Coatimundi on Temple IV in Tikal

My Amazing Encounters With Wildlife in Tikal National Park

It may not be the main reason to visit the famous archaeological site, but encounters with wildlife in Tikal are an added benefit of the experience. First and foremost known as an ancient Maya archaeological site, Tikal is also a protected wildlife preserve. During my recent visit, besides the famous pyramid-temples, I enjoyed the dense forest and within it the amazing array of wildlife I encountered. Perhaps even more so.

We watched a family of howler monkeys move into a tree, and enjoy the fresh leaves, until there were no more left, coatis walking up and down the steps of Pyramid IV and several other places, spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree near us, colorful ocellated turkeys strolling in grassy areas near the structures, woodpeckers and countless number of other birds. All this, while surrounded by thousands of trees, under their dense canopy, was maybe even more special than the ruins themselves.

Tikal National Park protects both an ancient archaeological site and an immense nature reserve surrounding it

Tikal National Park is home of both ancient Maya ruins and high-rise pyramids, and to miles upon miles of protected rainforest, as part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Located in the Petén Province of Northern Guatemala, the park sits in a huge tropical jungle often referred to as the Maya Forest, embedded in the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Created in 1990, the Maya Biosphere Reserve protects close to four thousand square miles (over one million hectares) of tropical rainforest wetlands, and savannas. In the middle of this reserve, Tikal National Park extends to about 222 square miles (57,600 hectares) of this protected area.

A few tall ancient structures peek out from the dense jungle canopy of this enormous forest. When visiting these structures, walking from one to another, we, as visitors to the famous archaeological site get the experience of a lifetime encountering a large array of wildlife.

About the Maya Forest

According to the UNESCO World Heritage site description of Tikal, the landscape of the Maya Forest consists of savannas, lush forests, wetlands, and various freshwater systems, making it one of the “conservation gems of Central America”.

Although it seems pristine, and untouched by man, this area didn’t always look the same. At the height of the Maya civilization, when Tikal was a thriving city, most of the forest surrounding the monumental structures would have been gone.

And this is why we can have hope for our planet. This seemingly pristine ecosystem represent an impressive natural recovery after intensive use of land and resources during centuries of development of the Maya civilization. And the recovery is still ongoing, as we can see from several of the still unexcavated structures. When you look at Temple III from the ground, for example, it look like a natural mound, overgrown by vegetation. Only from a higher ground can you see its impressive top, high above the jungle canopy.

This ongoing biological and ecological recovery process is supported by the conservation areas within the Maya Forest.

As a result, the Petén Region and the Maya Forest are home to an impressive array of flora and fauna. This includes over 2,000 high plants, with about 200 tree species, over 100 species of mammals, many of them endangered, over 330 species of birds, over 100 species of reptiles and several amphibian species. Besides all this, you can find wild varieties of several agricultural plants.

Encounters with Wildlife in Tikal

Along the trails or on top of high-rise pyramid-temples, you can always see wildlife in Tikal.

Howler Monkey Family Near Temple IV

My most unforgettable encounter was with a family of howler monkeys on top of Pyramid IV. They weren’t on the pyramid, but very close in the trees eye-level with the top of the structure.

My favorite encounter with wildlife in Tikal: Howler monkey family eye level with the top of Temple IV I was watching them from.
A howler monkey family feasting near Temple IV

I noticed them as soon as I stood on top of Pyramid IV, the highest structure in Tikal, standing tall above the jungle canopy. The howler family was resting in a couple of nearby trees. Since we spent at least an hour on top of the pyramid, we were also there when they started moving.

Leaping from tree to tree, they made their way to another, tree cluster, in this case filled with just budding fresh leaves. I watched them as they settled in a new tree, mothers, kids, and babies, and started munching on the fresh leaves. It was mesmerizing, especially watching the babies trying to climb from one branch to another; my motherly instinct was about to yell several times “careful, little one”, but they were always safe, under the watchful eyes of the mother or older siblings.

I caught an older member of the family sitting on the highest branch, looking out into the distance, as if he was contemplating the ancient Maya Temples visible above the canopy.

They were still eating away when we finally left.

