Tikal. View of the Gran Plaza from the top of Temple II

Tikal: The Complete 2024 Guide to the Spectacular Maya Ruins

Over the years I visited are some great Maya archaeological sites, but nothing compares to my experience in Tikal. I knew it was spectacular. I knew it was the best of the best of the Maya sites. And when I finally visited it, I understood why. It really felt like none of the sites I’ve seen before come close to its grandeur.

Visiting Tikal is not only about the actual structures though. Yes, the site is home to the highest of all the Maya pyramid-temples, and some of the most spectacular palaces, and stelae, which makes it absolutely special. However, the surrounding thick jungle, the protected rainforest makes the visit even more fulfilling.

Sitting on top of the highest pyramid, above the thick jungle canopy, is an unforgettable experience. But so is watching a family of howler monkeys dine on a tree. Every time we stopped for more than a few minutes, we noticed wildlife surrounding us, from howler and spider monkeys to coatimundis, colorful ocellated turkeys, and many different bird species.

Tikal is not a “hidden gem”; it is very much a tourist destination, and set up for it, too. However, the size of the site and the paths through the jungle assure that it usually doesn’t feel crowded.

We visited Tikal in late February 2024, and spent two full days exploring the site, with an extra day visiting the museums. We stayed three nights at the Tikal Inn, within walking distance from the entrance, which extended our time at the site. We walked in soon after opening and stayed until closing time. My descriptions, and the guide below, reflect this time frame and setting.

About Tikal, the Ancient Maya City

One of the largest Maya archaeological site in all of Mesoamerica, in the Peten area of Guatemala, the ancient Maya city of Tikal, surrounded by a thick tropical jungle, is part of Tikal National Park.

A UNESCO Heritage Site, Tikal National Park is one of the few in the world designated for both its natural and cultural importance, for the incredible biodiversity of the surrounding forest and the archaeological significance of the ancient city.

Historic Background

The ancient city of Tikal was once the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya, one of the largest in Mesoamerica.

While Tikal was not the only large urban cluster of the Ancient Maya, it was one of the first. It also remained one of the largest throughout its history, even as other large city-states like Calakmul, Caracol, and many others raised to power in the vicinity.

Tikal started as a smaller settlement during the Preclassic period of the Maya civilization, with some of its monumental structures dating back as early as the 400 – 300 BC. During the Classic (200-650 AD) and Late Classic period (650-900 AD), it grew into a superpower. During its peak, ancient Tikal was the political, economical, and military center of the Maya civilization, with a population around 70,000 – 100,000 people.

Like most of the ancient Maya cities, Tikal crumbled around 900 AD. Most evidence suggests the reason for this was a long-lasting drought, exacerbated by deforestation, building too many monumental structures, and overuse of water and other natural resources by the elite. The last stone stelae in Tikal dates from 869 AD.

The ancient Maya population left the monumental cities like Tikal and returned to a simpler living. The surrounding jungle slowly reclaimed the ancient structures.

“Rediscovering” Tikal

Even though locals were familiar with the ruins of the ancient city, it was not until the governor of Peter Guatemala’s visit in 1848 that they were extensively explored and mapped. Later on, other expeditions visited the site, including British archaeologist Alfred P. Maudslay in 1881–82. Major archaeological excavations started in 1956, by the University of Pennsylvania, called the Tikal Project.

Besides being the seat of one of the strongest and largest ancient Maya kingdoms for a long period, Tikal was also “discovered” earlier than most other sites, which means most of what we know about the ancient Maya civilization comes from Tikal.

The Site’s Name

The name “Tikal” comes from the Maya word Ti ak’al, meaning “at the water hole.” However, this was not the original name of the ancient Maya city.

Epigraphers deciphered the ancient city’s emblem glyph as Mutul, adding that in classic times Tikal was most likely named Yax Mutul, meaning First Mutul.

The Ancient Maya City: Areas Of Interest And Structures Of Tikal

The Gran Plaza

The Gran Plaza view with Temple I from the North Acropolis

The Gran Plaza is the center of Tikal, with two similar pyramid-temples facing each other, Temple I on the east and Temple II on the west, the Central Acropolis to the south and North Acropolis to the north. You’ll also find a ball court between the Central Acropolis and Temple I.

Temple I

The most recognized structure of Tikal, Temple I was even featured on the reverse side of the 50 Quetzales banknote of Guatemala. Also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar, it is 154 feet (47 meters) high.

Built around 750 AD, it is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil, whose tomb was found inside the pyramid-temple.

You can not climb Pyramid I, but you can admire it from the plaza – and from the top of Temple II.

