Your Guide to Traveling to the Tikal Ruins of Guatemala

By Camila Perez on Mar 14, 2019

Feeling adventurous? Come visit Tikal! With thousands of buildings spread over more than 575 square kilometers, Tikal National Park is home to towering pyramid-shaped temples, incredible palaces, ancient administrative buildings, and many smaller pyramids, homes, monuments, and more.

In this guide, we'll take a look at:

  • 1. History of Tikal Guatemala
  • 2. Best Ways to Get to Tikal National Park
  • 3. Where to Stay Near the Mayan Ruins
  • 4. What to Bring With You
  • 5. Additional Tips for Visiting Tikal National Park
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History of Tikal Guatemala

The Mayan ruins found within the park’s boundaries have been abandoned for more than 1,000 years. Once believed lost forever, this incredible complex was once known as Yax Mutal. Many buildings make up these Guatemala Mayan ruins. The oldest ones date back to the fourth century BCE.

Historians believe that the ancient site of these Mayan ruins was occupied far earlier than that, though. The place now known as Tikal Guatemala was a vital part of the Mayan empire as early as 1,000 BCE. Evidence shows that agricultural activity was happening here over 3,000 years ago, and some ceramic remnants have been dated to 700 BCE.

Like all major cities, the metropolis known as Yax Matul took time to reach its peak. The largest Mayan pyramid temples at the site we now call Tikal Guatemala were completed by about 300 BCE, and growth continued for hundreds of years. By the first century CE, the Mayan capital city of Yax Matul was more powerful than any other city in the region.

During the first part of the third century CE, Mayan leader Chak Tok Ich’aak was Yax Mutal’s ruler. Historians believe that he is to thank for ordering construction of the palace you’ll see when you visit the central acropolis at the Tikal ruins.

Mayan culture continued to flourish here for hundreds of years despite three centuries of near-constant war. By the beginning of the fifth century CE, an incredible system of fortifications had been put in place to provide protection from invaders. As you explore the Maya ruins at Tikal, you will get a close look at some of these amazing earthworks.

The city continued to expand well into the eighth century CE. At its peak, Yax Mutal is thought to have been home to as many as 90,000 people.

The period known as the collapse of classic Maya was far shorter than the rise of Mayan civilization. By 900 CE, this incredible city with its beautiful temples, pyramids, and monuments was the site of overpopulation, disease and drought. Warfare had taken a toll as well, and historians believe that deforestation played a role in crop failure. There simply wasn’t enough food to go around. People left and soon, the Mayan pyramids and palaces were overtaken by the jungle and her creatures.

During the mid-19th century, European explorers stumbled upon Tikal and began digging deeper. It took another hundred years or so for deeper research and restoration to begin in earnest. During the 1950s and 1960s, with support from Guatemala’s people and government, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania set forth to explore, map, and preserve the South American continent’s largest archaeological site. These are among the most fascinating Guatemala Mayan ruins discovered to date.

When you visit the Tikal ruins, you’ll probably recognize the main square or Great Plaza, as well as the Central Acropolis, which was probably the rulers’ main palace. Other structures in close proximity to the city center are also part of Tikal’s UNESCO World Heritage site. These include:

• The North Acropolis
• Temple I, which you’ll see on Guatemala’s 50 centavo notes
• The Temple of the Great Jaguar (also known as Temple of Ah Cacao)
• The Mundo Perdido (Lost World) temple, another large Mayan pyramid

An impressive canal system, smaller dwellings and monuments, and Mesoamerican ballgame courts are also included in many Mayan ruins tours.
Since archaeological work is ongoing, it’s likely that new finds will be unearthed and restored in the future. You may wish to visit more than once!

Best Ways to Get to Tikal National Park

Curious about how to get to Tikal? There are a few options.

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Enjoy the ultimate remote living experience and find your home-away-from-home at Selina Antigua!

Visit Tikal Guatemala by Air

In the 1950s, the airstrip that has grown into Flores Airport (FRS) was built near the site, so it’s possible to fly from Guatemala City to Tikal. You can also fly to Tikal from Belize City. From the airport, you’ll find taxis and minivans waiting to take passengers to the historic site.