We returned to the same spot the next day, around the same time in the afternoon. There was no sign of the howler monkeys. However, we noticed that the tree they were feasting on was bare, with no leaves at all. The howler family ate it all, then for next day they moved on to another tree, somewhere in the distance. It also made me realize how lucky we were to see them so closely.

Although you can see them all over Tikal, this was not the only time we saw them, However, it was the closest I’ve ever been to them.

Coatimundis everywhere

We saw more coatis than any other wildlife in Tikal. They seemed to like the structures, though maybe that’s just where we happened to see them.

Coatimundis in the North Acropolis in Gran Plaza in Tikal.
A family of coatis near stelae on the North Acropolis in the Gran Plaza

As soon as I walked to the Gran Plaza, I noticed a group of coatis walking through the ball court into the plaza. Later, I saw others near Pyramid II.

Others were walking around the snack areas, hoping for a bite from visitors who stopped for a drink or food. Luckily I haven’t seen anyone feed them, but I’m sure they found morsels nearby.

Of course I saw a few on top of Temple IV; the highest point at the site is not only favorite of humans and howler monkeys, but coatis, as well.

And before we left the ruins on our second day, I spotted several families walking around the North Acropolis in the Gran Plaza.

Spider Monkeys In The Trees

Of course I also noticed spider monkeys several times in the trees above us, especially if we sat for a few minutes near the structures.

Spider monkey leaping from tree to tree near Lost World Pyramid
Spider monkey leaping from tree to tree near the Lost World pyramid

In the Lost World Complex several of them were leaping from tree to tree, seemed to be playing above us while we sat down for a snack.

Woodpeckers Everywhere

Of course, we heard and saw lots of birds, the most distinctive of them the bright red-headed woodpeckers, knocking on the tree trunks. When we sat in the plaza of the Seven Temples, I had time to observe two of them as they moved around a tree trunk, searching for bugs.

Woodpecker in Tikal
A colorful woodpecker near the Plaza of Seven Temples

Colorful Ocellated Turkeys

Walking along the trail, we also spotted several colorful ocellated turkeys, a near-threateed species.

Ocellated turkey in Tikal
Ocellated turkey wandering around the ruins of Tikal

Tikal Is Worth Visiting Not Only For Its Temples, But Also For Its Wildlife

We didn’t take the sunrise or sunset tours, so all our encounters happened during our daily walks through the site. Wildlife is more active early mornings and at sunset, so if you take those tours, you might see even more. Although I heard people mention that they saw more wildlife during normal opening hours than on their tour, so it’s mostly luck. And the ability to spend longer time in one place.

So, this is one of the reasons I am a great advocate of spending more than one day in Tikal. Though you might be able to see everything in one day, if you take it slow and stop often, you are more likely to notice wildlife. It is a matter of noticing them, after all; They are always around.

If You Go…

Most people visit Tikal from Flores in Guatemala. However, you have another option, to go from Belize as a three-day trip. It is what we did, since it is easier to fly to Belize, and Tikal is much closer to the Belize international airport than to the Guatemala one. I prefer not to take small planes – like what you would need to take to Flores – if I can help it.

The best way to experience Tikal is to stay at one of the hotels near it, within walking distance. This way, you can spend maximum time in the park, from opening to closing time. And, as a bonus, you will see wildlife near your hotel, too.

We saw several different types of birds, toucans, a large group of coatis, and howler monkeys at our hotel, the Tikal Inn.

Coatis near Tikal Inn
Coatis near Tikal Inn

Recommendations and Resources

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Read more about your destination, and use guidebooks when you go:

Carrying a physical book with you might be old-fashioned, but in a world where cell service is spotty or nonexistent, it pays to do so. The Lonely Planet guide books are my go-to travel books. If buying a book through my link, a 10% discount will be automatically applied to your purchase (but if you don’t see the discount, use coupon code EMESEFROMM10). If your visit to Tikal is part of a longer trip through Central America, I recommend Lonely Planet’s Best of Central America Travel Guide.

Book your flight:

When flying anywhere, check several different sites to find the best deals. Unless you know what airline you are using use (and have a credit card with points from that airline), you could checkCheapOairandWayAwayfor deals.

Book your rental car:

To compare prices of different car rental companies,Discover Carsis a great place to start. Or,

Book your accommodations:

You can useTrivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place You can also just book through the hotel directly; Tikal Inn has a website you can use.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and in 2023 attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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