Tikal is a large archaeological site in the Guatemalan department of Petén. During the Classic Period it was one of the largest and most important of the Mayan cities. Today it's one of the most fascinating and enjoyable of the Mayan sites to visit, largely due to its remoteness, but also its jungle setting. Tourists still descend on it by the busload, but it's far from feeling overrun like Chichen Itza and other sites. Some of the temples are still being uncovered, and you can watch archaeologists busy at work. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
Tikal was a Maya city of great power and size, the largest of Maya cities during the "Classic Era" over 1000 years ago. Many beautiful buildings have been uncovered and many more wait to be discovered. Amongst the many Maya sites in Central America, Tikal is perhaps the most breathtaking because of the scattered impressive buildings which have been restored in an area with many more ruined buildings still enveloped by the jungle. The sight of the temples poking through the canopy is quite awesome. You can climb to the top of a few of the temples and get panoramic views from above the tree tops.
Tikal dates back as far as 400 BC, and grew into one of the largest and most powerful of the Mayan cities during the Classic Period (AD 200-900). It often clashed with other cities in the region, and was eventually defeated by Caracol in 562 AD. King Ah Cacau returned Tikal to its former glory about a century later, and it remained somewhat prosperous until the general decline of Mayan civilization set in around AD 900.
Tikal was eventually abandoned completely, consumed by the jungle, and pretty much fell off the map. Stories of its existence started to surface in the 17th & 18th centuries, but it wasn't until the mid-1800's that expeditions were hatched to explore and map it. After a hundred years of roughing it overland by horse and foot to reach the site, a small airstrip was built in the mid-fifties. The University of Pennsylvania oversaw major excavation work at Tikal during the 1960's, and the in the late 1970's, the government of Guatemala began the work you still see being done today.
During colonial times there was a legend spoken among the indigenous peoples in Guatemala of a lost city inside the jungle where their ancestors had thrived. In 1848 this legend became a reality. Tikal was discovered, arousing curiosity around the world.
Lots of very tall trees provide shade along the wide trails as you trek from one ruin to the next. With the exception of Temple IV the elevations are small. Very steep wooden staircases lead up to the temples that are open to the public. Only minimal disabled access is provided.
Flora and fauna
If you go early enough in the morning (or better still, stay at one of the hotels in the park), it's possible to see and hear the monkeys. Spider monkeys sleep together in large groups, but during the day they disperse. It's easiest to see them when they've woken up and are beginning to move around. Howler monkeys are more often heard than seen. Coatimundis,a racoon-like mammal and brightly colored wild "ocellated" turkeys, are everywhere. Toucans and other exotic birds contribute to the ruins' reputation for wonderful bird watching. Jaguars are rare but have been spotted on the more remote trails.
It's sunny, hot and humid in winter so dress lightly and bring water since you will be sweating climbing up the many steep steps of the monuments which are spread out. The trails are also muddy in a few places but there is plenty of shade under the canopy of trees. Winter nights can be cool.
The park's main gate opens at 6:00am, and officially closes at 6:00pm. Buses and minibuses come in from all surrounding areas on a well maintained road.
The San Juan Travel Agency has a virtual monopoly on the minibuses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores in the morning on the hour and costs Q120 roundtrip or Q60 one way leaving hourly from 4 to 10am, and then one more at 2pm (as of 7/8/12, I do not believe the 2 pm exists any more) (travel time: 75 mins). Return trips are at 12:30pm, and then hourly from 2 to 6pm.
Regular 30Q second class buses leave from the Santa Elena bus station to Tikal at 6, 6:30, 7, 8:30, 10, 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM, arriving two hours later. Later ones leaving at 1 and 3 PM continue onward to Uaxactún. The local buses do not run on Sundays. Beware about buying a round trip ticket from "Exploradores de la Cultura Maya" from the Santa Elena bus station as they may sell you a return ticket for a bus that doesn't exist.
Flores is the nearest gateway city and airport.
Adult tickets are Q150 ($20US). Children under 12 are free. There are no ATMs in Tikal, so be sure to bring enough cash to cover expenses.
Tickets purchased after 3:00pm are also valid the next day. If it's possible to arrange it so that you arrive just after 3:00pm, this is the best way to experience Tikal as you can see it in the late afternoon and again the following morning. (An earlier edit had said that this was not valid as of March 2011. As of July 2012, however, it is once again valid.)
