and war). Overall, I HIGHLY recommend visiting Tikal National Park at some point in your lifetime. Below are five tips for anyone visiting for the first time:
1. Hire A Guide
There is absolutely no way you can visit Tikal without hiring a guide to clue you in on what you’re looking at. I heard of people on the road going without a guide and you just won’t get the same experience. We actually had THE best guide ever and I HIGHLY recommend him. If you book through the Jungle Lodge Hotel, ask for Tony. He grew up in Tikal and knows it really well.
2. Go On The Extended Sunrise Tour
The sunrise tour isn’t enough, make sure you ask for the *extended* sunrise tour. It gives you a few extra hours in the park, which I thought were MUCH needed to get the full experience. Also, when we hiked up Temple IV at 4:30 AM, we couldn’t see anything due to fog. Since we were on the extended tour, our guide allowed enough time to go back for us to see the view. Thankfully, at that point, we were able to see more! Sunrise is also the best chance to see wildlife. So, even if you don’t do the extended tour option I would still opt for sunrise versus later in the day.
3. Stay At The Jungle Lodge Hotel & Hostel
Per tip #2, I recommend staying INSIDE the national park for a super unique experience. Howler monkeys and spider monkeys are just about everywhere, it’s a really cool park to spend some time in. We spent one night and two days here, which is sufficient!
I believe there are only 3 hotel properties IN the park and this is one of the nicer ones with multiple room options for any budget (it’s a hotel AND hostel). Also, by staying in the park, you will get an extra hour of sleep. If you book a tour from Flores, you’ll have to leave before 330AM to get there in time for sunrise.
The Jungle Lodge has a pool area, restaurant, and friendly staff. The rooms in the hotel are spacious and clean and some even come with their own jacuzzi and lounge area on a outdoor patio area. The WiFi is not super strong, but you should recognize you’re in a jungle so it’s a great opportunity to disconnect and be one with nature 🙂
4. Bring A Camera & Binoculars
Obviously you’ll want to remember your camera to take pictures of the ruins, but there are also loads of opportunities to see wildlife. All over the park you can spot howler monkeys, spider monkeys, falcons, toucans, parrots, white-nosed coatis, and wild turkeys, etc. On our hike, we heard howlers, saw a bunch of coatis and also had a chance to see an ocellated turkey!
You may also consider bringing a pair of binoculars. You don’t NEED THEM, but I thought it would have been a “nice to have” at the top of the temples. For those of you with professional cameras, definitely bring a zoom lens to capture the view from the top of Temple IV. It’s unbelievable. This also happens to be the filming location where Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope filmed this scene.
5. Check The Weather
No matter WHAT time of year you go, definitely bring and wear tennis shoes. I went in October, which is right at the cusp of rainy season, so our day could have gone a number of ways! We had a cloudy and foggy day and it was a bit humid. In summer, I can imagine it getting pretty hot here. Tikal is in a rain forest and most of the hike is under a canopy of trees so consider this when deciding what to wear!
Tikal National Park Photo Gallery
Please note I was welcomed as a guest by Jungle Lodge Hotel & Hostel. As always, all opinions are my own.
Need to know what to do in Flores? See this article on what to do with 24 hours in Flores
Visiting more of Guatemala? Check out this hotel in Antigua
Heading to Belize? Here are some Belize travel tips