This archaeological complex is located within the jungle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, in the north of Petén Region. Tikal is one of the largest Maya cities in the world and a Unesco site. These ruins have an area of 24 sq. km approximately but only 30% of that area has been excavated. After we observed the many large temples spread in the jungle, it gave us an idea of why Tikal became the most powerful Maya city for centuries.
The population of this Maya city grew up to about 90,000 people; it is believed that the increase in the population and the scarcity of resources created internal battles within Tikal. The city was abandoned, the jungle took over the ruins and Tikal became a legend among the indigenous people.
It was not until 1848 that Tikal was re-discovered. In the 20th century major excavations were made by the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemala government bringing the Maya temples that visitors see today back to life. Recent years, Tikal has attracted the attention of visitors worldwide, making it one of the most important ruins in the Maya Culture in Guatemala.
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Best Attractions within Tikal
From the entrance to the park to the actual site we had to walk for approximately 20 minutes through the jungle, along the way you can hear the loud noises of the howler monkeys. The first Maya attraction we encounter were a medium size pyramid with many stelae positioned in front.
These beautiful stelae used to have detailed carvings with glyphs on the stone, telling perhaps the story about this place and their rulers, however the images has been partially and in some of them totally faded. It is known that there are about 200 stelae within the site.
Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar
This temple is very impressive, this 47 meter high building has 9 tiers representing the 9 levels of the underworld. At the top, it has a detailed carved lintel depicting the King sitting on a jaguar throne.
Inside the pyramid, there is a burial site dedicated to the King Maya Jasaw Chan K’awiil I. It is not allowed to climb the pyramid but you can see the temple up close and from the other buildings near by.
Temple II or Temple of the Masks
In comparison with temple I, this building has 3 tiers only but it reaches an impressive 42 meters high. It is possible to go up to the top using a staircase made of wood at the back of the pyramid.
Located opposite to temple 1 in the main plaza, the pyramid has a lintel with a depiction of a royal woman.
Our guide told us that temple II served as a mausoleum for lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’ who was the wife of the King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I but that it was his eldest son and ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil, who is thought to have erected Templo II and Temple I in memory of his mother and father.
The Grand Plaza
Amazing panoramic view of the two temples and courtyard, Temple I (right) and Temple II (left).
A large face carved on the stone in the North Acropolis in the main courtyard.
The shrine was dedicated to the Maya god of rain: Chaac, 57 meters high it is the second largest pyramid in Tikal. The temple has mask decorations carved on the stone of the rain god.
Star Wars and the complex Temple IV
Also known as Temple of the Double head Serpent, it is the largest of the complex. This temple became famous not only for its panoramic high view but also because it was the place where a scene of the Star wars Episode IV: A New Hope movie was filmed here from this temple.
The Millenium Falcon flies over the dense jungle and a Rebel trooper (in almost the position where I am in the photo) points his gun at it.
From an archeological point of view, the temple was built as a tomb of the 27th King of Tikal Yik’in Chan K’awii. However, our guide told us that the tomb has not been found yet and he must be buried somewhere within the pyramid.
If you are a fan of Star Wars or you just would like to experience the Maya ambience, I highly recommend to go up all the stairs and get to the top. You will get regarded with an amazing view of the Guatemala Jungle.
Although, I mentioned the Top temples are not to be missed, there are many other temples to visit in Tikal, but this post will be very very long if I described them all. I suggest to visit these other temples: Lost world complex, temple of the inscriptions, temple of the skulls and Talud temple (picture below).
To buy tickets for visiting Tikal visitors have two options:
**** Important: Either option requires a copy of your passport.*****
Buy it onsite at the park’s gate: Although you will have to make a queue to get your tickets which can be slow sometimes, I suggest to do this because the boards of prices and attractions are all listed there beside the entry. The agency who collects the money is a mobile office of Bankrural bank.
Buy it through a BankRural bank agency: either at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, at the Flores Mundo Maya International Airport or at the immigration building in Melchor de Mencos (on the Belize-Guatemala border, on the Guatemalan side). However, you have to think in advance which are the attractions that you would like to pay for in advance: visit Tikal only, visit the 2 museums or do the sunrise tour and / or the sunset tour.
Note the following:
- Tikal National Park is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day of the week, 365 days a year.
- There is no ATM or bank in Tikal, visitors will have to bring enough cash in Quetzals to pay the entrance fee and guide (optional). The park does not accept foreign currency or credit cards.
- Once in the park, the park officers will give you the bracelets for each of the attraction that you want to see.
The following prices (expressed in Quetzals) are accurate at the time this post was written. For future purposes it can give you an idea of how much you need.
- Tikal general entrance includes a visit to the ruins only: 150 Q for foreigners; children under 12 are free of charge.
- To visit the 2 Museums, you have to pay an extra of 30 Q – Lithics museum and the Sylvannus Morley museum
- Sunrise tour 100 Q
- Sunset tour 100 Q
- Camping site 50 Q (if you would like to camp on a site nearby the ruins.
- Uaxactun 50 Q
Guides in Tikal
Optional but if you would like to hire a licensed guide on the park, it will cost $50 for 1-5 persons, $8-10 per extra person, up to $100 maximum charge. If you join a group, you may pay as little as $6-8 per person.
How to get to Tikal
Hiring a tour: I recommend hiring a tour; the tour only includes transportation and a travel guide. The tour costs 100-125Q per person including the guide or 70-90 Q just transport. The tour does not include the park fees but it will save you a lot of time if you do not want to worry about transport.
By yourself: There are several types of second-class buses that go to and from Tikal every 1-hour that departs from Santa Elena station.
Best time to visit Tikal
To avoid the crowds and the heat, It is best to visit Tikal on a weekday, in the very early morning or late afternoon.
- If you visit Tikal at Sunrise:
The best way to experience the sunrise of Tikal is by hiring a tour. The tour will pick you up from the hostel or hotel at 3 am (early wake up!), it is 1.30 drive to the site. It is a must to bring a flashlight of your phone given that you will have to walk through the jungle in the dark. It is from temple IV where you sit down and wait for the sunrise. Something important that you must know is that everything depends on the weather, sometimes the sky is foggy covering most of the landscape.
- If you visit Tikal at Sunset:
Some visitors opt for spending the sunset hours in Tikal, staying in the park for extended hours of 6-8pm. The Mundo Perdido pyramid is often chosen for viewing the sunset, at your time of visit your guide will try to find the best viewing spot.
Important: *****If you do the Sunset or Sunrise tour you need to be accompanied by a guide****
What Things to bring?
- It’s best to pack a sandwich or some snacks. There is no food sold within the ruins except drinks and small snacks. The only restaurants available is the one at the entrance, 20 minutes walk from the ruins.
- Hat, sun protection and mosquito repellent
- Copy of passport
- Wear comfortable shoes.
Where to stay
Although you can splash your travel budget and stay in hotels very close by the ruins. Your second option is to stay in the town of Flores. Just 45 minutes away from Tikal.
Have you been to Tikal? How was your experience? What other Maya Ruins in Guatemala would you recommend? We would love to hear your comments.