Ancient Maya Ruins of Tikal

The first time you hear them, your heart skips a beat.

As black shadows move effortlessly through the trees above you, their ferocious howl can be heard up to 20 miles (32 km).  Howler Monkeys are just one of the many flora and fauna that you’ll experience at the ancient ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala.

Tikal  Background

Tikal is one of the oldest sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It was also one of the biggest, housing as many as 90,000 Maya inhabitants.

Agricultural evidence found in the area dates back to 1,000 BC; however, construction of the ruins didn’t begin until 400 to 300 BC, and didn’t finish until 810 AD.

Tikal covers 220 square miles (570 sq km) and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Getting There

Tikal National Park is located in northern Guatemala, 69 miles (110km) from San Ignacio near the Belize boarder.  Tour buses and flights can be booked from most major cities in Belize.

Flores is a small lakeside town located just 40 miles (64km) outside of Tikal and has several restaurants and accommodations for tourists visiting Tikal. Mini buses leave from Flores to Tikal daily in the morning.

Before entering Tikal National Park, you’ll be required to purchase a park pass for USD $20 (150 Q).

Know Before You Go

Unless you’re an archeologist, one day is sufficient to see all of Tikal’s ancient ruins.  It’s best to visit the ruins early in the morning.

Guided tours are available in the morning and are well worth the extra money.  The guides are very knowledgeable about the ruins, animals, plants and speak English well.

The distance between ruins is significant and climbing the ruins is strenuous and disorienting as they are very steep and without handrails.  Wear comfortable shoes and loose clothing.

Bring a small backpack with sunscreen, a hat, camera, water, snacks and binoculars to get some great photo shots at the top of the ruins.

Tikal’s Ruins At a Glance

While the exact number of its ruins remain unknown, but at least several thousand have been accounted for.  The main ruins have been excavated and are all connected by a dirt path, lined by thick jungle.

As you make your way from the parking lot to the first ruins, you’ll pass the giant Ceiba Tree which is the National Tree of Guatemala.  It’s one of the largest trees within the park at a towering 223 feet (70 meters).  After you pass the tree there are several choices your guide might take you.

Here’s a general overview of each of the main temples.

Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar): A funerary pyramid completed between 740 to 750 AD.  It stands 154 feet (47 meters) tall and faces Temple II with a large grassy area in-between.  Temple I is not climbable.

Temple II (Temple of the Mask): This temple is slightly shorter than Temple I at 125 feet (38 meters), though equally impressive. Temple II was built around 700 AD and contains a wooden stair case which you can climb to the top.

Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest): This was the last temple to be constructed (around 810 AD). It stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and – for safety reasons – is not climbable.

Temple IV (Temple of the Inscriptions): This temple towers above all the other temples at 230 feet (70 meters) tall.  It has a wooden stair case leading to the top of the ruin that looms above the jungle canopy.  It’s a wonderful place to listen to the jungle noise and watch colorful toucans fly around.

Temple V: Is the mortuary pyramid, is 187 feet (57 meters) tall and was completed around 700 AD.  It’s not climbable.

Temple VI (Temple of the Inscriptions): Was built in 766 AD and has a 39 foot (12 meter) roof-comb.


Tikal is home to incredible wildlife including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, toucans, tarantula spiders, and more.

In Conclusion

Tikal is a very worthwhile experience while exploring Central America. It provides an excellent background on Maya culture and is one of the few ruins you can still walk on. In other words: get there while you can!


Darcie Connell is the CEO of Trekity.com, a customized travel site that finds travel ideas based on your life. She is also the co-founder of TravelBloggerAcademy.com.

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