Tikal in Guatemala is the most impressive Maya site I have seen so far, compared to others like Lamanai in Belize for example. It comes close to Machu Picchu in grandeur, although sadly there is no viewpoint to overlook Tikal, partly because it is surrounded by jungle! This vast Maya site is actually closer to Belize City than most popular destinations in Guatemala, like Antigua and Lake Atitlan, so it makes sense to visit Tikal on your way to or from Belize. However, the most important thing to decide when visiting Tikal is to decide whether to do the tour to see the Tikal sunrise or sunset. My recommendation would actually be to do both. Read on to find out how:
Getting to Tikal
We came to Tikal from San Ignacio in Belize. We got a lift to the border, took a collectivo from the Guatemala side of the border to the crossroads near El Remate, then took a bus to Tikal. A lot of people take the collectivo straight to Flores, and spend the night there, but for a real adventure, spend the night at Tikal in a hammock.
Buying Tickets for Tikal
Our bus stopped before we reached the visitors’ centre of Tikal at the entrance gate to the national park. Here you have to buy the tickets for Tikal, so you already need to have made your decision about the Tikal sunset or sunrise tour, or the day time visit. We were a little flustered so rushed our decisions under the pressure.
How to Choose your Tikal Tickets
It is no longer the case that if you enter after 4pm your ticket is valid for the next day; your ticket is for one day only. The normal entrance ticket costs 150 Q, and is valid from 6am to 6pm on the day you choose to use it. We arrived at around 3pm, and were told we could use the ticket that day, or save it for a full day’s use the following day.
To do the Tikal sunrise tour there is an extra cost of 100 Q to enter the park from 4am-6am. You do not have to use this ticket on the same day as your standard day ticket. PLUS inside the park you will need to pay an extra 100-150 Q per person for the guide who has to accompany you for the sunrise.
To see the Tikal sunset, you will need to pay an extra 20 Q to be allowed to stay in the park after 6pm. There is no extra cost for the guide. When we visited in May, the sun set around 6.30pm-6.45pm, so in order to see the sunset, you have to pay the extra fee. This may change at different times of the year, although I imagine the park would still charge the extra to be in the park after dark.
Staying overnight at Tikal
There are three different hotels in Tikal, and a campsite. The hotels get reasonable reviews, and are nice if you want to have a little luxury – however, the electricity doesn’t run all night and is shut off at 9pm, so don’t expect air conditioning or even a fan to keep you cool.
To stay in the campsite, it costs 50 Q per person if you bring your own tent, plus an extra 35 Q per person to hire a hammock for the night. The hammocks have their own sheet draped over them, so it feels like a hammock tent! There are put up inside shelters, so if it rains overnight you will keep dry. I am glad I had a travel buddy for this, as staying alone in a hammock would be a scary experience when you can hear all the animals around you! I recorded this at about 1.30am from my hammock:
The Tikal Sunrise Tour
I was a little disappointed by the guide on our tour, considering we each paid 150 quetzales for an English-speaking guide. He didn’t explain as much as I’d hoped about the meaning of the temples and the lives of the Maya here, however the overall experience was definitely worth it.
We met at the visitors’ centre at 4am, and got our wristbands for the sunrise, and for the day entrance. It was still pitch black at this point, so we needed our torches to avoid stumbling on roots and rocks along the path. Our guide led us through the darkness, the grumbling, growling howler monkeys welcoming us to the Maya temples. He explained a little about the temples we passed, but seemed intent on getting to the destination first, before the other guides. We were actually the second group to arrive at Temple IV which faces east. Rows of stone ‘seats’ offered a perfect view for us all, when the sun would finally come. It was still dark. We sat in silence and listened to the forest around us. Squawks of birds echoed around us, and the howler monkeys continued their chorus. We sat, for an hour or more, as the sky grew lighter, and the birdsong grew louder. More people joined our vigil, all gazing out to the horizon, waiting for the sunrise.
Unfortunately, it was cloudy, so we didn’t see the spectacular Tikal sunrise we all hoped for. In fact, I didn’t even realise the sun had risen until it peeked out from behind the clouds, already high in the sky. One by one the groups descended the wooden staircase, and our guide explained more about the temples. We made our way back to the entrance gate, no longer needing our torches. Along the way we spotted more birds and animals – and for a moment we thought we might see a jaguar when a group of agouti ran across our path, seemingly avoiding a predator. But they scattered and although we waited and hoped for a glimpse of the jaguar, we saw nothing. A troop of spider monkeys swung above us in the trees. Although we didn’t see a jaguar, the rest of the forest was alive around us. Despite the cloudy sunrise, I still really enjoyed the experience of walking through Tikal in the dark, and watching, and listening as the forest rose from its slumber.
Later on we had plenty of time to explore the rest of the park.
Which is Better? A Sunset or Sunrise Tour to Tikal?
My recommendation would be to arrive before noon on the first day, so you can use your day ticket to explore in the afternoon, and pay the extra to watch the sunset. The following morning use your sunrise tour ticket, then leave at 6-7am with your guide to have a good breakfast and continue your journey. Tikal is a large complex, but with 5 or 6 hours to explore that should be plenty.
If you don’t have time to spend the night, and can only choose either the sunset or the sunrise tour, then these points may help you decide:
Things to Think About for Your Trip to Tikal
Sunrise in Tikal is often cloudy, as it was when we were there.
Sunset is more often clear, but of course there is no guarantee of the weather, even in the dry season.
The sunrise tour begins when it is still dark, so walking around the Maya site in the dark is a unique experience.
You have more chance of seeing wildlife in the early morning or evening as that is when they are more active. On the sunrise tour we heard a lot of howler monkeys, saw some spider monkeys, agoutis, a coati, and plenty of birds, including all 3 types of toucan that reside at Tikal.
If you really want to get close to the action, there are some reasonable value hotels at the entrance to Tikal, and you can rent a hammock, or bring a tent to stay in the campsite overnight at Tikal.
There are no cash machines in Tikal, and changing money isn’t easy, so try to bring enough quetzals with you to cover your stay and all the entry fees. If you don’t have enough Qetzales, and are coming from Belize, bring US dollars with you to change at the border or the collectivo station where you will get a reasonable rate. Exchange rates for Belizean dollars can be a lot worse. Unfortunately, we didn’t change enough before we arrived, so ended up paying for a meal at the hotel by credit card (with a fee) and accepting a not-so-great exchange rate from one of the guys selling soft drinks inside Tikal!
Tikal on a Budget
If you are visiting Tikal on a budget, stay at a hostel in Flores overnight, and take the tour with Los Amigos who offer tours to Tikal starting at 100 Q, including transport and guide. Their sunrise tour leaves at 3am (so you would have to also pay the 250 Q entrance fee and early morning fee), or their Early Bird tour leaves at 4.30am to be at the site for 6am, so the entrance fee would be the usual 150 Q. There will still be howler monkeys active at this time, so if you want the nature experience without the extra cost, this could be a good option.
Have you been to Tikal? Any scary monkey stories you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Like this post? Pin it to read later: