Red dress in front of the sunset pyramid of Tikal

Is Tikal Worth It? Complete Tikal Experience Guide (2023)

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When we first started planning our trip to Guatemala, Tikal frequently came up as one of the must-see places. However, upon checking the map, Tikal was located far up at the northern end of Guatemala. This was a long way from the main international airport in Guatemala City, the colonial town of Antigua, and Lake Atitlan, which were the other highly recommended spots to visit. So we wondered if it was worth the trek all the way up just to see it. 

Is Tikal worth it?

If you know me by now, you’ll realize that I do a ton of research in order to make sure we optimize our travel experiences. We never just take a recommendation simply because it comes up often. Most travel guides will simply re-iterate the most popular sites without much thought to the worthiness of the experience there.

So in this article, we want to give you our honest and personal opinion about our experience at Tikal.

Let’s go exploring!

View of one of the pyramids at Tikal

What is Tikal?

In the heart of the jungle in northern Guatemala lies one of the largest cities in the Mayan civilization. Tikal, dating back to 900 AD, it was comprised of over 3000 structures spanning about 576 square kilometres. Historians believe that the city once held a population of about 90,000 people and was one of the most important political and cultural centres of the Mayan era.

Tikal has been recognized and declared a UNESCO Heritage site in 1979. Today, it is a remarkably preserved Mayan ruin located deep within the Guatemalan rainforest. Tikal is also home to the highest Mayan temple ever built. Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double-headed Serpents, stands an astounding 65 meters (213 feet) high and is located in a Grand Plaza of impressively preserved Mayan structures.

Tikal Grand Plaza view from the side
View of top of temple black and white

It was interesting to learn that it took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover about 10 mi2 of structures at Tikal. As you will see, much of it is still left to be unearthed, adding to the mystery and fascination of the site.  

Is Tikal worth it?

As you can probably tell from our description of Tikal, it is a truly fascinating site. But is it worth it to go all the way up to Northern Guatemala just to see Tikal?

We would say it is definitely worth it!

Over the past decade of travel, we have visited countless ruins across the globe and even then, Tikal remains one of the most impressive. Part of the reason why it was so special is how Tikal is perfectly preserved within its natural environment, deep within the lush rainforest. In order to access the site, you need to drive around 45 minutes deep into the forest, far away from cities and the rest of civilization. There, you are truly immersed in the environment that the Mayans lived in.

Tikal temple from deep in the forest brush

You get your first glimpse of the temples from in between the trees and dense brush. Peaking high above the tree line, it almost feels surreal that such an ancient structure still exists. There are no tourist railings, souvenir stores, or large cleared-out areas. You feel as if you are the first explorers discovering this ruin, arduously chopping through the trail.

This is what makes Tikal so special to us. Instead of feeling like a tourist site, it felt like a jungle discovery adventure.

View from the side of the structure on Pyramid II

This is largely different from another Mayan ruin we previously visited in Mexico, Chichen Itza. At Chichen Itza, the walkway was paved and cleared, lined with countless souvenir shops heckling you to buy their discounted products. Despite the temples being well preserved, they are located in a massive land clearing filled with tour groups and crowds.

You are also not allowed to climb up the temples at Chichen Itza and have few opportunities to interact with the structures. Due to that previous experience, we had our reservations about visiting another Mayan site.

Fortunately, Tikal exceeded all our expectations and was definitely worthwhile!

To give you a sense of what you’ll see and experience there, below we highlight some of our favourite experiences in Tikal!

Our favourite experiences in Tikal

Entering the Grand Plaza

The Grand Plaza was one of the centres of Tikal. As you step into this grand square, you are surrounded by the imposing structures of Temple I and Temple II. Temple I was known as the Temple of the Jaguar and Temple II was called Temple of the masks.

Additionally, you can climb up to the top of Temple II from the safe wooden stairs. This is fortunate since the ancient rock steps of the temple looked incredibly dangerous and steep. I can’t even imagine the courage it took for the Mayan rulers, adorned in 10kg of gold and jade, to be able to climb up to the top.

View of Grand Plaza from top of pyramid I

Once you reach the top, you have the rare opportunity to experience what it would’ve been like as a Mayan king ruling over the city. Gazing over the entire plaza, you get a feeling of the sheer ingenuity and power that existed during the Mayan civilization.

