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If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll start to realise that a little bit of what makes me tick is temples and ruins, and Tikal in Guatemala is up there with best-of-the-best. So, naturally, this stunner of an archaeological site was going to be ranking pretty high on my must-do list during my time in the country.
What are the Tikal Ruins?
Guatemala tourist attractions don’t come much bigger or better than the Tikal Mayan ruins.
Not only is this UNESCO listed site one of the biggest of the Mayan ruins in the country, but Tikal was also used as the backdrop of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A double-whammy on the geek-front for me, by combining fantasy films with ruins – my kinda haven!
Whichever Tikal tour you take; they will make a fuss of this fact that Star Wars was filmed here. They are evidently quite proud of their claim to Hollywood fame.
What is the Tikal Sunrise Tour?
The sunrise tour of Tikal is exactly that. You enter the park super early, walk through the jungle in the darkness to make it to Temple IV to climb to the top and watch the sunrise over the jungle.
It really is magical, to watch the first rays of light hit the tree canopy, hearing the jungle life come alive and 100% worth the insanely and inhumanely early start time.
Also, being at the archaeological park, long before the masses of the other Tikal tour groups are even out of bed means you’ll have most the site to yourself after you’ve watched the sunrise.
Why is this the Best Tikal Tour?
Sure, you’re going to be groggy from lack of sleep but doing a tour of Tikal so early means that you’ll hear the eerie early morning resounding call of the resident Howler Monkeys echo around as you enter the park.
I remember hearing Howlers, as well as the other early morning birds and creatures, during my stay in a jungle lodge in the Amazon. Since then it’s become one of my all-time favourite morning sounds.; the noise of a Jungle waking up, just as the first light of day is peeping through the clouds.
If you’ve never experienced this, it is quite special. Being able to experience this is one of the sole reasons why this is the best Tikal tour. That twinned with seeing the sunrise over Tikal archaeological site and having the place to yourself. It’s a no brainer.
Group Tours at Tikal
I’m not usually a big fan of group tours, mainly because other people drive me nuts and they go far too slow (just how many toilet breaks to people need?!)
Thankfully, the size of our Tikal tour group was just 9 people. If like me, you hate the crowds, get this clarified before you book. I certainly felt smug about my choice when I saw groups of 20-30 being ushered about later on in the day.
Tikal Map & Self-Guided Tikal Tour
You could choose to visit the UNESCO site on your own and do a self-guided Tikal tour, BUT the site is ginormous! Like frickin’ gargantuan with lots of trails going through the jungle.
From the voice of experience, the signage is minimalistic (sometimes just plain non-existent) and it’s pretty easy to get lost if you decide to tour Tikal on your own. However, getting lost is part of the fun, and the group tour experience isn’t for everyone.
If you do book on to a sunrise Tikal tour you will have the best of both worlds.
Your guide will show you all the short cuts to the best stuff. During your tour of Tikal, make a mental note of the route you take. No doubt there will be a ton of Temples that you’ll want to go back and explore some more. By late morning the group tour finishes, which leaves you the rest of the day to go and explore Tikal by yourself. Win-win if you ask me.
Top Tips for Visiting Tikal
- Bring food and water
- Wear comfortable and grippy shoes, there’s a lot of walking and sometimes the old stone steps going up the temples are loose.
- Wear layers, early morning is chilly but the peak sun is hot.
- Take insect repellent, Tikal is in the Jungle, there’s plenty of opportunities to get bitten!
- If you go solo (and not part of one of the Tikal tour groups) then you’ll have to buy an additional ticket for Temple IV.
About Tikal National Park
Tikal is BIG! Tikal National Park spreads to over 57,600 hectares, which includes the surrounding forests, wetlands and savannah. Within this area, approximately 1,200 hectares contain some of the best Guatemala ruins in the country and includes items of archaeological interest (mainly the historical water reservoirs, residential and farming settlements), a vast chunk of this has never been excavated.
The main part of the Mayan ruins at Tikal is located in what is referred to as the ‘inner urban zone’ covers about 400 hectares and although this part has been extensively excavated, there’s still a lot buried under the centuries of forest growth.
Best Time To Visit Tikal
The best time to visit this region of Guatemala is from October through to May due to the tail end of the intense summer heat and the mild winters.
The Mayan city of Tikal is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Guatemala – so expect crowds IF you go during peak hours. If you’re doing a Sunrise Tour of Tikal, this shouldn’t be a problem.
You will find heavily discounted tours of Tikal at most outlets in nearby Flores, even at peak season, it’s worth shopping around for the best prices. At low-peak, you can get some absolute steals!
Tikal Entrance Fee & Opening Hours
Tikal National Park is open 365 days a year from 6 am until 6 pm.
If you are booking on to a Tikal Tour for Sunrise, then the entry fee should be included in this.
If you are travelling to Tikal on a self-guided tour, then you will have to purchase your own ticket. At the time of writing, this is Q150 per adult (approx. $20)
To come into the park earlier than 6 am to see the sunrise or after 6m to see the sunset, then an additional ticket needs to be purchased for this. The cost of this extra ticket is Q100 per adult (approx. $13)
Can I Stay In Tikal?
You can opt to stay near to the archaeological site, although your choices are limited. There isn’t a great deal to do in the area so you are refined to either what the hotel/hostel has to offer, or whatever you take with you.
For a budget option in Tikal, cheapest is Tikal’s campground. You’ll need a hammock and a mosquito net, If you don’t have your own, then rent them from one of the nearby lodges. You done need to book for this, just show up at the campground, it’s in the large grassy expanse behind the research centre. It’s basic but does come with a shared toilet block,
If you need something with more creature comforts, then Jungle Lodge is the best option. It’s close to the main entrance of Tikal and has an onsite restaurant, free parking, free wifi and an outdoor swimming pool. Take a look, it’s really is a little piece of paradise.
If you want to stay in a livelier area, then I highly suggest the nearby colourful UNESCO island town of Flores. You’ll find a multitude of accommodation and food options. This is also where the hub of any of the Tikal tours can be booked. Flores is well connected to Tikal and regular shuttle buses run daily.
Some Interesting Tikal Facts
- Tikal history spans over 800 years, the first settlers came here in 700BC.
- The archaeological site consists of thousands of buildings, a large proportion not yet uncovered. These include temples, pyramids, living quarters, ball courts and stelae (upright stone slabs).
- The abundance of flint in the region was one of the reasons for the first settlers to come to Tikal. The flit was a valuable stone at the time due to it being able to be made into spear and arrowheads as well as tools.
Getting to Tikal
Flores to Tikal
The obvious and easiest choice is the shuttle bus which can be arranged from pretty much every hotel and tourist information centre in Flores.
If you book onto any Tikal tour, make sure you check if it’s been included in the ticket price (some companies will bolt this on as extra!)
The journey from Flores to Tikal takes around 1 hr 30minutes in the shuttle bus.
If you’ve hired a car, the 65km journey should take just over an hour.
Visit Tikal from Belize
If you are staying in neighbouring Belize, Tikal can be arranged usually as a full day trip. The best place to travel to Tikal from Belize is San Ignacio.
The border to Guatemala is just 15 minutes away from this town. DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT! From the border, it’s then a 2-hour drive to get to Tikal.
Near to the entrance, there is a scale model which shows just how vast the place is. It’s worthwhile taking a few minutes to orientate yourself with the Tikal Mayan ruins so you know which ones you’ll be visiting and roughly which direction you’ll be heeding.
Temples, Pyramids, Palaces and Ball courts of Tikal
It’s worthwhile familiarising yourself with some of the types of structure you will see during your Tikal tour. The main things you’ll see are:
- Pyramids – Flat-topped structures with a stairway leading up from each side. Often the Tikal pyramids come in pairs.
- Temples – Similar to the pyramids with the flat-topped structure with stairs leading up from each side, but with the addition of a building (a temple) on the top.
- Residential Areas – Usually small rectangular structures in rows
- Ball courts – Open flat areas where games were played
- Stelae – Slabs of upright stone, often with imagery or text
Walking through the jungle and the areas of vegetarian, look around at the multitude of mounds and hills. They aren’t mounds and hills! These are more of the Tikal Temple complex which haven’t yet been uncovered and where nature has truly taken over. Only a small proportion of the archaeological site has been fully excavated!
