Tikal | Getting Lost in the Land of the Maya

Nothing says adventure quite like cutting through swaths of tropical rainforest to find yourself face-to-face with the fantastic ruins of a lost civilization. Visiting Tikal, an ancient Mayan city located deep in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest, is having that adventure fulfilled in every conceivable way. For anyone who’s ever felt an explorer’s blood coursing through their veins, Tikal is an absolute must-visit destination.

What You Need To Know

While getting to the middle of a rainforest has its challenges, none of them are insurmountable, and many of them can be avoided by traveling at the right time of year. Guatemala’s rainy season runs from May to October, while the dry season runs from November to April. The dry season is cooler, and is generally the better time to go, though the rainy season has drier pockets in August as well. If you do choose to go during the rainy season, be aware of high heat and humidity, and be sure to hydrate regularly.

While Tikal is accessible from several different cities, the most common access points are Flores, Guatemala City, and San Ignacio (Belize). Flights can be arranged to get you as far as Flores, which is still approximately 75 minutes from the ruins, as they are located in a national park. It’s quite easy to hop on a group tour bus, though if you prefer privacy there is a rental car option.

Before you arrive at Tikal, be sure that you have local cash on you. The park does not feature any ATMs, and you will need to give a cash payment of GTQ 150 (approx. 20USD) to get into the park. There are also several shops, museums, and restaurants inside as well – all of which are cash only – so plan accordingly. It is possible to overnight in the park, either at a lodge such as the Tikal Inn, or through camping. EIther way, be sure to bring plenty of food, water, and gear in addition to your jungle-appropriate attire.

Exploring the Ruins

Once you’ve made your way through the jungle, you’ll find that there are plenty of things to do in Tikal. While a guide is recommended, you can also choose to explore independently. Either way, be sure to first head to the Great Plaza in order to view its breathtaking restored temples up close. There’s a lot to take in here, so be sure to climb the accessible structures and platforms to get the best views and photographs. Afterward, head over to the Plaza of the Seven Temples to view both the temples themselves and the famed Mayan ballcourts. From here, head to the nearby Mundo Perdido (Lost World) to explore the largest ceremonial complex on site.

Outside of these largely restored areas, there are a plethora of overgrown temples hidden back in the jungle. Of these temples, the most popular one to visit is Temple IV, the tallest temple on site and one that allows for gorgeous views of the jungle once you climb to the top. Pop culture nerds will note that this site also appears as the Rebel base on Yavin IV in Star Wars: A New Hope.

For a smaller scale encounter with intricate Mayan carvings, head to the Stelae Museums to see preserved ancient monuments from the site. While they aren’t as grand as the temples outside, these are certainly a sight worth seeing. If you’re more drawn to nature, consider dropping by the jungle canopy tour just outside the entrance before you call it a day.

More Mayan Adventures

While Tikal is certainly the grandest of the Mayan ruins in Guatemala (and perhaps the world), it is not the only Mayan experience located in the area. Uaxactun, a Mayan settlement home to the oldest known complete astronomical complex, is directly accessible from Tikal via bus starting in the afternoon. Camping and more traditional lodging options are also available in the area.

If you’re willing to travel a bit further afield, there are more Mayan adventures to be had throughout Guatemala. Those looking to get even more lost in the jungle should check out El Mirador, the “lost” Mayan capital which has, to date, been little explored. The ruins contain some of the largest Mayan pyramids ever discovered. Elsewhere, the ruins of Yaxha provide a serene, lakeside adventure, and Nakum provides an excellent window into a live archaeological dig.

Over the border, near San Ignacio, Belize, adventure awaits in Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave. The caverns here once served as an entrance to the Mayan underworld and played host to ceremonies involving human sacrifice. Mayan pottery and the bones of sacrifice victims are still perfectly preserved within, making the trip through the cave a truly unforgettable experience. Please be advised that hiking, swimming, and climbing are required for this activity.

Food and Lodging

As Tikal is the central attraction in the area, most hotels and restaurants in the region are clustered around the entrance, though it is possible to stay in cities like San Ignacio if Tikal is not the sole reason for your visit. In terms of local lodging, the aforementioned Tikal Inn is a good midrange option, as are the Jungle Lodge Tikal Hostal and the Jaguar Inn. Each option runs around US$50/night. For something a bit more luxurious (US$100), both the Jungle Lodge Hotel and the Camino Real Tikal offer fine accommodations and pools; the latter offers one of the area’s best restaurants.

While the Jungle Lodge Hotel’s restaurant comes highly rated, other hotels have their own restaurants as well. Be advised that these can be hit or miss, depending on the season and ingredients. Meals are solid more often than not, however, and tend to offer traditional Guatemalan cuisine – great for those looking to expand their international palettes. Non-hotel restaurants, or comedores, can be found near the national park entrance, and Comedor Imperial Okan Arin is among the best of them. A coffee shop is also located nearby. While food options are decent, it’s safe to say that Tikal is not a foodie’s paradise. Those looking for finer cuisine are better off exploring some of the nearby cities, and should consider their accommodation accordingly.

Header photo by DEZALB on Pixabay

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