Here's some information on visiting Tikal, from our new Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize.
Side Trip to Tikal
Harry S. Pariser, the author of Explore Belize, contributed significant parts of this section on visiting Tikal. Additional material and updates to this section are by Lan Sluder.
Tikal is only about two hours by road from San Ignacio or 45 minutes by air from Belize City. If you’re this close, why not take the opportunity to visit one of the wonders of the Maya world?
Guatemala’s Petén province occupies around a third of the nation. It is Guatemala’s last frontier — poor in paying jobs and per capita income, but rich in Maya ruins and wildlife, combining tropical rainforests, lowland swamps and dry savannahs. It also is one of Mesoamerica’s ecological hot spots. Forty years ago, only 25,000 people lived here, and 90% of the region was in forest. Now the population is approaching half a million, twice the population of Belize, and less than 50% of the Petén is still forested.
Maya civilization spread to the area some 2,500 years ago. Of the total of more than 100 Maya sites reported in the Petén, many still remain buried beneath the jungle floor. The Maya civilization reached its architectural, artistic and scientific zenith in this area during the Classic Period (300 to 900 AD). The area was abandoned at the end of the 12th century, and most of the Maya apparently moved north to the Yucatán. It is most famous for the ruins of Tikal, which each year draw tens of thousands of tourists from around the world.
In past years, there have been occasional problems with bandits stopping private vehicles and, even more occasionally, buses or tour vans between the Belize border and the Puente Ixlú junction with the Flores-Tikal Road about 35 miles away. Of late, however, there have been few if any reported problems. Large numbers of European, Canadian, Central American and American tourists visit Tikal every year, most with no concern beyond sunburn and the occasional bout of Tikal Tummy. (Definitely use bottled water in the Petén.) Indeed, on a busy day it looks a little like Disney World-in-the-jungle. You’re far more likely to be in a traffic accident in Belize or back home than to meet a bad guy on the road to Tikal. Go. Live a little. See this amazing site.
Crossing the Border
One of Belize’s two main land border crossing points is at Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, and Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala (the other is Corozal-Chetumal). Both the Guatemala and Belize border stations are on the east bank of the Mopan River.
Once across the border, some knowledge of Spanish is helpful. Even in stores that depend on tourist traffic, little English is spoken. Guides at Tikal, however, speak English.
As of August 1, 2000, the Belize government imposes a US$10 exit fee for adults over 12 leaving Belize by land. Students with valid IDs pay US$5. The rate likely will increase to US$15 after January 1, 2001. Save your receipt; this fee can be credited against your exit tax when you leave Belize by air, if your stay in Guatemala is less than 48 hours. This special border tax is in addition to the US$3.75 Protected Areas Conservation Trust fee which also is collected when leaving Belize by land (again, save your receipt to get credit when you leave by air.) Guatemala may also impose its own new border exit fee, but at press time the amount was unknown. Guatemala immigration may try to hit you up for extra money; ask for a receipt and they may cease and desist.
You can change money at the border. At press time, a good exchange rate was about 7.5 Guatemalan quetzales to 1 U.S. dollar. Money changers on the Belize side will swarm you. They are honest and convenient, but their rates are not always the best. The Guatemalan bank at the border at Melchor offers a better rate than the money changers, and no commission is collected. It is closed on Saturday and Sunday, however, and during the week it is only open until 2:30 p.m. Money changers will also approach you on the Guatemala side. If you haven’t already changed some cash, bargain with one of the money changers for a fair rate. It is probably better than the rate you will get on an exchange at a hotel or restaurant, and you will need quetzales for everyday purchases.
Note: Prices in Guatemala are somewhat more “flexible” than in Belize. Exact prices depend on your bargaining ability in Spanish and the assessment by the vendor of your ability to pay. Bribes are not unknown. Rates for transportation and other services in Flores/Tikal are geared to the tourist trade and are often much higher than what locals would pay.
How to Get to Tikal
The Tikal ruins are readily accessible by road. The Melchor-Flores highway has been fixed up and is in reasonable shape now; all but about the first 15 miles from Melchor are paved. The road to Tikal from Flores is fine.
