Guide to Ancient Mayan City of Tikal in Guatemala

Updated on January 21, 2023 by Meg

Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Tikal National Park in Guatemala preserves the site of one of the world’s most major Mayan cultural, commercial and ceremonial centers. It’s believed that the area was first settled by the Mayans in about 900 B.C., and that it grew to a peak population of about 100,000, and began its mysterious decline at the end of the 9th century.

The Mayan people of ancient times left an astonishing legacy that is so visionary and accomplished it is hard to comprehend how their empire crumbled. The academic and scientific community still puzzles over the reasons for the dramatic decline of the Mayan society after decades of research and study.

Mayan Temple II Tikal National Park Guatemala
Mayan Temple II at Tikal National Park – Guatemala

That enigma makes visiting Tikal all that much more intriguing. The architecture’s enormity of scale as well as its detailed and intricate carvings invite awe and wonder. The Tikal monuments all attest to the Mayans’ prowess in art, astronomy, and mathematics.

Tikal Temple, Temple of Jaguar, Temple of the Sun God in Guatemala
Tikal Temple, Temple of Jaguar, Temple of the Sun God in Guatemala

The sheer size of Tikal National Park makes visitors realize it was the urban metropolis of its day. The site spans about 222 square miles, and the main historical complex encompasses more than 3,000 structures across six square miles.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 because of its important significance to humanity as “an outstanding example of the art and human genius of the Maya,” the Tikal archaeological complex includes Pre-Colombian palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, ball-game courts, terraces. with evocative names like Great Plaza, the Lost World Complex, and Twin Pyramid Complexes.

Making the Journey to Tikal National Park

If you’re enthralled by this massive sacred and fascinating Mayan epicenter, then let us help you plan a visit! Our first recommendation: Take your trip to Tikal in Guatemala via Belize. Why?

Tikal National Park is located in Guatemala’s Petén Province. Peten is the country’s northernmost department and also its biggest, accounting for about one third of Guatemala’s size. Peten is bordered by Belize on the east, Mexico to the north and the Guatemalan departments of Alta Verapaz and Izabal to the south.

Tikal can be reached by car in about two hours from San Ignacio Town in western Belize. Compare that with the drive from Guatemala’s capital of Guatemala City to Tikal, which is about 325 miles and takes about 8 – 10 hours. The road trip from another popular Guatemalan destination, the Colonial city of Antigua, is about 351 miles and takes around 11.5 hours.

Another option is to fly into Flores, the capital of the Peten Department. This small city is served by the Mundo Maya International Airport, and it’s about an hour from Tikal.

Getting the Lay of the Land in Guatemala

Tikal Map
Map of Tikal and the surrounding areas.

Guatemala is one of the seven nations that make up Central America and it is situated south of Mexico. To the east is Belize, and to the south are El Salvador and Honduras. Guatemala’s history includes the 2,000 B.C. Mayan civilization, the Spanish invasion from 1525 to 1698, and a period of socioeconomic and political upheaval from the late 19th century to the establishment of democracy in 1997.

The decade-year-long Guatemalan Revolution that went from 1944 – 1954, and the 30-year-long Guatemalan Civil War that ran from 1960 – 1996 both aimed to remove the country’s exploitative authoritarian government, and end racial discrimination against the indigenous population.

The majority of Guatemala still suffers from injustice and poverty, therefore visitors should take precautions. Avoid Guatemala City and travel with a local guide if possible.

What to Expect Traveling From Belize to Tikal

I travelled from Chaa Creek Lodge in western Belize to Tikal with my husband Tom and our guide George Hernandez. We soon reached the border with Guatemala and sat in George’s van while we waited for him to complete the necessary paperwork in the concrete immigration building.

Once he hopped back in the vehicle, he suggested we pull over at the gas station ahead, warning us it would be a lengthy, rough ride with no amenities en route. My heart accelerated a little as I watched Tom take the key to the men’s room from a uniformed soldier brandishing a rifle. Back on the dirt road again, after a few miles, we passed an army base, where armed men in camouflage fatigues could be seen scanning the horizon.

