The Mayan Ruins of Tikal from Flores

Tikal National Park, views of the grand plaza during the sunset tour

The Mayan Ruins of Tikal from Flores

Tikal National Park rightly holds its spot as arguably the most popular and well-known destinations in Guatemala.  There are hidden gems like Semuc Champey and colonial towns like Antigua, but none can compare to the grandeur of the ancient ruins of Tikal.   Teotihuacan ruins are one of the highlights of our time in Mexico, but would Tikal live up to all the hype?

Stepping off that cramped minibus in the pouring rain with the mist rising above the trees and the howler monkeys screeching in the distance, it was clear that Tikal was going to be an adventure of the senses…

Tikal Ruins

In the heart of the Guatemalan jungle lies the UNESCO heritage site, Tikal National Park.  Tikal is now surrounded by lush jungle vegetation but was once one of the major hubs for the Mayan civilisation.

When Was Tikal Built?

Tikal was once home to around 60,000 Maya and held jurisdiction over numerous other cities spread through the jungle from the Yucatán Peninsula to the west of Honduras.  The earliest dated structure discovered within Tikal is named Stela 29, which is thought to have been built in 292 AD.  The civilisation was inhabited from 6th century BC to 10th century AD.  Temple IV is thought to have been erected in 741 AD, this dizzying pyramid reaches a height of 212 feet, which is the tallest Maya structure ever.

Location of Tikal

Tikal National Park is found within the Maya forest, located in Northern Guatemala’s Petén Province.  The forest extends into neighbouring countries Mexico and Belize.

One of the ruins in Tikal National Park, Guatemala

The Tikal Sunset Tour

People constantly told me to book either the sunrise or sunset tour when heading to Tikal.  Of course, the idea of getting up at 2:30 am for the sunrise tour sent shivers down my spine.  Instead, we opted to treat ourselves to a bit of a lie in and went for the sunset tour.  There are plenty of tour agencies who you can book your tour through around Flores.  We booked our tour through our hostel, Los Amigos, for 100 GTQ (13.75 USD).

Another reason we chose the sunset tour, was due to the weather.  There’s a high chance we would have woke up at 2:30 am, to overcast weather, all to see absolutely no sunrise at all.  However, the same could be said about sunset, if it’s overcast, you’ll see nothing as well.  It’s a tough choice, but the early start meant the sunset tour won.

Rather than leaving Flores at an ungodly hour of 3 am, we set off in a cramped minibus at 12:30 pm.  2 hours later, we arrived at the entrance to Tikal National Park.  As you may well know, any historical site in Central America where you pay to enter, will do anything to squeeze every penny out of you.  Usually the entrance fee to Tikal National Park is 150 GTQ (20.50 USD), however, for anyone doing the sunset tour, it’s an extra 100 GTQ, as we would be leaving after ‘closing time’.  The funny thing is, some people refused to pay the extra 100 GTQ, even with the threat they would get thrown out at closing.  Guess what, they didn’t get thrown out and they left at exactly the same time as us.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The first temple in Tikal National Park

The centrepiece of Tikal is the Grand Plaza, which is surrounded by Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar) and Temple II (Temple of the Masks).  You can climb Temple II which gives you fantastic views of the whole plaza.  The view really gives you an idea of the impressive scale of the temples in Tikal.

a view of the grand plaza and temple 1 in tikal national park

Grand Plaza and Temple I

Temple 1 from the front in tikal national park

Temple I

A brisk walk through the jungle’s up next.  Don’t be surprised if you spot plenty of wildlife on your way to Temple IV.  We saw (mainly heard) the screeching howler monkeys in the tree tops.  Our guide also pointed out; spider monkeys, parrots and toucans.

The ascent up Temple IV is the final climb of the trip and the spot where you’ll hopefully see the sunset.  It has to be said, the view from the top of the temple is incredible, with the surrounding temples poking above the thick jungle treetops.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see a sunset.  In fact, we couldn’t even see the sun when it was up, so we should have known we wouldn’t see a sunset.

The view from the top of temple iv in tikal national park

The view from the top of Temple IV

The sunset which is covered by the cloud from the top of temple iv in tikal national park

The most we saw of the sunset

Is it Worth Doing the Sunset Tour of Tikal?

We didn’t see any of the sunset at all.  However, that being said, the tour around Tikal is fantastic and informative.  Although we didn’t see the sunset, it was good to relax on top of Temple IV, taking in the peaceful surroundings with just the sound of a few howler monkeys in the distance.  Another plus with the sunset tour is that you don’t have to trek around the jungle and temples in the midday Guatemalan heat, which I can’t imagine isn’t too fun… Or dry.

However, the extra 100 GTQ to stay in the park after close, is a bit pricey and over the top.  You wouldn’t pay the extra 100 GTQ in the day, but you would have to pay this for the sunrise tour.

How to get to Tikal from Flores

As you may know, I avoid organised tours wherever possible.  However, due to the distance of Tikal and the lack of convenient public transport, I would make the rare recommendation of taking an organised tour.  The drive from Flores to Tikal will take around 2 hours.  Whether that drive is in a luxury coach or cramped up minibus.  Of course, if you’re booking a budget tour, chances are you’ll be in a packed out minibus.  You get used to being constantly cramped in Central America!

5 Tikal Facts You Might Not Know

1. Tikal is thought to be derived from ti ak’al in the Yucatec Maya language.  Which is said to be a comparatively modern name meaning “at the waterhole”.

2. Spaniard Hernan Cortes passed within a few miles of Tikal ruins in 1525, however, he didn’t mention them in his letters.

3. Tikal was more recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

4. The Tikal National Park spans across 222.33 square miles and was founded in 1955.  Becoming the first protected area in Guatemala.

5. According to Archaeologists, Tikal was once the capital of a conquest state which became one of the most dominant kingdoms of the ancient Maya.

Another one of the ruins in tikal national park near the grand plaza

Where to Stay in Flores

Los Amigos – I would 100% recommend staying at Los Amigos hostel during your time in Flores.  There’s the choice of dorms or private rooms.  There’s a trusted onsite travel agent, where you can book your tour and transport to your next destination.  Also, there is an onsite bar and restaurant.  This hostel really does have it all.

Check out more destinations in Guatemala.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.

Have you been to Tikal National Park before? Would you take the sunset tour?  Or would you opt for the very early sunrise tour or even the day tours?

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