Tikal National Park – The Complete Guide

Traverse through the dense Guatemalan jungle to uncover the mysteries of Tikal National Park – one of the most spectacular ruins of the Americas and a testament to the ingenuity of the Mayan people.

6 min
The Mayan ruins of Tikal National Park
Author: Gayathri

The magnificent pyramids of Tikal National Park rise from deep within the forests of Guatemala, having stood witness to the growth and decline of one of the greatest Mayan civilizations of all times. Journey through the remains of a society known for its architectural brilliance and astronomical prowess. Mystical and magical, Tikal National Park, with its soaring monoliths, grand complexes, and spectacular biodiversity will leave you spellbound.

3 reasons why Tikal National Park needs to be part of your Guatemala vacation itinerary

  1. The ruins – A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important archaeological ruins related to Mayan culture, it is tough not to be awed by the sheer grandeur of Tikal National Park. The site is home to dozens of pyramids and ancient structures, excavated after decades of archaeological work. Inhabited, according to most expert opinions, from 6th century BC to the 10th century AD, the ruins of Tikal are shrouded in mystery. Some of the structures record events that are more than five million years old and the reasons for the decline of the kingdom are still an unsolved riddle.
  2. The rich biodiversity of the region – Peeking through colossal kapok and tall silk, cedar, and mahogany trees, the ruins of Tikal sit at the heart of the rich Maya Biosphere Reserve that is home to a spectacular range of fauna including jaguars, howler and spider monkeys, crocodiles and over 300 species of birds. In fact, Tikal National Park has been recognized by UNESCO for both its extraordinarily well-preserved historical ruins and rich natural biodiversity. A trip to Tikal is a cultural excursion and wildlife safari rolled into one.
  3. There is more to Tikal than meets the eye – What you see above at Tikal National Park will amaze you but it is what lies underground that will intrigue you. It is estimated that 70% of the ruins still remain unexcavated, lying buried deep under the forest. So take a moment, if you can, to imagine the grandeur and scale of this kingdom that was once home to over 100,000 Mayans.

In fact, so other-worldly are the ruins that they were portrayed as the fictional moon Yavin IV in George Lucas’s Star Wars.

What to see and do in Tikal?

The 6 sq.miles of the Tikal National Park that have been excavated is the site of numerous buildings and structures in various states of ruin and reconstruction. Start at the imposing Central Plaza, the grand ceremonial and religious center of Tikal, before moving on to Temple I and II that act as guardians on either end of the Plaza. Temple I once housed the tomb of Lord Chocolat (Ah Cacau) who ruled the kingdom from the late 7th century A.D to mid-8th century and features nine tiers that correspond to the nine stages of afterlife that the Mayan society believed in. Temple II is known as the Temple of Masks for the two huge stone masks that stand at the entrance of the stairway. For the best views of the surrounding jungle, you will have to ascend Temple IV, the tallest structure in Tikal National Park measuring about 65 meters in height, that opens up to spectacular views of the environs.

While a climb up Temple IV is definitely not for the faint of heart, those who dare to accept the challenge are taken above the tree canopy of the surrounding jungle and rewarded with expansive views of the lush forest and impressive ruins.

Explore the Central Acropolis, a network of interconnected courtyards thought to have housed the royal families of the Tikal dynasty, and the North Acropolis that was the cemetery site of members of the Mayan royalty. Visit the Plaza of the Seven Temples, one of the largest architectural complexes of the ruins and the location of seven nearly identical temples. Not to be missed is the Mundo Perdido complex, the site of the Lost World Pyramid built in 900 BC and the oldest structure in Tikal.

Tikal is one of the few Mayan ruins set in the midst of a rich tropical rainforest and is an absolute birder’s paradise. Grab your binoculars and catch sight of Ocellated Turkeys, Brown Jays, Olive-throated Parakeets, Crested Guan and an incredible variety of raptors and parrots.

Early mornings, late evenings, and treks to temple tops yield some of the best glimpses of these feathered wonders.

History buffs will love a visit to the Sylvanus G.Morley museum that houses the tomb of Ha Sawa Chan K’awil, one of the main architects of Tikal, and a superb collection of ceramics, masks and a variety of ancient Mayan artifacts. The Stelae Museum showcases many of the stone pillars found at the site including a reproduction of the bound captive, a powerful image from the ruins carved onto one of the pillars.

When to visit?

Tikal, being set in the middle of a rainforest, experiences rain throughout the year. The best time to visit Tikal and Guatemala is from November to April, the (relatively) dry season.

Tikal National Park is open from 6 am – 5 pm daily, while the museums are open from 8 am – 6 pm and closed for national holidays.

Insider tip – The ruins take on a magical dimension during sunrise and sunset. Watching the sunrise with the ruins in the foreground is a surreal experience. Add to this the fact that the heat is much less in the morning, thus making exploring the vast ruins a far more pleasant activity.

Viewing the glorious sunset from the Lost World pyramid is a popular activity and one that we highly recommend.

How to get there?

The city of Flores is the closest airport to Tikal National Park and is a 90-minute drive from the airport to the ruins. Another starting point is Belize city, a 3-hour journey from Tikal.

Where to stay?

The Tikal Jungle Lodge, located at the entrance of the ruins, makes for a convenient and comfortable accommodation with its jungle-themed rooms. Flores is the biggest city near Tikal and acts as a good base for exploring Guatemala’s first national park. Flores has many charming accommodation options including the Isla de Flores Guesthouse, Las Lagunas Boutique Lodge, and Villa Maya.

Things to remember

  • Make sure you have sufficient cash as credit cards are not accepted.
  • Comfortable clothes and shoes are recommended as the tours involve a lot of walking.
  • Bring water, hats, and sunscreen and most importantly, start early.

Tikal National Park is just one of the many gems waiting to be discovered in Guatemala. Explore the colonial architecture of Antigua, the cultural highlights of Guatemala City and the spectacular natural beauty of Lake Atitlan on a fully-customized luxury tour through this beautiful country.

Plan your tailor made vacation to Guatemala with Enchanting Travels.