By Ground Tour from San Ignacio: Many hotels and tour operators run daily and overnight tours to Tikal from the San Ignacio area. These are fairly expensive, but they make the trip to Tikal painless and worry-free. Prices range from around US$75 to $100 per person for a one-day tour, not including exit fees and taxes. Usually there’s a minimum price regardless of how many people go — for example, US$300 for up to four persons. Chaa Creek, Maya Mountain, Windy Hill and San Ignacio Resort Hotel are among the well-known hotels that do tours to Tikal. For cheaper prices, ask at Eva’s or the Trek Stop. But compare oranges with oranges: Some tour prices include all charges — border fees, lunch, guides at Tikal and taxes — and others do not. (See Wonderful West/Cayo section.)
By Bus: The bus to Flores (three hours or more, less than US$3) generally waits at the border on the Guatemala side and then travels into the market area of Melchor, where it waits some more before departing; make sure you get a seat. Minibuses for charter (bargain hard; we paid 30 quetzales) generally wait just past the immigration.
By Taxi: Taxis on the Guatemala side of the border will take you to Tikal. The price varies. A good price is around US$10 per person, or around US$30 to $40 for a group of three to five.
By Van from Belize City or Chetumal: A Guatemala tour company, Linea Dorada (tel. 502-926-0528 in Flores, e-mail [email protected]
runs dependable daily van service from Chetumal (US$35) and Belize City (US$25) to Flores. Schedules may change, but at present buses leave Belize City’s Marine Terminal at 10 a.m. and return to Belize City from Flores at 5 a.m. The Linea Dorada bus costs US$6 between Flores and Tikal. In Belize City, ask for Mundo Maya Tourist Transportation at the Marine Terminal on North Front Street near the Swing Bridge. In Chetumal, inquire at the ADO bus terminal, or telephone 52-9-832-7259.
By Rental Car: Most car rental agencies in Belize do not permit their vehicles to be taken into Guatemala. Crystal (international airport and Mile 1 1/2 Northern Hwy., tel. 501-2-31600, fax 2-31900, e-mail [email protected]
and Thrifty (corner Central American Blvd. and Fabers Rd., tel. 501-2-71271, fax 2-71421, e-mail [email protected]
) are two agencies in Belize City that do permit it. Some of the smaller Belize City renters, and Western Auto Rental (Survey St., tel. 501-9-23081) in San Ignacio, may as well. Confirm locally. One problem is that Belize insurance does not cover driving in Guatemala, and, as of this writing, it is not possible to get insurance at the Belize-Guatemala border; thus you may have to drive into Guatemala without insurance, at least until you reach Flores where you may be able to get insurance.
By Air: Flights arrive in Flores from Belize City and other locales. Tropic (tel. 501-2-45671 or 800-422-3435 in the U.S., www.tropicair.com)
and Maya Island Air (tel. 501-2-31140, www.mayaairways.com)
serve Flores from the international airport in Belize City and offer connections from most parts of Belize. Flights take about 45 minutes. Currently, Tropic Air has flights from Belize City to Flores at 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., returning at 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Maya Island Air also has two daily flights, departing the international airport at 8:35 a.m. and 2:30 pm., returning at 9:50 a.m. and 3:50 p.m. Round-trip flights cost about US$165. Overnight packages including accommodations and park entry are around US$250. Tikal Jets (tel. in Guatemala City 502-334-5631) also serves the Belize City-Flores route, and Atlantic Airlines, a new Guatemalan airline, has applied to serve the route.
Returning to Belize: From the border, Novelo’s buses leave at frequent intervals for San Ignacio, Belmopan and Belize City. Collectivos to Benque Viejo are about US$1, and from there to San Ignacio US$1. Regular taxis to San Ignacio are around US$15.
Officially still the region’s capital, Flores today is a small colonial-style town on an island in Lake Petén Itzá connected by a clay causeway to the mainland. There are a few nice streets on the island but nothing much to see. Across the causeway a dusty road leads to the contiguous towns of Santa Elena and San Benito; the latter has a cinema and some sleazy bars. Hotels in Flores charge tourist-level prices (US$15 or more round-trip) for transportation to Tikal, but it is a convenient way to go. Flores hotels offer package tours of the ruins at Tikal for around US$40 per person including transportation, a guide, lunch and park entrance fees.