Due to the incredible architectural acoustics of the Grand Plaza, the Mayan ruler’s speech could be heard from across the entire square. In fact, you will have the chance to experience this by standing in the centre of the plaza and clapping your hands. You will notice that the clap reverberates in the entire space.

Sunset above the temple

Sunsets are always magical. But imagine you get to experience a sunset like the ones witnessed by the Mayan people over a thousand years ago, sitting atop the temple that they built.

Sunset view from top of pyramid at Tikal

As we watched the fiery orange sun set below the horizon, we were surrounded by the cacophony of calls from toucans and howler monkeys. During the entire sunset, everybody is asked to stay silent so you can fully experience all the sights and sounds. It was truly one of the most magical sunsets we’ve ever witnessed.

Countless photography opportunities

The ruins of Tikal are absolutely stunning to photograph. The site retains so much history and preserves the intricate details of the carvings and sculptures.

Since the National Park is massive, you will have many opportunities to capture photos without too much crowds around. The fact that there are also dense trees all around also helps to enhance the feeling of remoteness and nature.

view of Grand Plaza from a unique viewpoint on the western side

You will also have the opportunity to photograph the main temples from ground level, the view from the top of the temples, and finally the incredible Guatemalan sunset.

💡 Tip: For an amazing view of the Grand Plaza, climb up the stairs of the structure on the Western side of the square, head left until you see some narrow alleys, and walk down one of the alleys. From there, you will be elevated and overlook both Temple I, II, and the central Plaza.

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Seeing and hearing the animals

As previously mentioned, the mystique of the ruins was amplified by the fact that it is surrounded by dense forests. The experience is even further amplified by the presence of so many animals and birds that live within Tikal National Park. In fact, we saw more animals here than in some of the trekking excursions we made in the Amazon rainforest.

Raccoon like animals all around Tikal
Turkeys all around Tikal site

Roaming all over the site are ocellated turkeys, coatis (similar species as a raccoon), spider monkeys, and howler monkeys. If you don’t see them high in the trees, then you will certainly hear them. Howler monkeys are considered one of the loudest animals on the planet, and their vocalizations can be heard clearly from over 3 miles away! Finally, there are also Jaguars there but the chance of seeing them is highly rare. Which might be a good thing!

This made our adventure at Tikal so much more than just a historical experience, but also a nature experience.

Getting to hold a tarantula

This experience may not be for everybody but we thought it was something quite special. I am actually terrified of spiders so I was particularly surprised when I heard myself saying “Sure, you can put the tarantula in my hand”.

Of course, we were instructed by our tour guide who made sure that it was safe. He had identified a tarantula hole and then using a stick, was able to lure it out. In order to get the venom out of its fangs, he used the stick to lure the spider to attack. The guide told us that after injecting venom, it becomes a lot more docile and safer to handle. It was only then that we were allowed to pick it up.

Nan holding a Tarantula in her hands during Flores Guatemala itinerary

As creepy as the feeling was to hold it, it also provided this sense of connection with Mother Nature. If you are interested in having this experience, make sure to ask your guide.

Stories of the Mayans

During your visit to Tikal, you will have the chance to learn so much about the Mayan civilizations. One thing that really fascinated us was the Mayan ingenuity of Mathematics. Using mathematics not only helped with constructional calculations and following celestial movements but also later devised their famous Mayan calendar.

Mayan Calendar

The Mayans used a 20-base numerical system and unlike most other civilizations, actually had the concept and use of zero. 

The number 1 was denoted by a dot, 2 by two dots, 5 by a line, 10 by 2 lines, and so on. Zero was depicted by a shell. Twenty was 1 line and 1 shell. We were fascinated to learn how this system was used and also to see how the Guatemalan currency still retains this numbering system.

Notice how this 200 Quetzales bill is depicted by 2 lines and a shell.

200 Quetzales bill

We also learned about the Mayan calendar and their belief in Nawals, which are the ancient form of astrology and horoscopes. It was very fun to use a research tool to find our own Nawals and see if it accurately described each of us!

During your guided tour, you will have the opportunity to learn this and so much more about the Mayan civilization.

This post is part of our series about Guatemala. If you want to learn more about Guatemala, planning your trip, and some of the best experiences there, check out the guides below:

Tikal, Yaxha, or both?

If you have time, I would recommend visiting both.

Tikal and Yaxha each provide a very unique experience.

Tikal is more grand with very tall temples and the Grand Plaza. The scale of the structures is very impressive and provides more of the sense of how it used to be a massive city.

On the other hand, Yaxha has smaller temples, each relatively isolated, but is more remote and has fewer tourists. At Yaxha, you can also climb more of the temples.

Ryan at Tikal Temple I
Tikal ruins
Yaxha ruin Nan watching the next building
Yaxha ruins

Regarding the sunset, we enjoyed the view better at Tikal, but the experience was better at Yaxha.

If you have the time for one only, we would recommend going to Tikal as it is one of the most famous Mayan sites in the world.

Best Tikal tours

How long do you need to visit Tikal?

Even though the Tikal site is massive, it can certainly be accomplished in one day.

Most tours will have you spend around 5-6 hours on site which is sufficient to see most of the main temples. During our tour, we never felt rushed and had free time to explore each of the main temples. We also had the time to venture off to take photos. The guide provided clear instructions to us and always waited for us before moving on.

If ever you want to spend more time at Tikal, then you have the option of staying one night on-site. They are located a few minutes walk from the site and will provide you with a very unique opportunity to experience the jungle after dark.

The three hotels on the Tikal National Park site are the:

How to get to Tikal?

To get to Tikal, first, you need to reach the North of Guatemala. The main airport you need to arrive at is Mundo Maya International Airport, located just a few minutes from Flores. There are several daily flights that connect with Guatemala City. It is also possible to take a bus from Guatemala City but it is very LONG, taking over 11 hours.

Tikal is located around 1 hour and 15 minutes drive from the main town of Flores. In order to get to Tikal, you have the option of booking a guided tour, booking just transport, or taking a taxi.

Map of routes to get to Flores and Tikal Guatemala
base map from, modified to add locations and transport info

We would highly recommend booking a guided tour which includes arranged transport and a professional guide. The information provided by the guide is invaluable and will truly enhance your experience. The site is also quite large so without a guide, you will be aimlessly wandering around. For the best Tikal-guided experience, we would recommend booking with Los Amigos Hostel or this Sunset Tikal tour!

If you prefer to just have arranged transportation, it is possible through Los Amigos Hostel. They offer round-trip transport on a bus for around 100 Quetzales. The buses depart at 4:30 am, 6 am, 8 am, and 10 am. The return time is respectively 12:30 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm. This means that the total time allotted is 6 hours, which gives you about 3.5 hours on site.

The final option is hailing a taxi. However, due to the remoteness of Tikal National Park, and also requiring return transport, we feel that a taxi would not be a good option.

Best time to visit Tikal

The best time to visit Tikal is during the months of November until April. This coincides with the dry season in Guatemala, and thus the high season, but you have the best chance for good weather. 

Seeing as Tikal is located within the rainforest, visiting during the rainy season between May to October is not recommended. With rain, the roads may be inaccessible and the site may be covered in mud.

View from the side of the structure on Pyramid II

We visited at the end of November and enjoyed perfect weather. The skies were clear, the temperatures were not too hot, and the site was not too crowded.

Where should you base yourself?

The closest and main town to Tikal is Flores, Guatemala. Most people will base themselves in Flores in order to visit Tikal, Yaxha, as well as other surrounding activities. 

The town of Flores is small but has a very surprising charm. It is located on a small island, surrounded by the beautiful Lake Petén, and has some delicious restaurants. We spent 4 days in Flores and really enjoyed our experience there.

Colorful wall in Flores

Wondering what to do other than Tikal? Check out our guide on the ideal 3, 4, or 5 day itinerary in Flores.

Entrance ticket costs to Tikal

🛑 Important! Make sure to bring your passport as you will need to show it when entering the site. There is a particular ticket for foreign visitors so you will need to prove your residency at the ticket counter

The type of ticket you purchase for Tikal will depend on whether you are doing the sunrise, mid-day, or sunset tour.

First, you will need the base entrance ticket which costs 150 Quetzales per person. If you are going for sunrise or sunset, then you will need to buy an additional hours ticket that costs 100 Quetzales per person. This will permit you to enter the site before/after opening hours in order to witness the sunrise/sunset.

Guided tour price + Base ticket price (150Q) ± Early/late entry ticket (100Q)

To see the ticket prices and options, visit the official ticketing site. They have offices in Flores and Tikal where you can purchase the tickets.