De Candelarias à Aguateca near Tikal Guatemala
De Candelarias à Aguateca near Tikal Guatemala – Photo: Emilien Lebourgeois / Flickr

Despite Guatemala’s 36-year civil war coming to an end in 1996, the military is still deployed near Belize’s border. Later, we learned that thousands of Maya from Guatemala relocated to Belize in order to avoid falling victim to “ethnic cleansing.” After the Caste War, which saw the Maya rebel against people of European descent’s economic and political dominance, Hernandez’s father was among those who immigrated from Guatemala to Belize.

As we bounced along the rutted road, Hernandez pumped the brakes as we rode over speed bumps that marked the entrance of small settlements, each of which consisted of only a few bright houses with palm or tin roofs and a horse nibbling grass in the yard. From the car window, we watched men slashing at luxuriant greenery with machetes, and fat pigs taking their time moving out of the way of approaching cars. Women in brightly patterned apparel strolled along the road carrying large urns on their heads, and uniformed kids played basketball and soccer at Roman Catholic schools.

Roadside Arts and Crafts Market near Tikal National Park
Roadside Arts and Crafts Market near Tikal National Park – Photo: Meg Pier

We pulled down at a roadside arts and crafts market as we got closer to Tikal National Park to pick up Armando Bishop, who would be our tour guide for the monuments. In the few hours we had, he was eager to show us as much of the 222 square miles of the park as he could. People frequently spend up to three days exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s history and wildlife environment.

We were surprised by the lack of tourists, nevertheless. Bishop felt this was a reflection of the world’s archaeological community concentrating its attention outside of the Americas. He was justifiably disgruntled that the Mayans’ advancements in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and written language didn’t get the recognition that those of the Egyptians have.

Good to Know If You Go To Tikal

  • Tikal National Park is open daily from 6 am to 5 pm
  • Adult tickets for foreigners cost 150 GTQ (roughly $20 USD).
  • Children under 12 can enter Tikal free of charge.
  • Visiting Uaxactun, another ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization 12 miles north of Tikal, costs an additional 50 GTQ.
  • If you sign up for a sunrise tour and enter the park before 6 am, the ticket fee is 250 GTQ (roughly $32 USD)
  • Tickets purchased after 3 pm are also valid for the next day.
  • Tickets can’t be purchased online. However, you can book tours online. All of the tours below are highly recommended.

Tips For Your Trip to Tikal

  • Guatemala and Belize have a tropical climate similar to that of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most visitors come during the dry season, which runs from October to May.
  • Bring plenty of bottled drinking water and sunscreen.
  • There are no ATMs in Tikal so make sure to bring enough cash with you.

Temple IV at Tikal

We spent a half-hour strolling along leafy trails from the park’s entrance to Tikal’s grand Temple IV without seeing a single person. We were able to spot wildlife we would not have known was there thanks to Bishop’s knowledge of the sounds made by local birds, the spots where insects like to hide, and which species are most likely to be rustling the trees. In addition to tarantulas the size of a man’s hand and hard-shelled horned beetles that were nearly as large, we also saw crocodiles, a family of spider monkeys, keel-billed toucans, and brown-speckled bats that blended in with the tree bark from which they were hanging.

Large Insects Tikal Guatemala
Large Insects at Tikal – Photo: Meg Pier

We stopped at a “lesser” pyramid complex, which was nonetheless enormous, around halfway to Temple IV. The sight of our first ruin gave me chills despite the oppressive heat. The enchantment was broken when we arrived at Temple IV. It was surrounded by scaffolding, people were milling about the base, and we had to ascend plank stairs in a single file among British, German, and Spanish exclamations.

There was good reason that the base of Temple IV was crowded with fellow tourists eager to experience the vista at its top. At 210 feet in height, the apex of the monument is above the forest canopy, providing a spectacular view of the vast expanse of green treetops that extend to the horizon on all sides, with the grey crowns of Tikal’s three other tallest monuments visible above the jungle tree line.

The iconic scene is a familiar one to the millions who have seen George Lucas’ Star Wars film “Episode IV: A New Hope”. Fans will recognize the surroundings as the rebel base where Luke Skywalker took off to destroy the Death Star and save his people from the clutches of Darth Vader.

