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Tikal National Park | Why this Mayan city should be on your bucket list

During our journey through Central America of course we also visited Guatemala† We have been traveling around this beautiful country for several weeks. We visited the picturesque Antigua, climbed the Acatenango volcano and saw (and felt!) the nearby Fuego volcano erupt several times. We also visited Lake Atitlan, which is also surrounded by active volcanoes. Despite all these bizarre places and experiences, Tikal National Park is what I remember most about this trip. The Mayan city is extremely fascinating for countless reasons! As far as I'm concerned, it is really a place that you must see once in your life. A place that is absolutely on you bucketlist must stand.

Remark: did you know that Guatemala has always been in the top 10 cheapest countries in the world state?

About Tikal

Tikal is an ancient Mayan city which, hidden under the jungle, has remained undiscovered for over 1000 years. Tikal was inhabited from about 400 BC. to 1000 AD. and reached its peak between the years 300 and 850. For a long time it was one of the most powerful cities in the classical period of the Maya civilization, although the city also suffered several defeats during this time.

Tikal is also one of the largest Maya cities ever discovered. Recently (in 2020) a surprising discovery was made by means of new laser technology (called Lidar): The complex in Guatemala is much bigger than anyone ever imagined.

It is estimated that there are about 60.000 houses and many hundreds of temples still underground. In fact, the complex is so huge that it is expected to take more than 100 years to excavate it all! So there is plenty to discover in Tikal, now and also in 100 years. National Geographic even dedicated an entire documentary to it in 2020, right after this astonishing discovery. The documentary can be seen below.

To Flores / Tikal by plane

Tikal National Park is located in the north of Guatemala, in the middle of a hidden jungle where, except for the town of Flores, there is hardly anything to see or do. You can of course choose to travel across Guatemala to Tikal by land. Many 'tourist vans' leave for Flores from Guatemala City, Antigua or Lake Atitlan. These are all popular destinations among backpackers. This costs roughly 25 to 30 euros per person for a single journey.

The propeller plane we flew to Flores near Tikal from Guatemala City | Guatemala
The propeller plane we flew to Flores near Tikal from Guatemala City | Guatemala

But given the (poor) infrastructure in the country and the enormous distances, this can literally take you 1 to 2 days.

And because we also go to Belize en Mexico In this trip, we sometimes had to speed up a bit and so skip parts of the country. After all, you can't see everything… To be honest, we didn't feel like spending long days in crowded vans. In the heat, often without air conditioning through the winding mountains with terrible roads.

We therefore returned from Antigua to Guatemala City and flew from there with a mini-plane for 10 people to Flores, the town that is the well-known base for Tikal. We found the ticket the cheapest via Skyscanner† Search Guatemala City – Flores if you want to book tickets yourself.

We sat directly behind the pilots on the plane, so we literally got everything! † Tikal, Guatemala
We sat directly behind the pilots on the plane. The takeoff can begin! † Tikal, Guatemala

For just over 100 euros per person we flew low over the jungle and active volcanoes. This in itself was a bizarre but wonderful experience! We sat directly behind the pilots and therefore got to see everything in a unique way. Definitely worth considering if you have the money for it.

After a beautiful flight of just over an hour, the runway in Flores came into view. The pilots were busy with all kinds of buttons and especially pulling large levers, because this plane clearly didn't do an autopilot, haha. Everything went old-fashioned manually in this old barrel.

The Flores runway near Tikal in sight | Guatemala
The Flores runway near Tikal in sight | Guatemala

And for the enthusiasts; a short video of the landing!

Why you should visit Tikal

The reason why you must visit Tikal? The entire complex simply breathes history! The Mayan culture is truly amazing, in more ways than you could ever imagine. You just feel it when you're there, something I've had before in Mexico.

This is not my first encounter with the Mayan culture. On my very first major intercontinental trip, about 20 years ago, I visited the huge pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico, one of the 7 wonders of the world.

I was already staring at that back then, because I just couldn't believe what I was learning and seeing. Bizarre to think how the Mayans lived in those days and often sacrificed themselves to the gods. Sacrificing yourself to the gods, that was really part of the culture.

Tikal in Guatemala therefore seemed very interesting to me to visit, because I found the Mayan culture in Mexico very cool at the time.

Jungle (night) tour to Tikal

There are many ways to visit Tikal. You can go to the entrance yourself buy a ticket and go inside. But the best thing (in my opinion) is to book a tour because then you have a guide with you who actually knows something about the place.

I booked the Jungle Night Tour together with Malou. A bizarre experience† If you do go to Tikal and book a tour, it is nice to ask about this 'early version', which starts at night.

Why? Only then can you experience the sunrise from the temples overlooking the jungle. It is often still foggy in the early hours and you don't see much, but sometimes (if you're lucky) the sunbeams through the jungle fog are an unforgettable experience. We had experienced this before in Borneo, which was unimaginably beautiful.

