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Tikal: the One Mayan Site That You Can’t Miss

Marisa Megan

8670 Aljezur, Portugal

Far off the tourist trail is a stunning Mayan archeological site that allows you a real glimpse into worlds passed. Unencumbered by tourist crowds and with plenty of space to find yourself alone, Tikal is the best Mayan city for off-the-beaten path explorers.

This ancient Mayan city is hidden inside of the rainforests of northern Guatemala’s Petén Province, close to the borders of Mexico and Belize. The site itself is almost 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) in size and boasts more than 3,000 ancient Mayan buildings, the most iconic of which are the ruins of temples, palaces, and grand plazas. Some of the star attractions include Mundo Perdido (Lost World) pyramid, the Twin Pyramid complexes, and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.

Tikal flourished between 200 and 850 A.D., and although historians can’t be sure of the actual population, they estimate that the city may have had up to 100,000 residents at its peak in the 700s A.D. During its heyday, Tikal was easily one of the most powerful city-states in the Americas. By 950 A.D. however, the city had been completely abandoned. Historians are still at a loss as to what caused the mass exodus.

For nearly a millennium, Tikal remained buried in Guatemala’s remote jungle. Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés passed within a few miles of the site in 1525 without uncovering it, as did American diplomat, journalist and explorer John Lloyd Stephens during his 1841 expedition into the Mayan region. While Guatemalan government archives state that there were local people living in Tikal in the 1700s, it wasn’t until 1848 when an official archeological expedition sponsored by the country’s government was sent into the jungle, that Tikal became known to the modern world.

Even though Tikal is one of the lesser-visited Mayan sites in Central America, it made its mark on pop culture early on. The six temples that dominate the skyline above the trees appeared in the 1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as the planet Yavin 4, and are often visited by fans of the franchise.

History buffs also love to make their pilgrimage to the site. Tikal was once thought to be home to the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas: Temple IV, which stands 212 feet (64 meters) high. That was until the 70’s when La Danta, one of the largest pyramids in the world at 230 feet (70 meters), was uncovered a five day trek from Tikal, in the dense jungle of the El Mirador Basin complex.

Tikal National Park is one of the only UNESCO World Heritage sites that meets the criteria for both the cultural and natural preservation programs, thanks to its archeological significance and extraordinary biodiversity. Besides the pyramids, the park is home to anteaters, pumas, jaguars, several species of monkeys, and more than 300 unique bird species, such the Keel-Billed Toucan and the exceptionally beautiful Ocellated Turkey.  

The park also falls within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which protects a total of 2.4 million acres of dense rainforest, littered with Mayan history. The Maya Biosphere was first established to protect the forests from illegal logging in 1990, and has since become one of the most important natural regions of the country.

Why Tikal is the Best Mayan Site to Visit

Avoid the Crowds

Tikal is well off the beaten path, meaning that it doesn’t get the same crowds as the more accessible Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan. There are plenty of ruins that you can soak up completely on your own, especially if you sleep nearby or make the effort to arrive semi-early.

Explore for Days

Tikal is a very extensive site — you could visit several days in a row and still not manage to see everything it has to offer. If you love ancient ruins, there’s so much here to discover.

Hike and Climb

Unlike some of the more popular Mayan sites, Tikal is still relatively unregulated in terms of where you can and can’t go. You’re not only allowed to walk on the ruins, but you can climb to the top of nearly all of the pyramids. While it takes certain fitness level to make it up so many stairs, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the Grand Plaza and the surrounding jungles, and that amazing feeling that you’re seeing the same things that the Mayans marveled at more than a millennium ago.

Get Local

Flores, the closest modern town to Tikal, is a peaceful enclave set against the breathtaking, crystal-clear Lake Petén Itzá. And there are far fewer tourists than you might imagine. Stay for a few days and you’ll get a real taste of Guatemalan culture, meet incredible people, and immerse yourself in the magic and beauty of this untouched natural paradise.

Tips for Visiting Tikal

When to go:

The crowds and temperature are relatively the same year-round; however, June through November has a bit more rain than the other months. Some see that as a refreshing break from the heat, others as a muddy annoyance.

Most visitors love to spend either sunrise or sunset at the site, but even if you miss them, it’s still wise to avoid the peak heat of the day.

Pro tip: Remember that if choose to visit Tikal at sunrise, the ticket booth at the Park’s entrance won’t be open when you arrive, so you’ll have to pre-purchase your ticket the day before. You can purchase from the ticket office itself (if you’re staying nearby), or at the bank in town.

How to get there:

Tikal is about an hour’s drive from Flores, and if you rented a car, you can easily drive to the site on your own. Rental cars are readily available at the local airport, which has flights to and from Guatemala City and Belize. Travelers without wheels can book a group shuttle in town or opt for the local bus service. There are regular busses every hour on the hour — just don’t miss them or you’ll have to wait an entire hour in the heat for the next one.

Where to Stay:

In Flores: Hotel Isla de Flores is a clean, centrally located place to stay in town with a small rooftop pool and great sunset views. On the far side of the Lake Petén Itzá you’ll find Las Lagunas, the best boutique hotel option in the area, as well as the best kept secret Hotel & Restaurante Mon Ami, which has comfortable rooms, an over-lake pier for sunbathing and swimming, and an incredible French Fusion restaurant, thanks to the French-Guatemalan family who owns the joint.

Near Tikal: if you want to stay right near Tikal itself, your only hotel option is the Jaguar Inn, located next to the park’s entrance. If having a bed isn’t a concern, you can choose to tent camp on the National Park’s grounds in the camping area. Just make sure you bring everything you need—there’s no store nearby, and the closest ATM is in Flores—and avoid camping in the rainy season.