Tikal is one of the Guatemalan highlights and you can afford it on a backpackers budget.
Why you should go: You’ve probably been to other Mayan ruins along your journey so what sets this apart from all the others? For us the grand pyramids with ironically simpler names such as Temple I and Temple II were phenomenally different to those seen at Palenque or Teotihuacan. If you’re an archeological buff then it might be worth spending some time prior to your visit understanding the timeline and invasion of Tikal by Teotihuacan. If you’re here for the animals then you won’t be disappointed. You’re likely to see coatimundis, leaf cutter ants, toucans, woodpeckers, spider monkeys, parrots, gray foxes and fireflies amongst other things. To really enjoy the wildlife we recommend camping at Tikal with our tips below. If you’re a Star Wars fan know that Tikal was used in the filming of A New Hope, giving you yet another reason to visit.
Camping: In short, Tikal wouldn’t have been such a highlight had we not camped (Q50 for a tent + Q50 for camping rights/ or Q30 for a hammock/ mosquito net + Q50 for camping rights). We met some friendly, down to earth people here. By far, the highlight was waking up to the ghostly cries of howler monkeys throughout the night and spotting fireflies, foxes and coatimundis around the campsite area. It can be a little scary at first but so worth it.
Arrange fees through the ranger who will be wandering around or at the information desk as you drive in. There is a shed where you can store your bags through the day. Had we been more prepared we would have stored our big packs in Flores and only taken the essentials in a day bag. We camped in late March at the end of high season (Dec-March) and were one of 5 groups in the large campsite area. You may want to consider booking in the peak season? Meals at a cheap Tikal restaurant were around Q75 (main meal and 2 beverages). The rangers in the info kiosk are super friendly and will show you the cheapest place to eat.
There are a few hotels like Jaguar Inn (Q120 tent and campsite) out at Tikal that also offer camping but your tent will likely be 2 metres apart from the next persons and not see as much wildlife.
Sunrise tours: if you really want to experience Tikal don’t book one of those sunrise or sunset tours from Flores. Take more time and go out yourself, camp overnight at Flores and then take a sunrise tour with one of the rangers already on sight. Why? By doing this we arrived on top of the Temple IV to see the sunrise before anyone else. We listened to the monkeys growl in the darkness and then slowly saw the cloud peak above the hills and burn through the cloud. On the other hand, every single sunrise tour from Flores missed the actual sun rising. Once you arrive at Tikal it takes a further 45 minutes to reach Temple IV making the tours that start in Flores miss the sun peaking for the first time. However you choose to do it, just don’t be that dick who talks throughout the sunrise.
How to get there: Two options: the cheap way or the expensive way.
The cheap way – Take a local bus from Terminal Central de Buses, 6a Avenida, approx 2 hours. The bus stops at the entrance to Tikal National Park where you need to buy your entrance ticket to the park (further entry costs charged later on). Note: if you buy this in the late afternoon it will be valid for the next day which is excellent if you plan on heading out late afternoon, camping overnight and checking out the ruins the next day.
The expensive way – there are any number of tour operators in Flores who will provide transport to the park at a seemingly alright price (Q75 return). What they don’t tell you, like they didn’t tell us, is that there is a checkpoint to the park about 10km from the main entrance. To take you past this point they require a further Q200 per person. They won’t tell you this until you are well out of Flores with seemingly no other option. Other backpackers in our van paid the price because they were short on time etc. For us, we jumped out without paying the Q200 and waited for the above public bus to take us the rest of the way. If you’re on a budget, just take the public bus.
How much it costs:
– Public bus to Tikal: Q20 one way
– Road entry fee to National Park: Q150
– Hammock + camping rights: Q80
– Dinner + beers: approx Q75
– Sunrise tour with onsite Tikal ranger: Q50
– Entrance to ruins: Q100
– Public bus home from Tikal: Q20
– Bring your own water and lunch to save money
TOTAL: Q475 per person