FLORES AREA LODGING: There is an increasing number of places to stay in and around Flores. The best hotel on the Santa Elena side is the modern, Spanish-style Hotel El Patio Tikal (502-926-1229) which has 22 rooms with color TV and fan. There is an attractive garden and a restaurant which will prepare a box lunch for you to take to Tikal. Rooms run upward from US$60 double.
Set between the town and the airport, the 36-room Hotel Tzquina-ha (tel. 502-926-0174) has a pool, tennis court, and restaurant; it’s popular with tour groups. It has rooms with color TV and air-conditioning. Rates run from around US$65 double.
In Flores itself, Hotel Sabana (tel. 502-926-1248) is set far from the causeway. Rooms at the rear overlook the water, and there’s a small island offshore which is connected to the hotel. Rates are under US$30 double. The similarly priced, three-story Hotel la Casona de la Isla (tel. 502-926-0692) has a swimming pool and 31 attractive rooms.
About 7 miles east of Santa Elena on Lake Petén Chel is Villa Maya (tel. 502-926-0086, fax 502-334-6235), second only to the Hotel Camino Real-Tikal (see below) in luxe and price. The bungalow rooms have mahogany floors and white walls with Guatemalan art and fabric wall-hangings. A small zoo is on the 67-acre grounds.
FLORES AREA RESTAURANTS: El Toucán and Mesa de los Mayas are moderately priced and popular, with exotic “jungle-style” decor and local game on the menu. Café Bar Las Puertas is an inexpensive spot with live music, good pasta and some vegetarian dishes.
LANGUAGE STUDY: Guatemala has long been a mecca for language study, and an innovative program has been established here in the Petén. Set in the village of San Andres, on the northwest shore of Lake Petén Itzá, the Eco Escuela de Español combines language study with rainforest ecology. Costs are around US$50 per week for accommodation and food; weekly tuition runs from US$60 (four hours per day) to US$95 (seven hours). For more information, telephone in the U.S. 800-429-5660, ext. 264, fax 202-331-9328 or e-mail [email protected]
The most spectacular of all the Maya sites found in the Petén, and one of the oldest Maya sites, Tikal (“Place of the Voices”) rises from the Petén jungles. Set some 40 miles from Flores and surrounded by 230 square-mile Tikal National Park, the ruins are dominated by five steep-sided granite pyramids that rise 120 feet from the ground. So astounding are the ruins that Director George Lucas used Tikal to represent the hidden rebel base on the fourth moon of the Planet Yavin in the classic film, Star Wars.
Originally, the city was stuccoed, and plastered red painted temples with blue trim rose from the white plazas. Today, as there is little ornamentation and the stelae have been almost completely eroded, the imposing size and quantity of the structures is what impresses. Amazing as it may seem to the sore-footed visitor, only a small part of Tikal can be visited: More than 3,000 structures and 200 monuments still lie under the forest. Stripped of their gaudy grandeur of yore, the temples have little of the ornate carving that makes Quiriguá and Copán so awesome. For some, the best part may be looking for howler monkeys in the jungle or watching the parrots, toucans or other birds. Oscellated turkeys stroll the lawn in front of the café near the museum.
If you have the time (and especially if you are a bird watcher), it is worthwhile to spend a few days around the ruins. Lodging is much better value in Flores or El Remate, but if you are there you must commute. On the other hand, if you are merely interested in a once-over then a day trip is the way to go.
Admission: You must pay the near US$10 daily entrance fee; you may not be required to show your ticket again. Children may be admitted free.
Preparations: Be sure to wear good shoes, be prepared for rain and take something along to eat and drink. As there is no water on site (only expensive soft drinks) and the lodges are reluctant to give you water (even with your lunch), it’s better to bring along a good supply. Bottled water is pricey but available from hotels. Bring a good supply of quetzales. You may have difficulty in changing a traveler’s check here unless it’s being used in payment for a hotel room.
