The Most Powerful of the Maya Kingdoms
At the very heart of the Maya civilization we reach Tikal, the most important of the ancient capitals they had (there were 4 of them). The most powerful of all the kingdoms the Maya world was structured of. Remotely located in the middle of the pristine jungle of northern Guatemala, around one hour bus drive from Flores, means the hordes of tourists you see in Chichen Itza are not even a tenth in here. We were extremely lucky to enjoy the site almost to ourselves alone and have most of the pictures with no one else around.
Merely 20% of the site has been excavated and exposed to the public, the other 80% lies beneath the thick and dense jungle. You can guess from the many tree-covered mounts that an structure is underneath. Infra-red studies made by NASA show over 4000 constructions! You can imagine the vast size of this place if everything would be uncovered.
Fortunately, what you see today is well enough to give you an idea of how powerful Tikal once was while the many ongoing works to discover, uncover and restore are slowly expanding the area to the visitors.
You will find the tallest pyramids ever built by the Mayans, and surprisingly, these are some of the best preserved. Of course the many restoration works helped to retain for future generations what we can admire today. It is possible to climb a few of them, being the one at the Great Plaza the most iconic for the views you will get of the plaza and surrounding constructions, but will explain better in the next sections below.
Templo IV is the tallest pre-Columbian structure ever built. You can climb to the top using the wooden stairs attached to the back and one of its sides. These are not very visible at first look but they are there and it’s a must do for the incredible views you will have at the top.
For more information about Tikal visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Guatemala’s currency is the Quetzal (GTQ). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to get there
Tikal is 60 km away from Flores. The best, fastest and easiest way to get is on a shuttle bus. Few companies offer those services at frequencies of around 3 services on the way in, and 3 for the way back each company. Prices vary but the most famous is San Juan Travel Agency. Forget any useless comment from some people over the internet with troubles they had with them. They were the best with difference!
They come and pick from your hotel at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9am, and back at 12.30, 14.00, 15.30, 17.00pm, as you can see, giving you plenty of choice. The journey time is approximately 75 minutes and the cost is 120 Quetzals for a return.
What is extremely important is that you are present at least 20 minutes before the departure time. If the shuttle gets full, you will need to wait for the next one. Please remember to keep your ticket. If your ticket is the same paper for both ways, make sure you take it back after you show to the driver when you get in.
For a good timing, take the 8am and return at 15.30pm. This gives you plenty of time to visit everything at slow peace with plenty of time for rest. Any shorter than this will not be enough, any longer might be too long. Once you visit all, there is nothing else to do, so bear this in mind.
The archaeological site of Tikal opens from 07.00am until 17.30pm, and as explained in other Maya cities in my travel blog, you need to purchase 2 tickets in order to get inside. The total cost is 150 Quetzals, but as it is likely you will be coming on one of the shuttle buses, the money for the entrance will be collected prior to the arrival to the gates. As a note, the guy who purchased the tickets for everyone in the bus do not give the tickets to each person. Should you wish to get yours, do not hesitate in asking for it. Obviously you are not being cheated, you can see the price you paid is the same as printed in the ticket.
How to visit Tikal
Watch out for the crocodiles on the lake once you enter the site. Signs alert of it and chances that you see one resting by the shore are high. As long as you do not approach them too near then there is nothing to worry about. You will also see monkeys, lots of birds and families of coatis passing literally centimetres away from you digging for food. Although harmless to humans they can be aggressive if you touch them. Other animals are jaguars and tarantulas for example which you will not get to see (luckily). Those are night animals so nothing to worry again. Apart from that, be sure you put sun cream and anti mosquito spray. Not the usual one, but a strong one. Jungle formula are the best.
Most of the path is unpaved nor gritted or formed with small stones as other Maya cities have for easy access and walk around but this is not a problem at all should you wish to take your flip flops. There is really no need for any special shoe for your comfort. I was perfectly fine with my flip flops even knowing until the day before it was raining a lot for many days.
And very important, buy yourself a map. For only 10 Quetzals they will sell you those upon arrival. You really need a map if you want to see everything. Most of the paths are really small and not easy to navigate if you don’t see them printed on a map. This way you can create your own route without loosing any time or missing any important group of temples in the way. Try to do a circle in which you leave for the end the Great Plaza. You might wonder why, well it’s simple, every tourist will head towards the Great Plaza the first so expect to have everyone around and in the middle of your pictures. If instead you go off the main path towards the Templo IV you will have everything for yourself with no one around.