A few years back, my dad asked if I would like to help TA one of his graduate classes that visits Guatemala. It didn’t fit with my schedule at the time, but when the opportunity came back around, I jumped on it! Before meeting up with the group, I made a two-day pitstop to visit the Mayan city that fascinated me as a kid.
I booked a stay at the Bolontiku Hotel Boutique, which is a bit off the traditional visit-Tikal path. Most people stay in Flores, but if you go just outside of town, there are some really affordable gems. A 20-minute boat ride across Lake Itzá, I can honestly say that if a more beautiful spot exists for a hotel, I don’t know where it is. Tucked into the jungle, the hotel is removed from the hustle and bustle of Flores. Best of all, the walls of my room opened up, so I showered with the breeze from the lake and I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the rainforest.
Pro Tip: Tikal is not super easy to get to, so unless you want an overnight layover in Guatemala City, you have to time your flights just right. That said, it is possible to do Tikal in 24 hours without a massive layover. Either plan on a very long day or take the evening flight into Tikal to give yourself an extra day to adjust and take in of the Petén region.
The following morning I met my tour group and drove to Tikal. It’s about an hour drive from Flores through some pretty fantastic scenery. My English* tour only had two people in it, so our guide decided we could stray off the beaten path and take on some of the hiking trails in the park, which was a blast! Within the first five minutes, we could hear howler monkeys and saw a crocodile. The park is home to more than 50 types of mammals over 300 birds, so be sure to watch the trees for wildlife (I saw several toucans, motmots, and woodpeckers).
*Funny aside, my Spanish is decent so the first 10-minutes of my tour was with a Spanish speaking group. However, when I misunderstood the name of a lake, essentially Shaman Lake, to mean that a witch lived inside the lake, my guide cackled. After getting a good laugh at my translation, he switched to English. Needless to say, I was humbled by a bruja!
Pro Tip: Tikal is a Guatemalan National Park, so you can camp overnight and hike in the space. If you really want to be able to explore every corner of the park, consider doing this. If you are like me and you only have a day, hire a guide and prepare to move fast so you can cover all of the sites.
Bonus Pro Tip: I would not have taken the back trails without a guide or a serious hiking GPS. Tikal is set deep in a jungle and it would be easy to get lost in the rainforest without someone who knows the back trails well. The archeologists haven’t even explored all of the ruins, so the odds that they find a lost hiker aren’t great. Use caution.
The largest city in the Mayan Empire, Tikal flourished between 800 BCE and 900 CE. Its eventual decline was triggered by nearly interminable warfare and human degradation of the environment, making it one of the most important ancient sites to study as we think about conserving the earth’s resources. After the Mayans abandoned the site, it was more or less forgotten except by indigenous peoples who still used the site for prayer and rituals. Eventually, the jungle would reclaim the site, literally hiding a place that housed over 100,000 people for hundreds of years.
Tikal’s eventual excavation wouldn’t begin until the Guatemalan government sent an expedition to the city in 1848. Thanks to the dense jungle, removing bits and pieces from the city was difficult, preventing a lot of the archeological gutting that Europeans and Americans exacted on other ancients sites. This means that Guatemala was able to retain a lot of their historical artifacts that you can see it in museums across the country.
A few fun facts about Tikal. The city was originally called Yax Mutal. The Mayans were well-known astronomers, developing some of the most accurate pre-telescope astrological maps, charts and calendars in the world (The Mayan calendar’s scary accuracy 2,000 years later still blows my mind!). Tikal, like many Mayan cities, was set up with the sky in mind. Different temples are situated so the sun rises and sets at specific points, allowing all citizens to keep track of time and the seasons from different locations within the city.
Possibly my favorite thing about the site, the archeologists have chosen not to remove all of the jungle life from the different edifices, so some buildings are literally 1/2 ancient structure and 1/2 rainforest. If you have time, make the trek out past the Grand Plaza to some of the earlier structures so you can see how well the jungle hid Tikal from outsiders.
Pro Tip: At the base of Temple IV there is a drink shack. Purchase a beer and start your long trek to the top. A cold beer and a great view cannot be beat (Just make sure you take your trash down!). I can’t take credit for this one, my guide had the idea. He even went back to the vendor when he decided the beers weren’t cold enough (bonus points, and my eternal love sir!).
Bonus Pro Tip: The mosquitos DO NOT PLAY. Get yourself some high-grade deet and reapply it often. It is hot down there so plan to sweat off the first coat of bug spray.
Note: If you want to learn more about the excavation and history of Tikal, I really enjoyed this article from the Smithsonian.