As an example, when we did the sunset tour, we had to pay for our guided tour, then 150Q for the entrance, and 100Q for the sunset hours. This means that our Tikal entrance costs 250Q.

If you want a carefree experience, then I would recommend booking a guided tour where they take care of all of it for you, including the entrance tickets.

Click here to book this 5-star Tikal Sunset tour!

Do you need a guide in Tikal?

We would highly recommend using a guide at Tikal.

Normally when we travel, we like the freedom of exploring on our own but at Tikal, we opted for a guide. Part of the reason was because it combines with the transportation, but mainly because we wanted to truly learn the history of the site. 

Without a guide, we would’ve wandered aimlessly through the site. Although the ruins would still be very impressive, without the stories behind them, the structures are less alive. Our guide was also a native of Guatemala, which provided further insight into the life and culture there.

Since the National Park is actually quite big, you can also end up getting lost.

sculptures of a Mayan face at Tikal
Temples peaking above the tree line in Tikal

During our tour, we spent a bit more time at one of the temples. In order to get to the sunset site on time, we ended up taking a shortcut through the forest trail. Without a guide, we would’ve had no clue how to get to the sunset site, and definitely would not have known the shortcut. In that case, we might’ve missed the sunset.

Visiting Tikal is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you certainly do not want to lose out on experiencing it fully.

For that reason, we would highly recommend using a guide in Tikal.

Apparently, it is possible to hire a guide on-site but there is no guarantee a guide will always be readily available.

Visiting tikal FAQ

Is Tikal Safe?

Tikal is perfectly safe. Given its remote location and the fact that it is a UNESCO site, the area is quite secure. There are also guards patrolling the area. The only risk would be falling down the stairs of the pyramid so make sure to wear comfortable and sturdy shoes.

Can you visit Tikal without a tour?

It is possible to visit Tikal without a tour by simply booking the transport. However, without a guide, you will miss out on many of the interesting stories and history of the site.

Can you climb the temples at Tikal?

Yes, there are several temples that you can climb at Tikal. These include Temple IV, Temple II, and Central Acropolis. There are signs posted in front of each temple that will clearly indicate whether you are allowed to climb the structure.

Can you visit Tikal from Belize on a day trip?

Yes, it is possible to visit Tikal from Belize as a day trip, as long as you are near the Belizean border already. From Belize City, getting to Tikal would take around 5 hours so it is too far. However, if you are at the Belizean border town of San Ignacio, this tour could be a great option for visiting Tikal! Or if you want to just arrange transport from Belize to Tikal, you can book with this arranged transport!

What else is there to see when visiting Tikal?

If you are visiting Tikal, that means you have made the trek into Northern Guatemala and will likely be basing yourself in Flores. Some of the other amazing things to see in the area include the town of Flores, the Mayan ruins of Yaxha or Uaxactun or Xunantunich, and Crater Azul

If you have several more days, then you can embark on the El Mirador Trek! Check out this 5-day all-inclusive El Mirador Trekking tour!

Is Tikal similar to Chichen Itza?

If you’ve read all the way down here, you will have certainly already seen my comparison of Tikal With Chichen Itza. In summary, Tikal is far more impressive than Chichen Itza. It is more integrated with nature, has a diverse fauna, is far less touristic, and feels a lot more authentic

Although they are both Mayan sites, Chichen Itza felt more like a tourist attraction rather than a historical adventure. They are both beautiful but if I were to choose, I would recommend Tikal hands-down.

Conclusion: Is Tikal worth it?

Tikal for us was one of the highlights of our trip to Guatemala. It added such a culturally rich experience and allowed us to discover this mysterious ancient civilization. We definitely felt that Tikal was worth it and worth bringing yourself all the way up to the northern regions.

While there, make sure to enjoy all the activities Flores and its surrounding areas has to offer.

Tikal temple stairs sunset view

For the rest of your Guatemala trip, make sure to stop by Antigua to visit the impressive colonial city, as well as climb up the active volcano Acatenango. If you want to find the perfect spot to relax and unwind, go just 1 hour further away from Antigua to one of the most beautiful hotels in Lake Atitlan, which can be reached by shuttle.

Also, check out this post to learn more about how much we spent on our Guatemala Trip!