The Tikal Ruins and Tikal National Park, known for their role in Star Wars and as an important Mayan site, is perfect for one nights accommodation and staying overnight (either camping or in a hotel) to see the many temples and ancient ruins on site.
We decided to try staying overnight to make the most of the sites 6am open time, in the hope of beating the crowds and possibly seeing a great sunrise from on top of a temple. Combining this with the chance to see spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and toucans gave us further resolve to sleep in the wilderness!
We made our way across the border from Belize and after crossing into Guatemala quickly found a colectivo heading to Flores in Guatemala.
For anyone considering crossing the border in a similar manner, simply take a bus or taxi to the border on the Belizean side, then walk across the border taking care to get the correct stamps. Ignore all calls for Taxi’s and walk yourself across the bridge into Guatemala. Once you cross the bridge either take your first street on the left to find the colectivo depot, or like us wait to be asked by a young boy working for the colectivo driver! Once on the colectivo, make sure they know you only want to go to the town of Ixlú/El Cruce which should cost 30GTQ. From this crossroads, take another colectivo heading for Tikal for 20GTQ.
We made our first mistake when we arrived at the gates to Tikal at around 12 noon, will all intentions of heading into the site and setting up camp ready to explore the site in the morning. Unfortunately entry into the national park includes entry to the park for that day only, and you can only pay for entry the next day at 3:00pm!
We sat around at a tienda for 3 hours talking with some Argentinian guys biking from Panama (wow!), before finally being let in. We were lucky that our colectivo driver returned for us to take us into the park, as from the entrance it is 17km to the actual ruins.
Once arriving we headed to the campground to check out the camping spots, and were charged 75GTQ each for the use of a tent undercover and bag storage. It also cost an extra 50GTQ to stay overnight (per person). We have been quoted different prices from different travelers for the right to camp, and have also read about other prices online that were similar to ours. You can also try the Jaguar Inn for either hotel rooms or camping spots as they offer them on their grounds.
After a mostly comfortable sleep (no sleeping bags provided so dress warm!), we awoke at 5am to head into the site right on 6am. We had noticed there was a sunrise tour for an extra 100GTQ, however it seems most days here are cloudy in the morning and it is generally not worth the entry cost.
The site of Tikal was amazing, full of large temples and spread far and wide; it took most of the morning and some of the afternoon to see it all (we also walked 20km throughout the day!). We were also fortunate enough to see spider and howler monkeys, alongside toucans!
Some of our highlights of the ruins themselves (as a mini guide) include:
As you first walk through the main entrance of the park towards the main temples, you can take a shortcut leading to Temple 1 and the Grand Plaza. This eerily empty area used to represent the market place for the Maya, and at 6am in the morning provides a perfectly quiet and calm backdrop for what you are about to come across.
There is something serene about an open clearing in the jungle with only the birds (and probably monkeys) for company!
The Grand Plaza:
Continuing your walk you will reach the grand plaza, which encompasses a large area of Temple 1, Temple 2, and the ball courts, all between the Central and North Acropolises.
This is a massive area to explore, where after the initial ‘wow’ of seeing Temple 1 from behind, you discover the Plaza itself and all that it has to offer. Both Temple 1 and Temple 2 were ordered by one ruler, with Temple 1 completed in his lifetime and then Temple 2 by his son. Whilst you cannot climb Temple 1, you can climb Temple 2 and obtain a wonderful view of the entire area.
Finally, exploration of the Central and North Acropolises provides an insight into how the past rulers of Tikal lived (in and around the Central Acropolis) and died (all were buried in the North Acropolis).
We had heard (and seen) the Star Wars connection to Tikal, and next made our way up the long staircase to climb Temple IV. This temple acts as a tomb and provides a stunning view out over the jungle back over the entire site. It really provides a great perspective of what you can actually see and what the canopy hides (which is mostly everything except for the tops of a few temples).
Many tourists pay a little extra to come into Tikal at around 4:30am to try and catch the sunrise from atop Temple IV. We would not recommend this as a lot of the time the clouds roll in over Tikal and give you nothing but shrouded mist (like we got!). Also, you are paying double for something you can nearly do yourself depending on the time of year. For example, our sunrise was scheduled for 6:30am, and if you enter the site right on 6 you would be fairly close to making it on time (if you walk fast)!
Mundo Perdido (Lost World):
It has an excellent name, and it provides a number of smaller temples all situated in a similar sized area to the Grand Palace. We liked this area as the walk to it was through the jungle, and we also only saw around 3 or 4 other people the entire time we were walking around – not bad to have a number of Mayan ruins all to yourself!
We also were able to see toucans in the area here (as well as in other parts of the park) which was a real treat.
Plaza de los Siete Templos (Plaza of the Seven Temples):
More temples abound, and also the largest ball court area that has been found within Mayan ruins. Walking around here was a similar experience to Mundo Perdido, in that we rarely saw anyone else on our travels.
Besides supplying ball courts, the site of course includes 7 small temples which surround the court itself. They were added later on to create a massive square.
Between the Plaza of the Seven Temples and Temple V, we came across many howler monkeys alongside spider monkeys. We were pleasantly surprised as both groups proceeded to both howl and play (or gather food) for almost 1 hour whilst we watched from afar.
Once we reached Temple V, we were blown away by its size. Whilst Temple IV is bigger, you get a much closer view of Temple V in all its glory at 57 metres high. It was built around AD 700 in a similar style to temples found in other Mayan sites. This is known as the “Early Classic”.
These were by far our highlights of staying in Tikal National Park, and visiting the Tikal Mayan ruins. We would definitely recommend sleeping overnight at this site, and for taking it one adventurous step further and camping out with the wildlife – who knows, maybe you’ll end up seeing a jaguar!