HISTORY: Tikal’s historical roots are fuzzy, to say the least. Its beginnings have been placed at 750 BC, during the middle Preclassic Era (c. 1000-300 BC). Although inscriptions and burial paraphernalia provide information only after 300 AD, it is believed that Tikal’s rulers migrated from the area of Kaminaljuyú some 2,000 years ago.
From the period between the death of Stormy Sky in AD 457 to the accession of Ah Cacaw (Lord Chocolate) in 682 AD, little is certain. Ah Cacaw ushered in the Golden Age of Tikal which was continued by his son, Ruler B (Half-Darkened Sun), and grandson, Chitam. During this period most of the great pyramids were constructed. It is believed that the city of Tikal declined around 900 AD. After that, all goes dark until Tikal was rediscovered in 1848 by a government expedition under Modesto Mendez and Ambrosio Tut.
Later in the 19th century, an expedition led by Gustave Bernoulli removed some of the lintels from Temples I and IV to Basel. Visiting in 1881 and 1882, Alfred Maudslay was the first to photograph the site. Work continued by Teobert Maler in 1885 and 1904 on behalf of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Next to visit were Sylvanus Morley, who studied the hieroglyphic texts, and then Edwin Shook of the Carnegie Institution, who discovered Group H and the Maler and Maudslay Causeways.
In 1951, the Guatemalan military cleared an airstrip, making the area truly accessible for the first time. The Tikal Project, initiated by the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum in 1956, has been continued since 1970 under the auspices of the Guatemalan government.
ORIENTATION: Entering the area, you pass the hotels and the museum on the way to the official park entrance. There are a number of places to eat, and there’s a large market behind the museum. The Tikal Museum has a lot of weathered stelae with descriptions of them on the wall. It also displays photographs and has a number of rubbings on rice paper, metates (grinding stones for corn), jewelry and stone tools.
The ruins begin at the end of a path that cuts to the left of the Jungle Lodge. At the entrance to the ruins, you present your admission ticket (good for that day only) and enter the grounds. Be sure to note the large ceiba tree on the right, just before the guard house. Enclosed on the east by Temple I (The Temple of the Giant Jaguar) and on the west by Temple II (The Temple of the Masks), the Great Plaza is the center of the present day site. To its west is Temple III (The Temple of the Jaguar Priest) and still farther west is enormous Temple IV; the unexcavated Temple V lies to the south of the Great Plaza, and to the southeast — all by itself — is Temple VI (The Temple of the Inscriptions). From the top of the stairway flanking the plaza’s southern side, the stelae and Northern Acropolis are in front, Temple I is to the east, and Temple II is to the west. Most of these restored structures date from the late Classic Period (700-800 AD).
While in Tikal try to imagine the city as it was a thousand years ago. See it in the morning before 10, when the fog sometimes makes the landscape resemble an East Asian painting, or savor the damp, faintly tart odor of the forest after an afternoon rainfall. It’s worth bringing a compass, as the routes are largely unmarked. Keep an eye out for wildlife (best seen early in the morning and in late afternoon), as well as for the lowly leafcutter ants.
There are many sites but a number shine. The best known silhouette of any Pre-Columbian monument, the Jaguar Temple is a symbol of the Guatemalan nation. Its nine terraces have horizontal grooves on their lower portions, along with inset or recessed corners, architectural techniques used to create a shadowy chiaroscuro effect extending vertically and horizontally, thus enhancing the visual impact of the 145-foot pyramid. The steep climb up is well worth it. From its top, the Northern Acropolis is to the right, Temple II is across the plaza to the west, the Central Acropolis is visible to the left, and the Great Plaza’s 70 stelae and altars, spread out across an area the size of two football fields, lie below.
Once adorned with a roof comb featuring a massive face with earplugs on each side, Temple II (The Temple of the Masks) takes its name from the two enormous masks set on each side of the third terrace’s stairway. They flank a platform thought to have been used as a reviewing stand.
