Tikal. Just the name conjures up visions of ruins shrouded in mystery and rainforest. Guatemala’s most famous Mayan site is just as intoxicatingly fascinating as you’d imagine it to be, with pyramids emerging from dense jungle, wildlife abounding, and, if you go at the right time, very few people disturbing the magic of it.
Although there are campsites and a few places to stay near the park, the lodges are a bit on the pricey side and camping isn’t always practical. That means that a lot of backpackers on a budget base themselves in the island town of Flores, and take one of the many trips to the ruins that leave twice-daily.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about staying in Flores and then pass on a few useful things to be aware of about your visit to the spectacular site of Tikal.
Flores is an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza covered in colorful colonial buildings, which were built amongst the ruins of the Mayan city Noh Peten. That city was famous for being the last independent Mayan state to hold out against the Spanish conquerors, not being defeated until 1697, a whole 200 years after Europeans first set foot in the new world.
It’s linked by a causeway to Santa Elena on the mainland and is in the state of Peten, Guatemala’s most north-westerly state. This state is bordered to the west and north by Mexico, and to the east by Belize.
It’s accessibility from those two countries mean that travelers often make their way through from either Chiapas in Mexico or San Ignacio in Belize to here before continuing on their journey, many heading south to explore more of Guatemala’s jewels, like the legendary pools of Semuc Champey.
As is true all over Guatemala, you’ve got a few different transport options depending on your budget and your taste for adventure. You can take collectivos, affectionately known as chicken buses, which are always packed to the rafters and may even contain real chickens. This will be cheapest, but will take a very long time and will definitely not be comfortable, especially in the heat. Still, if you love an adventure, go for it.
Then there are the tourist shuttles which come from further south in Guatemala and from Mexico and Belize. These will be about double the cost of a chicken bus and you might get lucky and get a super comfy one with wifi and aircon, but they’ll still sell you the wifi even if you end up on something a bit more, ahem, basic. Still, an advantage of this is they’ll take you directly over the border, although you’ll have to get off to have your passport stamped.
If you’re really feeling flush (or just don’t have a day to waste sitting in a minivan) you could fly into the Mundo Maya international airport.
We came over the border from Belize having done a horseriding trip in the morning and been dropped at the border itself. We walked through, ran the gauntlet of the taxi drivers trying to fleece us, crossed the bridge and found the collectivo station, and then had a very cozy 3-hour drive to Flores.
Where to Stay
You’ve got all kinds of options in Flores, and as long as you’re not there in high season you’re usually okay to just turn up rather than booking in advance. We always had great intentions of booking in advance but ended up having one too many Cuba libres the night before and deciding to just try our luck.
We ended up in a hotel on the western side of the island with panoramic lake and sunset (and thunderstorm!) views with private bathroom and two double beds. During low season (we were there in June) the island is pretty empty so you can get good deals and it’s worth treating yourself to a room with a view. Just be sure to shop around a bit as one hotel is much the same as another.
For those looking for the best hostel to meet people and have fun, everyone goes on about Los Amigos. It might not have lake views but it’s a friendly spot with a leafy courtyard and it’s where all the nicest people hang out, so I’m told. Perfect for solo travelers.
This is very much seen as the gateway to Tikal, which means that there are dozens and dozens of tour operators on the island all of whom offer pretty much the same deal for roughly the same amount of money. Be sure to shop around, though, as haggling is very much expected here.
Tip: If you book multiple trips with the same agent (e.g Tikal + onward travel from Flores) they’re likely to give you a hefty discount. Just be sure to get some kind of assurance, or at least be sure that they’re on TripAdvisor so you can destroy them if they don’t deliver on anything they’ve sold you.
There are some Mayan sites that I’d recommend seeing without a guide, and once you’ve been on several guided tours you might get a bit sick of trailing around in a guide’s wake.
However, when it comes to Tikal you definitely want a guide as the rainforest can be a little hard to navigate, and without a guide, you could end up wandering around for hours without finding any of the highlights. There’s a reason this city wasn’t properly explored until the mid-1800s, it’s a jungle out there.
You can pay for your transport and guide in one. They’ll usually charge you the same amount for just return transport as they would if a guide was included in the deal.
Be sure to take plenty of water with you and pack a few snacks, as there’s a lot of walking involved in high temperatures, and you’ll need to keep your energy up for all that pyramid climbing. Something sugary is always a good idea.
You’ll hear a lot of people mention this when you talk about Tikal. Did you go for sunrise? Did you stay for sunset? Basically, no one is entirely sure what the deal is, but here’s the wisdom I gleaned from my experience.
If you want to do a sunrise tour you’ll have to leave Flores very early in the morning, arriving at Tikal for the crack of dawn in time to walk to the main pyramid and watch the sun come up and hear the jungle come alive.
During the dry season you’re fairly likely to see the sun coming up, but even if it’s cloudy then the experience of hearing the jungle wake up is still a special one. You do, however, have to pay an extra 150Q for a sunrise ticket.
That’s because all Guatemala’s state-protected sites are officially open from 6am-6pm and you need to get in earlier than 6 am to catch the sunset, hence the extra fee.
A lot of people will try to tell you, though, that you need to pay extra for sunset too, but as far as we could gather that’s just a money-making scheme on the part of the park. If you go on the ‘sunset’ tour you’ll leave Flores about lunchtime and will theoretically stay until after sunset.
In practice, in the rainy season, you’re pretty much guaranteed to not get a sunset as it’ll likely be raining. Even if it’s dry season and the sun does set, there’s nothing to actually stop you from climbing the pyramid to see the show whether you paid your 150Q or not.
In fact, the girls who paid the extra on our bus only got an extra wristband to show for it but got exactly the same tour as the rest of us. They weren’t happy.
Essentially, by all means, pay extra for sunrise if you’re an early bird, but don’t be taken in by the sunset scam.
When to Go
We were there in June which is the wet season and low season and I thought it was great. Prices were down, we didn’t have to book ahead for anything and there were spectacular thunderstorms over the lake every night.
It also meant we had Tikal practically to ourselves which was magical. Just take a good waterproof and waterproof boots so you don’t get wet, and you can enjoy the ruins in peace and quiet.
We spent a happy hour or so at the end of our tour after the rain had stopped scrambling all over the ruins in the main plaza, trying to picture what it would have looked like when it was all covered in vivid paintings and a thriving city. It’s thought that Tikal was once home to over 60,000 people.
The pictures of the main square on sunny days show it thronged with people which doesn’t sound ideal to me, but if crowds of people don’t bother you and dry and slightly cooler conditions seem more appealing, then opt for the dry season.
Soak It Up
The atmosphere of this ancient Mayan city is hypnotizing and unique, so get ready to be enchanted.
Climb to the tops of the pyramids and gaze out over the canopy, and keep your gaze skywards as you wind your way along the jungle paths as you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot a few monkeys. Even if you don’t see them, you’ll definitely hear the howler monkeys roar.