Tikal Temple IV – First Stop To See Sunrise
Temple IV (or Temple 4) is the first major temple you’ll visit by ascending the zig-zagging wooden steps up to the top. The relatively new wooden additions are there in the first instance to protect the Tikal ruins from the trampling hoofs of thousands of tourists each year, its second function is to protect people…from falling off! (a quick web search will reveal that severe injury and even deaths from falling off temples isn’t that uncommon!)
You’ll feel the leg and lung burn as you reach the top – no pain no gain they say, and it’s worth it then you sit and wait for the sunrise. Temple IV is where everyone comes for the Sunrise Tikal Tour, so for this part, you’ll probably find that you are sharing a view with quite a few other early risers.
Tikal Tour – Next Stop ‘The Lost World’
With the sun now risen and the cooler air warming up, you’ll move on to an area called ‘The Lost World’. If you’ve been reading other parts of my blog, you’ll know I’m just a little bit excited by dinosaurs. So you can guess my version of ‘The Lost World’ is somewhat different from what it actually is. It’s not homage to Jurassic Park, and to my disappointment, not a dinosaur in sight.
This smaller Temple complex, of ‘The Lost World’ is much like Temple IV. There is another manmade staircase and onto an equally manmade platform at the top which will reveal the full 360 panoramic views of surrounding temples popping out from the jungle canopy. It’s also a great place to try and spot some wildlife. You’ll probably be able to hear the holler of the howler monkeys, but their haunting cries were echoing from all directions, so they could have been anywhere!
The Temples you will see peeping out from the jungle canopy are Temple IV and Temple III, (Temple of the Jaguar Priest).
Plaza de Los Siete Templos (Seven Temples)
Leaving the wonderfully named Lost World behind and more jungle trails will lead out to an opening called Plaza de Los Siete Templos (Seven Temples). This is a fairly open area with various smaller buildings and palace complex. There are also three ball courts one for Political use, one for Social use and one for Prisoners. And I wonder what happened here! Confused? Have you seen Apocalypto?! *wince*.
This was a great place for photography, it’s much quieter than some of the other areas and the vibrancy of the green foliage and moss against the grey bricks is stunning. If you managed to steer clear of bugs so far, then you will certainly need it here. To put it briefly, take bug repellent – you’re in the jungle. Jungles = Bugs. ‘Nuff said.
Tikal Tour – Temple V and Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest)
The tour of Tikal continues as you meander your way through the jungle. The next ports of call are Temple V and Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest).
Temple III is the one you would have seen the crest of from the panoramic view while you were in The Lost World. Although impressive in size, in my opinion, it’s not as interesting as some of the temples and complexes we had already visited. It’s still worthwhile visiting, it’s just been overshadowed by some of the other stuff.
The Grand Plaza – Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar) & Temple II (Temples of the Mask)
Pretty much all the Tikal tour groups will end up here, at The Grand Plaza which is where THE most iconic Temples reside and the one you will see on every tourism shot of Guatemala. Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar and affectionately known to Sci-Fi buffs as The Star Wars Temple and opposite it, Temple II, known as Temple of the Mask.
The Mask Temple, like several of the others, had wooden stairs and a platform built on it which looks down on The Grand Plaza. And a great vantage point for taking some awesome pictures and one of the most Instagrammable places in Tikal.
The Grand Plaza is where your tour guide will leave you. You have two options, the first to follow him to the exit and heading out of the Archaeological site to catch the bus back to Flores. Of course, I opted for the second option. To stay and explore by myself.
With such an early start, the tour is done and dusted before 10 am!
Make the most of a whole day ahead, with a heads up on what you want to go back and see.
So, The Tikal Sunrise Tour in Guatemala – Is this the Best Tikal Tour to do?
A big almighty yes. It’s an early start, but the rewards for getting up at this horrendous hour is not only having extra time in the park and being there when you have the place to yourself, but also the incredible panoramic view of the jungle as the first sun rays of the day start to peep over the horizon. It’s really a magical feeling to see this and no picture can do this justice. Go and experience this for yourself, you will not regret it.
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So as a seasoned Temple and Ruin junkie, where should I visit next? I’d love to hear where you’ve been, just drop me a message below.