WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE: WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING TIKAL NATIONAL PARK

Of all things I wanted to do and see in Belize and Guatemala, witnessing Mayan ruins was at the top of the list. After all, I was visiting an area of the world with an abundant supply of them. Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize are all home to famous ancient ruins. Tikal, however, was one of the most powerful kingdom’s in Maya history, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Guatemala.

There are multiple ways to see the ruins in Tikal: Sunrise Tour, Sunset Tour, Camping Tour, Full-Day Tour, etc. Or you can opt out of a tour all together. Attempting to see Tikal as the sun rises can be unpredictable, as it truly depends on the weather conditions {and requires a 3 AM wake-up call}. The sunset tour looks absolutely stunning according to Adventurous Kate. Personally, I was based in Belize for the majority of my time in Central America. Given my distance from Tikal, I opted for a day trip from my hostel in San Ignacio, Belize using Belize Family Adventure.

Hours

You will spend 9-10 hours with you tour guide, from pick-up to drop-off. Your day will start around 7:30 AM and drop off is around 5:00 PM {depending on your location}. It was a long day, but well worth it. If you are simply planning to arrive at the park solo, it opens at 6 AM and closes at 6 PM.

What to Bring

– Comfortable walking shoes {duh}

– Multiple bottles of water {cannot stress this enough}

– Bug spray {self-explanatory}

– Sunscreen {you may be in the jungle, but you are exposed to the sun for a large chunk of this tour}

– Snacks {though lunch is provided, you will need something to energize you throughout the long day of walking, hiking, and climbing}

– A current passport {if arriving from Belize}

Getting to Tikal
Beautiful Guatemala.

Women washing laundry in a local lake.

 

BFA offers hotel/hostel pick-up and drop-off service within San Ignacio for this excursion. Once at the border of Belize and Guatemala, you will transfer to a new driver and meet your tour guide for the day. As in, you get out of one car, walk across the border and get into a different car.

The company will help you along the {very quick and minimal} customs process, which includes paying a $40 BZD departure tax {note: you are responsible for this}. Your guide will then exchange money for you {should you choose}, in the form of approaching a Guatemalan man holding an envelope of cash. Just go with it.

From the border of Belize, it takes around 1.5 hours to get to Tikal National Park. You will make a few stops along the way, allowing you to see some of Guatemala, take pictures, and taste the best coffee in the world {coming from a non-coffee drinker}. I know with a 7:30 AM start time, it can be tempting to take a quick cat nap on the journey, but I highly advise against it. The landscapes, homes, and daily life will leave you breathless.

Exploring Tikal
The sacred Ceiba tree, also known as the ‘Tree of Life’, and the inspiration behind the ‘Tree of Souls’ in the movie Avatar.

There is an entrance fee of approximately $20 USD, but this is covered if you take a tour with BFA. Most tours within Guatemala do not include this fee in their costs, but are also overall  significantly cheaper than BFA. Regardless of how you get to Tikal, I recommend hiring a private tour guide while inside {this is also included with BFA, but is otherwise $20 USD at the visitor center}.

Tikal is not… user friendly. Even with a tour guide and a map, I honestly had no idea where I was for most of the afternoon. Not that I’ve ever claimed to be some sort of Indiana Jones, but damn, the place is ginormous {222 square miles to be exact}. You can expect to get your steps in. Hours of walking through the park, as well as climbing temples, will have your legs shaking upon return to Belize.

Aside from that, I learned so much about Mayan culture that I would have missed, had I attempted it alone. Our guide was extremely knowledgable about the history and practices that took place in Tikal. He also made me aware of the un-excavated ruins, of which I thought were hills. They weren’t. But as you pass through the site, you will see the mounds I speak of. Look a little closer and you will realize they are way too symmetrical to be piles of dirt covered in fauna.

The Jungle

If you only knew how close I was to this spider during one of my guide’s informative speeches…

Let’s not forget, Tikal is settled in the middle of a living, breathing jungle. This means you should constantly be on the lookout for wildlife, including colorful birds, loud howler monkeys, intricate spiders, lizards, bats, and more. This also means you are surrounded by the dangers of an actual jungle. For example, our guide casually pointed to a black plant with spikes and, though already unappealing to touch, informed us that we would indeed be dead within hours if we decided to pet the prickly thing.

Our guide also told us a gruesome story about two tourists {read: idiots} who entered Tikal with no guide, thinking it would be ‘fun’ to explore the jungle while on hallucinogenics. Again, idiots. Needless to say, they ended up getting lost and failed to leave the park before dark. There is a reason this park closes at nightfall. Unfortunately, neither tourist made it out of the jungle alive. One received a literal beheading from one of the jaguars roaming the jungle. The other was never to be found. Eeeshh.

The Ruins

If you can believe it, there are thousands of structures in Tikal. The park has done a great job at excavating, and they still have many more temples to uncover. Here are some fan favorites:

Temple I

Temple I is the most recognizable temple in Tikal, and located in the middle of the park. Temple I is said to have been built between AD 682 – 734, and is known as ‘Temple of the Great Jaguar’. It’s nine tiers represented the nine levels of the underworld.

Temple II

Temple II, know as the Temple of the Masks, sits right across the plaza from Temple I. This temple was said to be built by the late Jasaw Chan K’awiil I in honor of his wife, Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. Temple II has been almost completely restored, which allows for tourists visiting the park to climb up to the top of it. From here you can get a great view of the entire plaza.

 

Temple IV
View from Temple IV

Temple IV

Temple IV is the tallest structure in Tikal, rising high above the jungle at 213 ft. And yes, you can climb this beast as well! This structure is also referred to as the ‘Star Wars’ temple, and once you reach the top you will see why. The view overlooks Guatemala, with only a few other temples peaking through the jungle. This was George Lucas’s inspiration for Yavin-4 in Episode IV: A New Hope. And what a vision it is.

South Building in Complex Q

Complex Q 

Complex Q is made up of four structures, each representing a direction. You are able to climb the south temple, and it’s usually the first structure you will see in Tikal. Looking down from the staircase, you will see nine ‘doors’, once again representing the nine levels of the underworld. Complex Q is rare and this kind of complex is only found in Tikal and one other location in Guatemala.

The Great Plaza 

The Great Plaza consists of Temple I, Temple II, and the Ball Courts. It’s a great place to spend the free time you get at the end of your tour. Fun fact: Tikal is still an active site for Maya rituals.

Would I Recommend This Tour?

I had a fabulous experience on my tour with Belize Family Adventures. My guide was extremely knowledgable {with a good sense of humor, extra points!}, transportation was air conditioned and roomy, lunch was included in the tour and provided by the on-site restaurant, and being able to do it all from my hostel in Belize was ideal.

With all that being said, I paid $150 USD for this tour. I KNOW. You can find tours significantly cheaper {as in half the price or more} if you are staying in Guatemala. If I were to do it all over again, I would have saved my cash and spent a day or two across the border in order to 1. enjoy more of what Guatemala has to offer and 2. get the highly discounted prices in Tikal National Park.

So, the verdict? I would absolutely recommend Belize Family Adventures — if money is not an issue and you are traveling from Belize. However, you can most likely find a very similar tour for a fraction of the price if you are staying in Guatemala itself. Most travelers stay in Flores and then head to Tikal from there.

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