Thought to have been completed around 736 AD and later renovated, Temple VI (The Temple of the Inscriptions) is at the end of a path heading off to the right from the path leading from the Great Plaza back towards the entrance. The temple’s glyphs, found on the east side of the roof comb, record a series of dynastic successions which began in Olmec times. Many of the rulers are probably mythic. Stela 21 here is believed to represent Ruler B; the drops falling from his hand are thought to depict blood flowing from his incised penis. As the stela is not colored, it is impossible to ascertain if the blood is blue or not.
ACCOMMODATION AT TIKAL: Because of the strong demand, it can be difficult to find a room here, especially on weekends, and you may not find good value for what you get. Hotels at the park have electricity only part of the day; most do not accept credit cards.
The Jaguar Inn (tel. 502-926-0002) is the least expensive hotel, but it has only a few rooms and they’re not all that nice. Rates are around US$50 double. An interpretive trail runs past the property.
The largest hotel is the Jungle Lodge (tel. in Guatemala City 502-476-8775, fax 476-0294; e-mail [email protected]
, and it even has a Web page at www.junglelodge.guate.com).
It has a pool, and the white-walled bungalows are priced at around US$70 double. Some guests complain about the thin walls.
The Hotel Tikal Inn (tel. 502-926-0065) charges from around US$55 double. With rustic cabañas around a pool, it is perhaps the best of the lot.
Cheapest of all is the once-free camping area, which now charges US$6 per person per night for the privilege of hanging a hammock or pitching a tent. There are no facilities, not even water, but you can rent a hammock at a similarly inflated price.
If you want to get more bang for your buck (and don’t mind a bit of a commute) stay in the village of El Remate. Tourist minibuses from El Remate to Tikal cost about US$5. Here, there are several budget places to stay including La Casa de Don David (tel. 502-306-2190, fax 926-0807, e-mail [email protected]
) Rates are around US$18 double and good meals are under US$5. Another comfortable place is La Mansión del Pajaro Serpiente, with two-story thatch cabañas with lake views. Less expensive (around US$5 per person) and with lots of atmosphere is El Mirador del Duende (tel. 502-926-0269). Odd-looking stucco cabañas perch on the top of platforms, with views of the lake. The restaurant has vegetarian food.
The top international-style hotel in the Petén is Hotel Camino Real Tikal (tel. 502-926-0204, fax 926-0222, or in the U.S. or Canada 800-278-3000, e-mail [email protected]
) on Lake Petén Itzá about 3 miles west of El Remate and a half hour from Tikal. The air-conditioned rooms are big, and the restaurant is reliable. It even has a private yacht to take guests on trips on the lake.
FOOD AT TIKAL: There are a number of rather pricey restaurants near Tikal, but several comedores are affordable, including an inexpensive and very popular one next to the campsite. Water is difficult to obtain from the restaurants; some will try to sell you bottled water with your meals. You should bring a good supply, along with snacks to munch on while atop the ruins.
TOURS: Tour guides can be shared at US$30 for a four-hour tour. An alternative is to pick up a copy of Tikal, A Handbook to the Ancient Maya Ruins by William Coe (possibly available in one of the shops) and do it yourself. The ideal itinerary would be to spend one day in the company of a guide and the second just wandering around on your own.
INFORMATION: The Guatemala tourism agency, InGuat, has an office at the Flores airport and another on the plaza in Flores (tel. 502-926-0669).
SIDETRIP to Uaxactún: Located 15 miles north of Tikal, these ruins and accompanying village line an abandoned airstrip. Beneath one of its temples, the oldest building ever found in the Petén, dating back to 2000 BC, has been excavated. The ruins have been stabilized by plastering cracks with white mortar to prevent further deterioration. Group E and Group H are 15 minutes to the right from the airstrip; Group A and Group B are to the runway’s left, about a 20 minute walk. You’ll notice the damage done to Group A. It was done by early archaeologists, who simply dug into the temples, looking for graves but nearly wrecking the temples themselves.
A bus passes here from Tikal where it leaves at around 4:30 p.m. It departs the next morning at around 5, so plan on staying two nights. The low-budget El Chiclero is the best place to stay. Charters here are expensive. Ask in Tikal.