Temple II

Standing across from Temple I, Temple II is set up with a wooden staircase to climb. From the top, you’ll get a perfect view of the Plaza and Temple I. Also known as the Temple of the Mask, it dates from the same period, and it was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil. Although no tomb was found inside it, the queen’s portrait was carved into the lintel above the doorway of the shrine on top.

Central Acropolis

The Central Acropolis is a palace complex, with its stairway standing and easy to climb for a good view of the Plaza.

North Acropolis

The North Acropolis is one of the most studied architectural groups of the Maya World. A complex group, with several pyramids and many stelae, it spanned centuries of Tikal’s existence, with its first structures dating from the Preclassic period, around 350 BC. During the Classic Period, it was a funerary complex for the ruling dynasty, with temples, stelae, and altars erected for the royal burials.

Temple IV

View from the top of Temple IV, the tallest pyramid at Tikal. You can climb a wooden stairway to get to the top and enjoy this view.

The tallest pyramid not only in Tikal, but in all the Maya area (as far as we know today), Temple IV is set up with a wooden stairway for a comfortable climb the top. Standing 230 feet (70 meters) high above its surroundings, it truly offers an unforgettable view.

Built around 741 AD, it marked the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil (the son of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I).

Temple V

Temple V in Tikal National Park, closed to climbing in 2024.

The second tallest pyramid in Tikal at 187 feet (57 meters) high, dating from about 700 AD, Temple V stands alone in a plaza. Closed to climbing, and out of the way, few people visit it, so it is a great place to get away from crowds – if you are at the site during a busy time.

Mundo Perdido – Lost World

The Lost World Pyramid at Tikal, one of the oldest structures at the site. A wooden stairway helps visitors climb to the top, where you can get some of the best views above the jungle canopy.

The Lost World Pyramid is the main structure in the Mound Perdido complex. Dating from the Late Preclassic period, it is one of the oldest structures in Tikal. At the time of its building, it was one of the largest structures in the Maya region, with stairways on all four sides and a flat top that might have supported other structures.

This is one of the pyramids set up with a wooden stairway for comfortable climbing. Shorter than Temple IV, it is easier to climb. A large platform on top offers gorgeous views in all directions.

Plaza of the Seven Temples

A quiet area in Tikal, the plaza is surrounded by a row of seven nearly identical temples on the east, two palaces on the south and west, and a ball court on the north side.

Temple VI

Also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, Temple VI is far from the rest of the site, and mostly unrestored. However, its roof comb is filled with hieroglyphic inscriptions, visible in the morning sun.

Wildlife in Tikal National Park

Coatimundis are everywhere in Tikal. Here is a family of coatis in the North Acropolis.

You’ll find wildlife everywhere you look in Tikal National Park.

Ocellated turkeys and coatimundis walk around near many of the structures. We even saw coatis on top of Pyramid IV.

You’ll see both spider monkeys and howler monkeys up in the canopy as soon as you stop to look. We watched several spider monkeys jump from tree to tree near the Lost World pyramid; we also watched a family of howler monkeys dine on a few trees at eye-level, from Pyramid IV.

How To Visit Tikal in 2024

As they are making Tikal easier to visit each year, things change – though not much. The ancient ruins are in a large nature preserve, which means you will still walk through jungle paths from one site to another. After walking along a path past the main entrance, you have a choice to make.

You'll find this ancient - and giant - ceiba tree along the main entrance path to Tikal National Park.

Where to start?

Three paths diverge in the dense jungle… choose which one to take first.

It depends. If it is your first time in Tikal, I would recommend to start with the middle road.

If you go straight ahead…

It is the one we took, the path that leads to the Gran Plaza, the center of Tikal.

After about a mile walk through the thick jungle (some of it uphill), you’ll be greeted by the stunning view of the back of Temple I, rising about 170 feet above its surroundings. The path enters the plaza near this spectacular pyramid.

First view of Tikal if you enter from the path to the Gran Plaza: the back of Pyramid I

This is the best choice if it is your first time in Tikal, especially if you start your visit early, soon after the site opens.

The most popular area of the archaeological site, the Gran Plaza, gets crowded fast – although do not imagine “crowded” like Chichen Itza or Tulum. However, you’ll encounter a fair amount of visitors most of the day here – except soon before the site opens and right before closing.

I started with climbing the central acropolis, since it was empty (everyone who entered the plaza rushed to the center), a short climb (an easy start for the climbing adventures at the site), and it gave me a great view of the whole plaza.

Since it is in the center, roads from the Gran Plaza lead in every direction of the site.