You will also see a few black monkeys jumping high up among the trees.
There is a bus to Uaxactun that leaves at 4pm, the price is Q15 for the bus and Q25 for park entry, the bus returns at 6am the following day, well worth it if your camping at Tikal. Take food, water and sleeping gear with you (a hammock or sleeping mat and mosquito net should be adequate).
The Visitor's Center hosts a number of souvenir shops, selling T-shirts, assorted local handicrafts, snacks, drinks, and numerous guide books in English and Spanish of Tikal, the Maya, and Guatemala. Guatemalan highland’s textiles are also sold in a small rancho near the parking area.
There are a few nice Internet terminals in the Tikal Inn restaurant but they charge a hefty US$1 for 5 minutes.
Note that there is no ATM in the Visitor Center nor at the hotels.
The Visitor's Center offers food and drink during park opening hours but is rather expensive. The Jungle Lodge offers dinners, and some travellers report that it is better than the Tikal Inn. There are several comedores (food stalls) on the road leading from the ruins entrance to Flores.
The Jaguar Inn is cheaper than the visitors centre and a little more expensive than Tikal Comedor, they used to have high quality local meals, but now they have been removed from their menu, meals now are very average and service is really slow. That being said don´t buy bus tickets there, they charge Q500 for a ticket to Uaxactun whereas if you buy it from the ticket booth they charge Q25 ($3.50 US) for park entry and Q15 ($2 US) for the bus.
There are all sorts of drinks(cans and bottles of soda, juice, and water) available at kiosks in the visitor center reasonably priced considering that they could charge much more(my cold 600ml bottle of Coke was Q6, only Q1 more than I would pay in town). A 1.5 litre bottle of water from the Jaguar Inn costs Q10 (May 2008). If you're buying Orange Juice at the Jaguar Inn buy the bottled stuff (Q6 - Jugo De La Granja), I´m sure it is the same as the stuff in a glass but half the price. Around the Grand Plaza small covered shops offer water. These close pretty early so plan ahead and carry some extra water in the afternoon.
Many people prefer to stay in the park and wake up with the jungle to the sounds of birds and nature rather than the rickshaws of Flores, and staying here is the only way to be in the park for sunrise. Unfortunately the park options are not the cheapest, and demand often exceeds supply. Many stay in Flores and take an early shuttle bus to the park. There are also several cheap lodges lakeside in El Remate, where your hotel can arrange a shuttle pick up for you.
Three hotels located next to the park entrance provide decent but basic accommodation. All three cater to Western travellers and their amenities and prices reflect this. For those on a shoestring, try asking if you can rent a hammock, or just a spot to hang your own, under a palapa roof.
For the budget traveler there is a camp site (Q50 per person or per site, not sure which). They have tents you can rent if you didn't bring your own Q50. At the Jaguar Inn, you can get into the jungle mood by renting hammocks (with a mosquito net, access to showers and toilets), or a place to hang your own. Sleeping in a hammock is a surprisingly comforatable way to sleep. Many of the locals do it.
If you need your bags kept securely there is an additional Q5 ($0.80 US) fee. There are a lot of insects that bite, mosquitos aren´t that bad during the dryer months but there are other nasty insects about. Keep the fly wire screen on your tent zipped tight and get in and out of your tent as quickly as possible. A can of bug spray would be very helpful. There are a lot of bees on the lawn in the camp area so wear something on your feet.
The park is reasonably safe, but robberies (and worse) have happened in the not too distant past, and you should keep aware of your surroundings. Definitely best to travel in groups along some of the more remote trails, especially to Templo VI.
Be especially careful with the bus rides from Flores to Tikal, as there have been a recent rash of robberies on the main highway. Only take a bus that leaves on the hour and is on time. A bus that leaves Flores late will not have the security of police protection that an on-time bus will have. Either way, do not carry more money than you will need at Tikal.
If you are heading to Belize from Tikal, you have few options. To leave directly from Tikal, you'll have to hire a cab all the way to the border, which can be pricey. You can return to Flores to catch a chicken bus, but most departures are in the morning and early afternoon. The best option is to plan to return to Flores and stay the night before moving east.