The awakening jungle

But the sunrise through the misty jungle is not the only reason why you should book the night tour. You also come (and hear) really wake up from everything in the jungle at night. Pretty creepy, you don't have to be scared, but also very fat!

So there we went. The alarm went off at three o'clock in the morning. We took a small breakfast, we sailed a bit on the boat and we got on the bus. On to Tikal!

After about a 45-minute drive you arrive at the park. From there it is about a 45 minute walk through the jungle until you see the temples, while the jungle awakens in the pitch dark.

Watch and listen – jungle nightwalk

It's hard to describe what it's like to walk through the jungle at night, when you don't see a hand in front of your eyes. It really is an experience in itself. You really don't see a hand in front of your eyes, because the moonlight doesn't come through the thick layer of leaves. You walk there with a small group of people and a flashlight in your hand. In the meantime you hear the craziest sounds, which you cannot place at all.

Do you have any idea how creepy that can be? I don't think so… To give you an idea: I made this video in pitch dark. A video always says more than a photo.

I would say, turn on your sound and listen along! Can you tell us what we hear here?

Were you thinking of a tiger or a lion? A panther?

You can hear (pretty cute) 'howling monkeys' here. They are a lot smaller and cuter than the sound suggests.

At sunrise we saw nothing

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We sat with about 50 people in the middle of the night, high on a temple, waiting for the sun to break through. The sun had already risen, but unfortunately we saw nothing at all. The fog has won over us today.

Misty morning in Tikal National Park, around sunrise
Misty morning in Tikal National Park, around sunrise

Tikal National Park is beautiful

As soon as the fog disappears and the night turns into day, the sunlight slowly gets more space. Only now do you actually see how beautiful the area around you is. You will soon understand why Tikal's secret has been kept for so long. The damp and densely scorched jungle has engulfed the entire city in the centuries after the Mayans left.

When man does nothing, the jungle here quickly takes everything back to nature | Tikal National Park
When man does nothing, the jungle here quickly takes everything back to nature | Tikal National Park

Underneath virtually every hill, tree, or mountain you see, there are more ruins yet to be excavated. What an immense project. It therefore seems fantastic to me to return here in 10 or 20 years, when more parts of the old city have been excavated.

There are many more ruins yet to be excavated. Roughly 60.000 houses and temples | Tikal National Park
There are many more ruins yet to be excavated. Roughly 60.000 houses and temples | Tikal National Park

You are always reminded that you are in the jungle. Lots of insects of course, but you also hear and see various monkeys swinging around you through the trees. When you sit down to drink water or eat your lunch, take a good look around you and especially up, high in the treetops.

Monkeys and other animals swing in the treetops | Tikal National Park
Monkeys and other animals swing in the treetops | Tikal National Park

It is wonderful to just walk around Tikal National Park. With or without a guide. Would you rather go without a guide? Then download the App maps.me, which also has a part of Tikal where you get a lot of fun and useful information about the complex. There are also several free audio tours.

The viewing platform in Tikal

One of the coolest things in Tikal, I found the viewing platform. Only the peaks of the largest and highest temples barely rise above the thick green jungle. It must have been great for the explorers of the park, who did so from an airplane over 100 years ago, to see this for the first time.

The top of the jungle and tops of temples | Tikal National Park
The top of the jungle and tops of temples | Tikal National Park
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Practical tips for Tikal

What do you take with you when you go to Tikal for a day?

First of all: good shoes† You walk quite a lot on such a day and often the ground is uneven and full of loose stones. In addition, you cannot buy food or drinks in Tikal† So take enough water with you! If you book a tour, you usually get lunch with it, but it is important that you are sure of this before you leave.

If you're planning on staying for a long time (on your own, without a tour), a few snacks and a hefty packed lunch might also come in handy.

Most of the time you walk in the shade, but it can still be useful to have some sunburn to bring along. You are close to the equator and when the sun breaks through, it is immediately very hot and the UV strength is of course very high.

Are you going for the sunrise or sunset in Tikal? So don't forget a flashlight en anti-insect spray to bring along! You really don't see a hand in front of your eyes here when it's dark because the treetops block all the moonlight. And yes, the mosquitoes and other insects make it a feast around sunrise and sunset.

Book a tour

Do you want to book a tour for Tikal like me? You can here. already arrange a complete tour, including guide, lunch, drinks and transport for about 85 euros per person† We call this the 'worry-free package' for the sake of convenience.

Travel to Tikal yourself

If you want to save every euro, you can also choose to arrange everything yourself. You save about 25 euros per person with this, but then you don't have lunch and drinks with it.

Below is a brief overview of the costs if you were to arrange everything yourself.

  • Return transport Flores / Tikal: 120 quetzal – 15 €
  • Guide: 60 quetzal – 7,5 €
  • Admission: 150 quetzal – 20 €
  • Extra entrance for sunrise or sunset: 120 quetzal – 15 €
  • Lunch: what you make of it
  • Total: 57,50 €

Also read: Antigua Guatemala | The perfect base for activities

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