I’ve been trying to get to Machu Picchu since I realized I actually enjoy traveling. So… let’s say about three ish years. It hasn’t gone well. Flights to Lima ain’t cheap and also trying to plan a vacation to your bucket list destination when you have a long list of bucket list destinations is an exercise in patience.
So when I read about Tikal National Park and the endless comparisons to Machu Picchu, I was game. I was in San Ignacio, Belize, for about four days, and day trips to Tikal are quite popular. I was able to find a few operators, and settled on Maya Walk Tours. (P.S.: I’m glad I did. Go with these folks if you’re ever in San Ignacio, k?)
At 6:30 a.m., a group of about 10 of us packed into a van and were on our way. The drive to Tikal from San Ignacio takes about two hours and involves crossing the border into Guatemala. It’s a $15 fee that our tour covered.
When we arrived at the immigration checkpoint, there were several people offering to exchange our money into Guatemalan quetzals. Our driver knew someone who provided a great exchange rate, and pointed him out.
Our tour covered entrance fees and lunch, so anything else (water, snacks, souvenirs, tips for our guides, etc) was on us. I’d recommend converting about $30. That’ll leave you room for a good tip and snacks/water.
The border entry process is pretty simple. You’ll get your passport stamped and be on your way. Once we were in Guatemala, we stopped at a shop for coffee (covered by our tour) and snacks (our own expense, I got a Milky Way).
From there it was a quick but scenic drive past Lake Petén Itzá, through the gates of Tikal National Park (similar-looking to Jurassic Park) and into the forest where our adventure would begin.
There are three hotels and a restaurant outside the property. So you could spend more time at the park if you so desired.
The park is stunning. All along the way, you’ll see trees like this giant kapok.
We began walking the trail toward the Grand Plaza, while our guide filled us in on Tikal’s backstory. The park is huge, but despite that, most experts contend that only 30% of the park has been unearthed.
It’s estimated that Tikal goes all the way back to the first century, and its heyday was roughly 200 – 800 A.D.
This area is rich in limestone, which was used to construct the temples. Every place in the park has significance. Primarily, it was used to determine the seasons so the corresponding crops could be planted. Thanks to endless work by scholars and historians, we know that the Mayans created the first calendar based on their growing seasons. Tikal was a method of keeping track.
Walking into the Grand Plaza blew me away. I’ve seen pictures online, but nothing can prepare you for being there in person. It’s incredible.
What you’ll find here is the iconic Great Jaguar Tikal (or Temple I), and Temple II directly across. You can even climb up Temple II via the surrounding stairs (not the actual ruins, please don’t do that) and get a great view of Temple I and the Grand Plaza.
What a treat, am I right?
The Grand Plaza is the best example of restoration efforts. This is the most accessible area of Tikal. Everything else is viewed partially or from a distance.
I could’ve stayed here all day and left happy, but there was even more to see.
Along the trail, our guide pointed out Temple III peeking through the trees. Gorgeous.
Then, we arrived at Temple IV, which is partially restored and the tallest temple in Tikal. There is also a staircase alongside the temple for tourists to climb. Once you get to the top, you get this view.
You can spot Temples I and II from here.
At this point, you may be feeling a bit parched/hungry. There are restrooms and food stands located throughout the park, but an especially nice one is at the foot of the temple here. It is cash only, but they do take Guatemalan, Belizean and U.S. currency.
Once revived, we continued through the trail where we spotted a whole family of howler monkeys and coatis!
Spotting wild animals never gets old.
Our final stop was at the Seven Temples, an important part of the Mayan life and religious practices.
Also, when you clap, this happens…
What a great way to end the tour.
There are souvenir shops near the exit, in case you want to grab a commemorative gift. After a bit of browsing, we were off to lunch at a Guatemalan cafe, where chicken quesadillas revived me. I know a few miles in four hours doesn’t sound like too much… but it felt like it. After running up and down stairs in the heat, I was ready to just sit back, relax and eat.
Following lunch, we began the two hour ride back. We went back through the border entry, got another passport stamp, and called it a day. And what a day it was.
Once I visit Machu Picchu, I can likely give you a more accurate comparison. But for now, Tikal has satiated my need to visit a massive Mayan metropolis. It was an incredible adventure. I sure hope to be back in Guatemala someday. That one day trip left me wanting to see more of the country.
If you go…
Use this tour group: Maya Walk Tours
Price: $145, includes morning coffee, border fees, park entrance and lunch
Bring: water, snacks, bug spray and sunscreen
Have you visited Tikal? What did you think? Comment below!
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