From here, most people walk to Temple IV, the highest pyramid in Tikal – and in all the land of the ancient Maya.

Then visit the Lost World, another spectacular site, and from there, walk to Temple V.

If you go left…

The second day of our visit we took the least traveled path leading to Temple VI. Few people go out that far, and if you only have one day in Tikal, it might not make sense to walk out there, anyway.

Temple VI is in ruins, you can’t climb it, and compared to much of the site, there isn’t much to see there. However, the reason I loved seeing it was the hieroglyphic text on the back of the Temple, best seen in the morning light.

If you go right…

If you go back the third day, start with the third path. We returned through that one, after exploring the site the first day. It leads to the North Acropolis, another area where we saw very few people. The structures at the North Acropolis here are shorter, and not as spectacular, but if you have time and want to explore away from the busiest areas, it offers a different perspective of the ancient city. It was a nice walk through the jungle, and we could climb a few short pyramids halfway overgrown with vegetation.

Can You Visit Tikal in one day?

It is possible to visit Tikal in one day, if you are in a rush and you only want to see the highlights. Or, if you start early and stay until closing time, and you are a fast walker, you can see just about everything in one day.

However, I would not recommend it. For the best experience, take three, or at least two days for the full visit.

It took us two full days to explore the ruins, both days spending from opening to closing time in the park, plus another day to visit the museums, to feel like we could walk away.

Which means, you should buy two tickets for the ruins per person for two consecutive days, and buy another ticket for the museum for the next day.

Can You Climb Pyramids in Tikal? – in 2024

Temple II, Temple IV (the tallest Maya pyramid known at this time), and Mundo Perdido pyramids are set up with wooden staircases to help the climb to the top. All three are worth the climb, even if only for the spectacular views.

You can climb several smaller pyramids directly on their staircases.

However, you can not climb Temples I, III, V, and VI. This may change (at least with Pyramid V), but in February 2024 these are all closed to climbing.

How to get to Tikal?

Tikal is so close to the border of Guatemala and Belize, we found it easier to fly into Belize and drive over from there. However, this version has its challenges, since it is difficult to cross the border with a rental car; you can only find one agency that rents a car you can take across. However, we found the best way to do this was to hire a car.

We went with a small, local company from San Ignacio, who drove us everywhere we wanted to go while in Belize; besides that, they partner with a similar company on the Guatemala side, who picked us up on the other side of the border – you have to walk across the border – and took us to Tikal.

We liked this version of independent travel – even if we didn’t drive ourselves -, since we didn’t have to worry about insurance or driving through unknown roads. But since it is not a tour, we were free to design our itinerary. Besides, that, we also got to know several locals, the drivers who took us to these places, who often had insights we normally wouldn’t have known about the areas visited.

However, most visitors to Tikal go from Flores, the nearest town in Guatemala, where they can take a tour from, or rent a car and drive themselves.

Where to stay when visiting Tikal?

Several hotels offer rooms and amenities near the entrance to Tikal.

We stayed at the Tikal Inn, in a comfortable room, with a pool, and restaurant on the premises. This is the oldest hotel near the entrance, Jeff stayed here thirty years ago, as well. Of course, the rooms are renovated, and new ones build over this time, but the quaint, comfortable feel remains.

Other options include the Jungle Lodge Tikal, offering a variety of rooms, from luxury to budget options, also with pool and restaurant on the premises, and the Hotel Jaguar Inn, smaller than the other two, and with no pool.

You can also camp in Tikal, where you can rent a hammock or a tent if you don’t have one.

You can also stay in Flores, where you have a larger variety of hotels and hostels to choose from. Flores is about an hour’s drive from the park, and offers tours to the ruins, and other transportation options.

What is the best time to visit Tikal?

We visited Tikal in February, which is one of the best times to do it, since it is the cool and dry season.

Considering that Tikal is in a tropical jungle setting, weather is a primary factor for timing your trip. As I mentioned earlier, our winter, from November through February, is the best weather there. Even March is comfortable.

By midday it gets hotter, no matter the season. We used this time to find a shaded spot to sit for a midday snack, but we also found that if we avoided climbing pyramids at this time of the day, we didn’t have a problem walking in the shade.

However, it is most likely different in April and May, the hottest months in and around Tikal. With the added to humidity, makes it uncomfortable to be outdoors, especially walking and climbing.

It is most likely even worse in the summer, during the wet season, when you can expect rain every day – and the rain is the best part of the day.