Panoramic View of the Tikal Ruins
Panoramic View of the Tikal Ruins – Photo: Meg Pier

Despite jostling with other travelers for the best camera angle, I felt gratitude for the privilege of witnessing a view that likely was accessible only to Mayan royalty. Temple IV, also known as Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent, was built to honor the 27th king of the Tikal dynasty, Yik’in Chan K’awiil. According to archaeologists, he was one of Tikal’s 33 rulers, one of which is known to have been a queen, during the course of the metropolis’ 800-year existence.

Detail of Mayan Figure on Stela - Yaxha - Peten - Guatemala
Detail of Mayan Figure on Stela – Photo: Adam Jones

How do archaeologist’s reach their conclusions? Through the interpretation of glyphs etched into stelae, which are carved stone slabs that feature commemorative text. Glyphs, short for hieroglyphs, are pictorial symbols that formed the writing system of the Maya. These images depict everyday, familiar sights like animals and people. The glyphs were in use from about 300 B.C. until the 17th century, when the Spanish abolished it, making the script go extinct, unknown even to Mayans.

Where To Stay near Tikal

Here are some highly-rated hotels that cater to all budgets.

The Great Plaza, the heart of Tikal

The religious ceremonies and games were held in the Great Plaza, which served as Tikal’s centre. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar rises out of the lush ground to the east, facing the only somewhat smaller Temple of the Masks. The vast Central Acropolis is located opposite the North Acropolis on the south side.

Grand Plaza at Tikal Guatemala
Grand Plaza at Tikal Guatemala – Photo: amslerPIX / Flickr

Tom and I looked around each structure. We came face-to-face with a red fox as we turned a bend on the Central Acropolis; it appeared to be as shocked as we were and promptly turned tail.

Throughout our journey, we kept running into the number nine, a sacred number to the Maya. Each building had a similar design with nine storeys and nine steep steps on each level, which left weary legs at the end of the day. According to Bishop, the Maya only ascended the steps during significant ceremonial events, and they likely did it while crouching on their hands and knees.

Tikal Guatemala Grand Plaza
The Great Plaza, the heart of Tikal – Photo: Meg Pier

The University of Pennsylvania carried out a significant portion of the archaeology work in this area. Their method of excavation, which was followed by many others in the Americas, concentrated on preserving only one side of each structure while leaving the others largely unaltered and covered in moss and greenery.

Bishop told us that archaeologists have been excavating Tikal since the 1950s, but have yet to definitively determine the reason for its decline and abandonment. He said the most accepted theory is that the site became overpopulated, which led to the depletion of natural resources, drought, starvation, disease, and war.

Temple 38 - Tikal Archaeological Site - Peten - Guatemala
Temple 38 – Tikal Archaeological Site – Photo: Adam Jones

This revelation made Tom and me realize that perhaps the puzzle of why Tikal became uninhabited was not so mysterious after all. Many places around the world are facing the same challenges, and could easily befall the same fate. While that thought was sobering, it was also an affirmation that across time and space, we humans are still trying to meet the same wants and needs successfully.

Other Mayan Sites to Visit from Cayo District in Belize

Xunantunich

Xunantunich Belize
Xunantunich Belize – Photo: Denis BarthelCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This significant ceremonial site is accessible via a hand-cranked boat across the Mopan River and is home to “El Castillo,” one of Belize’s tallest structures, as well as a remarkable carving of Maya gods in stucco. The ferry is situated in the Cayo District town of San Jose Succotz on the Western Highway.

Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech Jul
Cahal Pech Jul – Photo: Denis BarthelCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On a hill overlooking San Ignacio, this location is found in the Cayo District. 34 buildings, the tallest of which is 77 feet high, make up its center. It is one of the earliest Maya settlements in the Maya lowlands, dating to approximately 1200 B.C.

El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna

Tzunuun El Pilar
Tzunuun El Pilar – Photo: Congobongo1041CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This spot offers breathtaking views of the Belize River Valley and is situated 10 miles north of Bullet Tree Falls in the Cayo District. Tikal is 32 miles away from El Pilar.


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