What Readers Say
We did Tikal the first day in Cayo and our guide was fabulous. His name was Edgar, and he was Guatemalan. He has been guiding tours at Tikal for the last 10 years and he was a walking history book! The visit to Tikal is an absolute must. Our kids were spellbound as they learned about the advanced society of the Mayans. We climbed two of the temples and the view was breathtaking. The climb is not for the elderly or the faint of heart however, since the steps are tall, narrow and uneven. We saw spider monkeys, toucans, parrots and other animals. The architecture is incredible as is the engineering of the Mayans. We had some trepidation about the safety of the trip, but even though the first part of the road was very poor, we felt safe. It was amazing the contrast in the standard of living between Guatemala and Belize. The Guatemalans were extremely poor. The villages were remote with little in the way of modern services. Doug Krasne, Council Bluffs, Iowa
We took the special bus to Tikal that leaves from the Marine Terminal. For reasons that were not ever totally clear to us, we bought the tickets from a specially designated agent, in our case, from Chocolate’s on Caye Caulker. But the other couple that shared the bus with us bought theirs from someone at the water taxi place. It was
confusing, but the driver was on time and it was a pleasant trip to Flores. The other couple with us thought they were being driven to Tikal, but we were told it was a Chetumal-Flores-Chetumal run, and it was so stated on all our tickets. The border crossings were simple. We paid our exit fee (later deducted from the airport exit fee) and a small entrance fee to Guatemala. They did not charge anything for our youngest son and gave us a “family price”. I found Flores to be a pretty little town with narrow streets laid out in a circle, beautiful views and a breezy square on the hilltop. My husband and sons went to the square to wait while I found a room. The kids soon joined in some games, one to play soccer, and the other to play basketball. They just stand around and soon someone invites them to join in to play. This is always a highlight for them on a trip! Meanwhile, I found a room in CASA AZUL, US$45 for the four of us. The hotel seems to be a new one right on the lake past the Hotel Petén and the Isla Casona and before the Sabana. A special feature of the room was the beautiful balcony with chairs to enjoy the views over the lake at sunset. The lady at the desk recommended the LA LUNA restaurant, and it was very nice. Later I saw a hotel restaurant called MESA DE LOS MAYAS. I wished we had had another mealtime just to be able to eat there. It looked interesting and worth investigating. The next morning we took the 10 a.m. combi/van from the San Juan hotel to Tikal. The US$10 entrance fee was paid at the little kiosk at the entrance to the park. The next day we were not charged for the two boys. Obviously it depends on the ticket seller whether or not to charge for kids. We got a room for two nights at the JUNGLE LODGE (Posada de la Selva) in one of their bungalows — roomy, bright, underneath the trees, but I sure wish the walls kept out the noise from the adjoining room! I didn’t think it would be a problem, but we could hear every whisper, as I am sure they could hear ours. But at least there was no problem with bugs, so I really can’t complain. The third night we got a room at the TIKAL INN which charged us only US$52 for the room but not for extra persons as the Jungle Lodge did. We liked the Tikal Inn very much. The grounds and pool were well kept and relaxing and the staff was exceptionally helpful. Tikal itself was amazing. We saw it in the morning, we saw it at noon day and at sunset. We watched the birds and animals and took a 5-hour tour through the trails examining the plants and insects. It is a stunning place for the ruins, but also for the nature that surrounds it, the variety of the birds and animals and vegetation. We made arrangements with one of the drivers to take us back to the Belize border for US$40. This seemed to be a good price since many people were paying US$50 or more from Tikal to the Belize border. We always ate at the center comedor where few tourists came and which was frequented by the drivers and guides, “El Corazon de Jesus.” The comedores are good places to eat, especially for breakfast. They all serve huge portions and have friendly service. The hotels seem to charge a huge sum for quite mediocre food. The trip back to the border was quick and the driver was quite informative about some of the recent history and events of the area. He had carefully cleaned his van and had even changed into new clothes to drive us. At the border we paid no exit or entry fees anywhere. We did change money at the border since the rates they were offering were good. Hilda Michel, Burlington, Canada