How To See The Best Of Tikal

Tikal is one of the most impressive archaeological site and urban center of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in all Mesoamerica.  It is located in El Peten in the northeast area of Guatemala. It is the second largest Maya pyramid site in Central America, only after El Mirador, just a few miles from Tikal.

Tikal, which counts with buildings from as early as the 4th century BC, was the capital of what became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.

Grand Plaza

It is believed that the Maya constructed this city in honor of the Mayan rulers and deities. The temples and hieroglyphic demonstrate not only architectural genius, but also show traces of a civilization far more advanced than many ever believed. Still, the Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed after 900 AD, leaving the city lost at the mercy of the jungle’s cover.  That is until it was rediscovered in 1848, when it sparked a lot of interest from explorers and travelers alike. It was declared a Cultural and Natural Heritage by UNESCO in 1979.

Exploring Tikal

Since the site is so big, there is so much to see that one day won’t be enough to see it all.  But, if you just have one day, here’s what you should do to get the most of it. The park is open from 6:00am till 6:00pm and the entrance fee is 150Q (aprox. $20).  Try to get there as early as possible.

There are many ways to get to Tikal: by air from Guatemala City to Flores, by bus from Flores (1 hour away), and by bus from Belize City (5 hours away).

What To See

Only a fraction of Tikal’s over 3,000 buildings have been excavated and restored.  Out of those, these are the ones that you shouldn’t miss.

Grand Plaza – This is the most recognized place of the whole complex as it was the center of civic ceremonial activities of the Mayan culture.  It is surrounded by Temples I and II, a Mayan ball game, and a series of palaces.

Grand Plaza and Temple I Tikal Guatemala
Grand Plaza and Temple I

Temple I –Built in 734 AD, this temple is also known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar because of a lintel that represents a king sitting upon a jaguar throne. Although not the tallest temple with a height of 143 feet, its size makes it an impressive icon at the Grand Plaza, the heart of Tikal.  Inside was found the tomb of the ruler Jasaw K’awiil Chan, whose replica is located in the Ceramic Museum.

Temple II Tikal Guatemala
Temple II

Temple II – Also known as the Temple of the Masks, this temple is directly opposite the Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the Grand Plaza. You can go up to the top of the temple through a steep wooden stair (be careful!). Be prepared to be amazed when you look at the Grand Plaza and other temples from the top.

View form Temple IV Tikal Guatemala
View from the top of Temple IV

Temple IV – Also known as Temple of the Two Headed Snake, this is the highest structure in the whole Tikal complex and in all Mesoamerica; standing at 230 feet tall.  From here you get a great view of the entire jungle, right above the tree’s canopy. The climb up is pretty easy, thanks to a wooden stair.  This is the best place to see the sunrise and sunset while at the park.

Temple V Tikal Guatemala
Temple V

Temple V – The impressive thing about this temple is the view from the top, which overlooks the tops of the temples at the Grand Plaza.  While the view is impressive, the hike up and standing at the top is quite dangerous as there are no guardrails and the steps are very steep.

Lost World Pyramid – Over 100 feet tall, the pyramid includes four stairways that reach the top, each one decorated with large stone-carved masks of the Mayan god of rain. Looking out from the summit, Temple IV and the Temples of the Great Plaza can be seen rising through the jungle canopy.  This is the oldest structure in Tikal.

Ceramic Museum – The ancient Maya took great pride in their artwork, creating intricate masks dedicated to the dead and sculpting stelae that recorded their history. Some of these can bee seen throughout Tikal, while others are displayed at this museum.

Extra Things To Do To Enhance Your Visit

I recommend sleeping at the park’s accommodations (Tikal Inn or Jungle Lodge) from the night before or taking the 5:00am bus from Flores to have the chance to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV.  One of the best things about the experience is not only the sunrise, but also the sounds of the waking jungle.  Howler monkeys, spider monkeys, birds, and other animals create a symphony that is hard to miss.

Sunset view from top of Temple IV in Tikal Guatemala
Sunset from top of Temple IV

Just like with the sunrise, watching the sunset from Temple IV is as equally impressive, though this one is more challenging as the sun sets behind the temple, where no visitors are allowed (shhh, bribe the guard that stands at the top of the temple with 20Q and he will let you pass behind.  Totally worth it!  Be discreet of course.). Have a flashlight as there is absolutely no artificial lighting once it gets dark.

Also, unless you’re staying at one of the park’s accommodations, you will need to find a ride back to Flores, as the last bus leaves at 6:00pm (before sunset).  In this case, go to the park’s guardhouse and wait there for a delivery truck or any employee about to leave.  Pay them 100Q and if they are going to Flores they will gladly take you.  Might seem like a hassle, but believe me, it’s so worth it!

Sunset view form top of Temple IV at Tikal, Guatemala

Things To Consider

  • Make sure you have cash, as there are no ATMs in Tikal.
  • The walking time between temples of interest can be between 15 to 30 minutes.  Yup, that long!  Tikal is HUGE!  So, take your time walking through the paths at your own pace, as the walks are long.
  • The park gets full of visitors from about 10:00am till 2:00pm.  Use this time to wander through the Lost World as it is far behind in the park and not all tours get there.  You will most likely have the place for yourself.
  • Also at those same hours the heat is intense! Make sure to have enough water or buy water from the stand next to The Grand Plaza, as there are no stands farther in.

No matter which way you choose to explore it, make sure to enjoy your time at this cultural and natural heritage.

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16 thoughts on “How To See The Best Of Tikal”

    1. Awww 🙁 If you have the chance to go backup Guatemala, try going to Tikal. I think you’ll love it. And stay for the sunset! So worth it!! 😉

        1. Hi Emal – It is easy to go to Tikal from Guatemala City. You can either take a bus from Guatemala City to Flores and then from Flores to Tikal, using Linea Dorada bus company for the first leg (http://www.lineadorada.info/), or, just go to any travel agency in the city (three are many) and they will be more than happy to book the bus transfers for you.

          Hope this helps!
          Let me know if you have any other questions!

  1. Tikal looks like an amazing ruin to visit. Do you read this all up before you go visit or after you go there? Seems like you know a lot about the site.

    1. It is an amazing ruin to visit! I read a little bit before going to familiarize myself, and then learn more while and after visiting it. 🙂 I love history, so I always like to learn all the details I can!

  2. I loved the photo with the view from the Temple IV – the temples in the photo add something special to the scenery behind.. 🙂

    1. That’s what I love the most about that view; the temples popping above the forest canopy. It adds a lot to the view, making it interest and even mysterious.

  3. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Cool photos! Love the tips about bribing the guard and paying employees or delivery folks for a ride back into town. I never would have thought of it, but that kind of thing can really work out well.

    1. Thanks! Oh yes, the bribing and sort of “counting” with the locals for transportation is doable, and it also feels kind of adventurous since you know not every visitor is doing it. 🙂

    1. Thanks Lorna! Yes, looking at the sunrise and sunset from the top of the pyramid is well worth it! It’s a relaxing and beautiful experience. 🙂

  4. Hi,
    I am planning on going to Tikal and was wondering if anyone recommends renting a car instead of paying someone for transportation.

    Could someone describe their driving experience in Tikal? It’d be highly appreciated

    1. Hi, Susana –

      While I haven’t rented a car in Guatemala, I believe renting could be more expensive than paying for a tour or public transportation to the park. Know that you can’t drive in the park itself, so your driving will mostly be between Flores and the park’s entrance (and wherever else in Guatemala you want to go). From what I can remember, driving seemed to be ok and relatively relaxed, but maybe I’m biased on the “bad latino driving,” being latino myself. hehe

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