Visiting Tikal

Recently I posted about visiting Chichen Itza, one of the 7 wonders of the world. I love visiting Mayan ruins and learning about their ancient culture. As wonderful as it is, I wouldn’t say that Chichen Itza is my favorite Mayan Ruins. For me, Tikal was mind blowing. Maybe it was because it was the first archaeological site we visited or maybe it was because of how large the site is, but we loved our time there. We spent an entire day visiting the site, and we could have spent 3 more days without seeing everything. It is the largest archaeological site in Central America and covers about 6 square miles. Even though we only had a day there, we fell in love and covered a lot of ground.

Getting there

We were staying in San Ignacio in Belize and  were trying to decide what we wanted to see. We only had a few days, so we wanted to make sure we got the most out of them. After looking at our options, we decided to take a day trip to visit the Tikal. Since Tikal is located in the rain forests of northern Guatemala, getting there was an adventure in itself. We were staying at the Midas Hotel in San Ignacio and arranged our trip through them. They were wonderful and made everything extremely easy. All we had to do was show up early in the morning and they took care of the rest. We met with a driver and a guide in the lobby the morning of our trip, and we were the only ones on the tour that day which was awesome. We loaded into a truck and started our day.

San Ignacio is very close to the Guatemalan border and crossing the border can be intimidating. Looking back, it actually wasn’t that bad. About 20 minutes into our trip, we reached the border and were instructed to get out of the truck. At first we were pretty worried because we didn’t understand what was going on. There has been some conflict at the Guatemalan/Belizean border and our driver couldn’t cross the border. I don’t really understand all of the immigration rules, but I do know the Guatemalan driver couldn’t pick us up in Belize and our Belizean driver couldn’t cross the border. Our guide walked us through customs and on the other side, another driver was waiting for us. Our guide had dual citizenship which is why he was able to accompany us so easily. I would highly recommend getting a tour guide because it made this process go much more smoothly and made it a lot less intimidating. Border crossing took about 20 minutes and we were on our way driving through beautiful Guatemala. It took a couple of hours to get to the site, but it was well worth it.

When to Go

We chose to visit Belize/Guatemala in the middle of May during “shoulder season”. It was extremely hot, but most of the spring break crowds had cleared out and rainy season hadn’t arrived yet. Dealing with the heat was bearable since we basically had the entire country to ourselves. Most of the attractions we visited were virtually empty and we were the only ones on most of our tours. As long as you don’t mind sunny, hot days, I would recommend this time of year.

What to Bring

Be prepared to do a lot of walking and hiking while at the site. If you go in May like we did, you’ll also want to be prepared for extremely hot weather. Here is a list of what I would bring:

  • water
  • snacks
  • hat
  • cash
  • passport
  • sunscreen
  • bug spray
  • sunglasses

Out of this list, the most important item is your passport. If you don’t bring that, you will not be able to go across the border and you will not be able to do your tour. If you bring cash, there are vendors at the ruins where you can buy a drink or a snack. We only had Belizean money and they were able to do a currency exchange for us. We probably overpaid for our snacks by doing that, but it was worth the convenience. Since it is extremely hot, you are going to want to have plenty of water with you so you can stay hydrated on your long trip. Our guide also had some water for us, but it was nice having extra available. We had a backpack to carry all of our stuff in which was very convenient. Sunscreen and bug spray also came in handy. A lot of the grounds are shaded, but you’ll still be in the sun a lot. Come prepared and you’ll thank yourself.

What to Wear

This is going to be one of those “do what I say, not as I do moments” because I didn’t get to choose my outfit the day we went to Tikal. When we arrived in Belize, my luggage did not make it. I know all of the things I should have done while packing, but I didn’t do any of them.  The only clothing I had was what I arrived in. Luckily, I had on comfortable travel clothes, but they weren’t what I would have chosen to wear for 4 days straight. Anyways, ignore my outfit in our pictures and just know you want to wear light, comfortable clothing.

If you are visiting in May, you’ll be sweating a lot, so something that wicks sweat is a must. I was wearing cotton on our trip, and it held moisture and I felt soggy all day. Go for lighter colors because it will help reflect the sunlight and will keep you cooler overall. Sunglasses are a must to help block out the blazing sun, and if you are a hat person, a hat or visor would also be a nice accessory. I wore my Teva sandals that day, and they were perfect for hiking around. You’ll want to wear footwear that is comfortable, but walkable. Anything like a good pair of tennis shoes, hiking sandals, or hiking boots will work fine. I’d avoid cheap, plastic sandals if you can because there is a good chance they could break while climbing up and down the ruins. Since the trails are well traveled, open toed shoes work fine.

The Ruins

I can’t begin to accurately describe how much we loved these ruins. They were the first set of ruins we visited on our travels, and maybe that’s why we are so partial to them. The grounds are extremely large and you can walk for miles and miles and still not see everything. Unlike other sites like Chichen Itza, a lot of Tikal has yet to be excavated. You will see mounds of dirt all around and every one of them represents a pyramid that has yet to be uncovered. To me, this was part of the charm.

If you are with a tour guide (which I would highly recommend), they will explain the evolution of the grounds and what each piece meant to the Mayans. We walked for what seemed like hours, and then our guide told us to turn around. We were right in the middle of the great plaza. It was an amazing sight. This is where you will find most of your vendors with snacks and drinks, so go ahead and take a break. Find a shady spot and enjoy it. One thing I really love about Tikal is how interactive you can be with the ruins. Most of the Pyramids can be climbed and the views from the top are spectacular. Most people are familiar with the “Star Wars View” and it was so cool to be able to see it in person. Whether you are a Star Wars fan or not, it is still an incredible view. It is a long hike to the top of Temple IV, but it is the only location where you can see 3 different pyramids.

Besides hot weather and a lot of ruins, you will also have the opportunity to see a lot of native animals. While we were there, we saw howler monkeys, toucans, and the national bird of Guatemala, the Quetzal. This is another example of why it is so wonderful to have a guide while visiting these ruins. He was able to point out all of the animals we probably would have missed otherwise.

We really enjoyed our day at Tikal and would eventually like to make a return trip. If you want more detailed information, check out their website. Have you been to Tikal? If so, do you have any tips or tricks? If so, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about it!

-xo Nancy