Don’t Forget To Visit The Archaeological Museum(s) at Tikal

You need to buy a separate ticket to visit the Tikal museum, but this ticket entitles you to visit three different museum buildings – though it’s hard to figure this out, unless you talk to someone on the premises.

The old museum, the one that existed decades ago, still stands, but very few artifacts are in it at this time, except a tomb you can see under a glass case and several stelae. You need to get someone to open it for you, and wait for you to see it, then lock it. The building itself is historic, but no longer fit to house artifacts.

The site you’ll find most of the stelae, is also an older museum, near the market across main entrance.

The newest building is a new structure with a sterile environment, and we were told it will house all the artifacts from Tikal. This is the one you most likely will visit if you go in the future; however, at this time, to see all the artifacts in Tikal, visit all three buildings.

Other Tips On Visiting Tikal in 2024

Buy your tickets ahead of time:

In 2024, you can not buy tickets at the entrance to Tikal.

However, they made it convenient to buy them online, so take advantage of it. Although the site is only in Spanish, it is fairly straightforward, you can figure it out with a bit of help from google translate, or even on your own (you might need to learn a little of the country’s official language. Here are some tips on learning the basics of a new language).

Make sure you buy tickets for foreigners, “Boletos para extranjeros”, since the pricing is different for locals. Tickets are sold separately for regular entrance, sunrise tour and sunset tour, and for the museum. Make sure you buy each one you want.

We did neither the sunrise nor sunset tours, so I can not speak for those experiences. However, on most mornings, it was misty, so it was not possible to see the sunrise; I think the sunset would be beautiful though; we stayed until closing time and saw the beginning of a sunset in the Gran Plaza.

Don’t forget bug repellent

For me, the only thing that worked was citronella. I actually used undiluted citronella essential oil. I meant to dilute it and add it to a mini spray bottle, but I ran out of time and just grabbed the bottle. Putting it undiluted Besides it actually working, it is natural, doesn’t harm you or the environment.

Wear comfortable walking shoes

No matter how many sites you want to visit in Tikal, even if you only stick with the major ones, you will walk a lot. Most of this walk is on jungle trails, sometimes across roots and rocks, so you need comfortable, closed shoes for a good experience.

Wear a hat and use sunscreen, especially if you are prone to sunburn

Although the trails are all shaded, if you plan on climbing to the top of the pyramids, you will need sunscreen and a hat. Besides the top of the structures, the Gran Plaza is also exposed, with no shade, so you are most likely to get sunburned if you don’t protect yourself.

Carry water and some snacks

No matter how much you want to see of Tikal, chances are, you will be at the site several hours. Snacks help (we always carry Cliff bars, Luna bars, and a trail mix, or just several kinds of nuts), and water is a must to keep your energy while walking and climbing.

They have several drinks and snack vendors set up within the park; take advantage of them, but don’t rely fully on them.

You will find food and bathroom facilities inside the park

You’ll find several food stands, where you can buy cold drinks and snacks, within the park. They are at the main sites, near the Gran Plaza, and near Pyramid IV.

You will also find bathrooms near them. Besides these, you’ll find several other bathrooms in less popular areas, either at crossroads, or near other structures or smaller plazas.

However, you won’t find restaurants inside the park, and the only snacks you’ll find at these stands are chips. Pack lunch, since you will most likely spend a full day at the site. If you need to leave to get a full lunch though, you can go to one of the restaurants at the nearby hotels, and return the same day with your bracelet ticket. We thought about doing that, but the long walk to the park entrance and back wasn’t worth the trouble.

Although we carried enough food and water for a full day of exploring, each day we spent at the site we stopped at one of the snack bars for a cold drink – it was absolutely worth it.

Leave your drones at home

Flying drones is not allowed in Tikal. They would disrupt the lives of the bird population and other wildlife of Tikal National Park.

Exploring Tikal is a truly unforgettable experience, especially for those fascinated by the ancient Maya civilization. In addition to the amazing structures, the surrounding jungle adds a unique perspective, a new dimension to the experience.

Recommendations and resources

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Read more about Tikal and Central America:

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. 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 the book through the link above, a 10% discount will be automatically applied to your purchase (but if you don’t see the discount, use coupon code EMESEFROMM10)

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:

If you visit Tikal from Guatemala, it might be helpful to rent a car – even if you fly into Flores. To compare prices of different car rental companies,Discover Carsis a great place to start. Or, useRentalCars.com.

If you go to Tikal from Belize, I would not advise to try renting a car; Instead, book a drive with a company that drives you; they drive you to the border and arrange for a different car to pick you up on the other side of the border.

Book your accommodations:

You can useTrivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place throughBooking.com.

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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