Travel to Tikal Mayan Ruins by Bus

While it’s cheaper to get to Tikal via bus, you should know that trips take about four hours. You can catch a bus to Tikal from Guatemala City, or you can get to Tikal from Antigua. Buses will take you to Santa Elena, after which you’ll catch a taxi or shuttle into the park.

Drive to Tikal National Park

If you have a rental car, you can drive to Tikal from Guatemala city. The drive takes approximately 8 hours one way.

Where to Stay Near the Mayan Ruins

You can’t stay at a Mayan temple, so you’ll have to settle for the next-best thing. While many visitors stay in Flores, there are a few hotels in Tikal National Park itself. These are just a short distance from the ruins, and you’ll be able to experience the sounds of jungle wildlife and even catch a glimpse of some local favorites including curious Howler monkeys.

What to Bring With You

Tikal may be an amazing site with palaces and Mayan temple ruins to explore, but it is remote. If you forget something, you might be able to purchase it at one of the markets outside the park. At the same time, these little stores are expensive, and there are no ATMs available. Here’s a quick packing list for a day at the Mayan ruins of Tikal:

• ID, money, and passport
• Wide-brimmed hat
• Light raincoat
• Camera
• Sunscreen
• Insect repellent
• Snacks
• 2 liters of water

Be sure to wear broken-in walking shoes and sunglasses. You’ll find your journey is a lot more fun when you are comfortable!

Additional Tips for Visiting Tikal National Park

Before your trip to Tikal, it’s a great idea to take a little time out for mental exploration. Knowing about Mayan culture, understanding the significance of the imagery you’ll see all around you, and having some insight into the buildings’ uses are excellent strategies for understanding the ancient Mayan way of life. Here are a few more things to consider as you plan your visit.

Guide or no guide?

Do you want a guide to accompany you, or are you someone who prefers to explore at your own pace? If you’re the kind of person who enjoys having help from a guide, you’ll need to book in advance since there are no guides at the entrance. The good news is that you can download a Tikal ruins audio guide to provide information. The advantage is that you can pause when you want to and skip any boring bits, plus you’ll be moving at your own pace. The disadvantage is that guides do offer a special human touch and most of them have fun stories to tell. If your visit to Tikal National Park spans multiple days, you might consider having a guide the first day and then exploring on your own then next.

Purchase tickets in advance

You can buy tickets at the gate when the park opens at 6 am, but you’ll have to wait in line. If you want to visit the Tikal ruins at sunrise and be among the first into the park, it’s a good idea to purchase entrance tickets the previous day. You can buy your tickets at the bank in Flores, but be sure to get there by 6 pm when bank hours end.

Try other fun things in Flores

You might be focused on the Tikal ruins, but there’s more to enjoy! If you’re staying in Flores, decide what else you’d like to do. You can spend your free time kayaking, swimming, hiking, visiting the marketplace, and enjoying local cuisine.

Tours to the Tikal Ruins

There’s no doubt that Tikal is home to some of the best Mayan ruins on the planet. When planning your trip, it’s a very good idea to book your tour in advance, since scammers or “coyotes” as they’re called locally have a reputation for bilking tourists and providing little or nothing in return. Travel with a reputable company and you’ll be able to enjoy every minute of your trip to the Guatemala Mayan ruins.

More to Explore

Looking for other cool places to explore and stay in Guatemala? Be sure to check out other tours and packages. Antigua is home to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s famous for its chocolate and coffee, too. Plus, the Selina hostel in Antigua, Guatemala, is the perfect homebase for all of your adventures in this beautiful and colorful colonial town!

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for mountains, lakes, and perhaps a visit to a traditional Temescal sweat lodge, be sure to take a trip to Atitlan. These are just two of the best places to visit as you explore the warm, rich Mayan culture of Guatemala.


Selina Antigua

Enjoy the ultimate remote living experience and find your home-away-from-home at Selina Antigua!

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