Venture deep into the jungle, where monkeys clamber over ruined temples, and prepare to unleash your inner Mowgli on a magical adventure into the heart of the Mayan empire
Some say there is magic in the air at Tikal. Others describe it as more of a ‘power’. Whatever your opinion, it is undeniable that Tikal is the most important and impressive Mayan site in Central America. Covering an area of 222 square miles, Tikal National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and it’s not difficult to see why.
For many people, visiting Tikal is just a distant dream. After all, how many people plan a holiday in Guatemala? What most people don't realise is that it is very easy to reach Tikal National Park from the much more tourist-friendly destination of Belize. We did just that and here is the story of our two days in Guatemala.....
Now I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP
After an early start from San Ignacio, in the Cayo District of Belize, we reached Tikal National Park mid-morning and checked into the Jaguar Inn, our home for the night (see below). Keen to avoid the heat of the day and the tour groups we decided to bide our time at the hotel for a few hours. No sooner had I settled into the hammock outside our bungalow than a flash of colour caught my eye. I couldn’t believe my luck that my first encounter with the famed Tikal wildlife had happened so quickly – a Collared Aracari (a type of toucan) was perched in the tree right above me. As I started to look around me more closely I realised that this wasn’t just a lucky isolated sighting; within minutes I had also spotted a woodpecker and a half metre tall weaver bird, not to mention the myriad iridescent butterflies.
At about 3pm, with our appetites well and truly whetted, we decided to head into the park itself. The wildlife sightings continued to come thick and fast; one minute an agouti meandering across the path just in front of us and the next a comical ocellated turkey with its distinctive (and some might say garish) bright blue head covered in red nodules. And then the moment we’d been waiting for; tipped off by the sound of crashing in the canopy above we looked up to see the first of many spider monkeys swinging casually from tree to tree.
After a short walk through the jungle we emerged into the incredible Gran Plaza, an open square surrounded by towering temple-pyramids, terraces and monuments. It was awe-inspiring to gaze down on the Plaza from the top of Templo II and try to imagine the Mayan people going about their everyday lives as far back as 400 BC.
Our final destination for the day was Templo IV which, at 210 ft, is the highest structure in the park. After a quick stop at the base to watch a raccoon-like coatimundi wandering around and completely ignoring our presence, we set off to climb the wooden staircase up the side of the pyramid. We sat atop the temple and looked out over the jungle canopy as parrots flew home to roost in the rapidly fading light. Just as the sun finally set, we headed down from the temple for a fun walk back to the hotel with only the light of a bright orange moon to guide us.
Oh obee doo, I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you too
The alarm clocks were set for 5.30am and we made it to the gate as the park opened at 6. The time just after sunrise is when the magic of Tikal really takes hold. As the mists gradually clear and the tips of the pyramids begin to appear, the surrounding jungle comes to life with an orchestra of animal noises, conducted by the trademark roar of the howler monkeys.
At this time in the morning there are very few tourists around, and we were lucky enough to find the Gran Plaza deserted apart from a spider monkey climbing the stepped walls of a temple. We carried on to the El Mundo Perdido (Lost World) complex, a great place for sightings of toucans and bright green parrots, before heading back to the gate via some of the more isolated temple complexes.
After a late breakfast we boarded our minibus and set off for the laid-back island town of Flores, but that’s another story……
The Bare Necessities (aka the practical stuff)
Top Tikal tips
• The entrance fee to Tikal is Q150 (approx US $20). If you enter the park after 3pm, say ‘mañana’ to the guards and they will stamp your ticket to give you free entry the following day.
• There are several refreshment stands inside the park but these are only open during the middle of the day when the tour groups are around. If you go into the park in the morning or evening, make sure you take plenty of water in with you.
• If you are in the park in the evening, don’t forget to take a torch as it gets dark very quickly.
How to get there (and back)
The easiest way to visit Tikal is to take an organized tour from San Ignacio. Pacz Tours (www.pacztours.net) run day trips with 3 to 4 hours in the park (US $135 or US $165 for a private tour) or overnight trips for US $350. However, if you prefer the flexibility of travelling independently, there are a number of options for transportation. The most straightforward options are detailed below.
San Ignacio to Tikal
You can travel to Tikal by public transport (approx US $15) but this will involve several buses and taxis and negotiating the border on your own. A much quicker and easier option is to pay US $25 one way for a spare seat on one of the tour buses leaving from San Ignacio; you will generally get picked up from your hotel and get the added bonus of a guide to point out interesting sights along the way. The journey takes approximately 3 hours in an air-conditioned minibus. Ask around the tour agencies in San Ignacio the day before to book a seat. A departure tax of US $15 and a conservation fee of US $3.75 are payable on the Belizean side of the border.
Tikal to San Ignacio
Shuttles run from Tikal to the Belizean border (approximately Q275); ask at the park information office or the park hotels for details. Cross the border (no departure tax is payable in this direction) then catch a taxi to San Ignacio (US $10-15). If the times of the shuttles aren’t convenient, a taxi to the border will cost approximately US $50-60 and public transport will cost approximately US $15.
(Note – 1 quetzal (Q) = approx US $0.13)
Where to stay
There are three hotels and a campsite at the entrance to Tikal National Park. We stayed at the cheapest of the hotels, the Jaguar Inn (Tikal National Park), where comfortable bungalows are available for Q520 for 2 people. The other two hotels, the Tikal Inn (Tikal National Park) and the Tikal Jungle Lodge (Tikal National Park) offer nicer bungalows and a swimming pool. Prices start from Q550 upwards, depending on the level of comfort required, although both hotels force you to book a package including a tour and meals. Each of the hotels has a restaurant and cheaper ‘commodores’ are available nearby. For travellers on a budget, tents can be rented at the campsite for Q60.
Extend your trip
If you want to explore Guatemala a little further, zip lining (www.canopytikal.com, US $30) is available near Tikal. Alternatively, head to Flores, a sleepy town of colourful houses perched on an island in Lake Peten Itza, 1.5 hours from Tikal. Spend your time swimming in the lake or head to nearby Parque Natural Ixpanpajul (www.ixpanpajul.com) where zip lining (US $25), horse riding (US $15 per hour) and a canopy tour (US $25) are available.