Guatemala's North

TIKAL

Global Mark : 14.95    Top Five : No4

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
 5 5 5 2 1 5 1 1 12.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
22 100% 100% 100% 10 to 20 17.41


Description :
The Maya ruins & jungle wonder of Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979 and also a World Natural Reserve (the only place in the world with such double distinctions !)

Comments : This is high on everybody's list and this is justified. The ruins are among the most impressive of the Mayan world but what makes the difference for most people is the jungle that lives all around and inside the stones. 

What to do ? Check the 1:125 model of Tikal at the visitor Center / Arrive early to experience the jungle life without the heat nor the tourists / Stay late for the same reasons, if possible spending the night there / In between, wander around the paths, climb stairs, enjoy the jungle canopy, listen to birds, listen to howler monkeys, spot mammals or primates, decipher stelaes, etc / Walk alone and stop a lot for more chance of spotting the wildlife / Bring binoculars or ask one of the guard for a look / Ask the guy on temple IV for info about the bird species / Avoid WE (especially Sunday, free for local people and therefore busy) / Visit the free (yes, free !) museum by the visitor center for great photos of when the site was discovered in 1882 and copies of the finest stelaes. 

What you may not like ? The transport costs and schedules / The 17km away ticket office that opens at 6am only / The entrance cost : Q50 when locals pay Q15 only / The accomodation & food cost at the site / Anything that distract you from the jungle life : people talking continuously to each other & tourist groups or, worse, local groups or even worse, the guy equipped with an air-pulsar to displace the leaves (and dust at the same time !) / The lack of good stelaes or carvings at the ruins : just massive & impressive structures (up to 70m high !) / The not too clear signs and limited cultural info on the spots / The smokers : it is prohibited but you spot cigarettes / The locals who write graffiti / Having a too limited zoom on your photo camera / Missing a step at the top of the stairs (means certain death !) / The steep stairs if not in shape / The safety issues from time to time : people have been murdered in Tikal (and it was not Maya's human sacrifice !) A western girl was also raped recently. Police forces have been deployed all over the site (there are even plans for a commando force to be dispatched) but you still feel a bit stressed when walking the remote paths on your own. In doubt, abstain to go off the track / The temples closed for renovation

How long ? A good half day is a minimum. Taking the time to spend the night there is however recommended for the jungle experience. 

Ticket & schedules ? The ticket is valid from 3pm day one to the end of day two. This is good news for people who spend the night there. The park is open for outsiders from 6am to 6pm. People staying legally there can enter as early as 5am. People sleeping illegally have the place for themselves ! It is sometimes possible to obtain a legal extension until 8pm. 

Backpacker's Tips : Phil Mines, UK (Feb 03)
 Like with most officials in Guatemala, if nobody else is around a deal can be made. If you arrive before 3pm your ticket will only last that day so if it's 2.30, wait. The official ticket office is a long way away from the main entrance where they check your tickets. My understanding is that these guys should send you back to the main ticket office if you need another ticket for a second day. My Spanish is not good but "no quiero un recibo" got me past for another day after my ticket had expired at half price. 

Where to stay ? Three options : the expensive hotels, the camping ground or the site itself. 

  • The latest is illegal (you need to hide until the guards have left) but certainly the most rewarding option as you will experience all the beauty & noises of this very lively jungle. You need of course to be well equipped (in particular with mosquitoes repellent). 
  • The second best option for backpackers is to bring a hammock or tent : it cost Q25 in the campground (the best site) or Hotel Jaguar Inn. If you do not have a hammock, it cost Q40 at the hotel. Then is the renting of a cabanas : Q50 per person (two would actually be tricky) for a 3 square meter wood cabin equipped with very thin mattress. For $10, you may actually prefer the dorm of Hotel Jaguar Inn : the room has 3 beds but the staff insisted that this was for 6 people ! 
  • And then come the hotels' rooms. Jungle Lodge is expensive for what you get as the $25(1) or 30(2) are rather basic and with no bathrooms. Hotel Jaguar Inn (926 0002, solis@quetzal.net) has the best most comfortable rooms for $30(1), 48(2), 66(3) or 78(4). Hotel Tikal (9260065) has nice but slightly less cozy rooms for $30(1) or 40(2). The swimming pool is however a big plus !

Where to eat ? The comedores inside the parks are basically tourist traps : Q40-45 for a rather small meal. If you did not bring your sandwiches or spend the night there, the best deal is offered by Comedor Imperio Maya, opp. the visitor Centre : Q30 for very well served dishes. Water or drinks cost Q5 nearly everywhere. For lunch, you can get pastas for Q25 at Jungle Lodge. This is about the cheapest you can expect for a dish. 

Other goods ? There are plenty of souvenirs shops but prices won't be the cheapest ! It is also better to come well equipped as everything is more expensive : Q50-60 for a photo film that usually cost Q30 for example. Bring plenty of water as well if you do not wish to fork out the Q5-6 required for a tiny bottle !

Other attractions ? There is a small ceramico museum near the hotels that cost an add. Q10. A few km before Tikal, Tikal Canopy Tour (tikalcanopy@hotmail.com) offers zip lines trips between 8 platforms above the jungle canopy. It cost $25 incl. return transport & lunch. 

How to visit Tikal ? As you wish and at your own pace of course ! When arriving at 6am, you should however head straight to a panorama point : Temple IV is considered to be the best sunrise spot but it is busy so I enjoyed the Great Pyramid more. You should then head to the great plaza, before the crowd show up at around 10am. Do not forget to look for the two big masks in the North Acropolis (incl. one in a tunnel that requires a flashlight). After visiting the major temples, head to the smallest most remote ones : temples of inscriptions (No6), Complex O, Group H, etc. You should however ask a guard for the latest safety issues before going there on your own (a number of assaults on the way to Temple No6). Those temples offer tranquil walks in the jungle (except if howler monkeys nearby, of course) with usually little human encounters. End your visit with the good museum at the visitor center. 


Backpacker's Tips : Anonymous (July 07)
The mornings are rather flush with tourists due to the prevalence of the sunrise tours. Arriving after three PM allows the ticket holder entrance the next day. When we did this, the park was nearly empty from 4PM onward. It was amazing having the park nearly to yourself. Particularly in the Gran Plaza.
 

The fauna ? Showing up early and walking quietly, you can expect to see quite a few of the hundreds of species present (incl. 260 species of birds) : not too shy mammals, crocodile, spider or howler monkeys (the ones that sound like a furious lion) and lots of colorful birds incl. toucans, noisy Oropendola (the one with the yellow tail that build long nests in some trees), woodpeckers or some quetzal related species. There are also tarantula (rainy season), scorpions and snakes. As for the flora, there are 130 species of medicinal plants and 300 species of orchids !

 << Discover the ruins, the jungle & the fauna


Transport ?
If staying there, you could take the 1pm public bus from Flores (pass El Remate at 2pm) and save Q5 on the private Q20 price. You will be urged however to use the latest by many touts. Avoid buying from a street seller and get a one way only : it won't wait for you if full anyway ! 
Most people who came in the morning are leaving at around 2pm. Buses therefore fill up fast at that time. There are then hourly departures until about 17:50. This means that you won't be able to experience the sunset (the park closes at 6pm and you need half an hour from the view point to the bus park). Inquire for the latest schedules. 
There are some shuttle buses from the hotels : Belize City (5am, $25) or Guatemala City (10am, 8pm, 10pm for as low as $10) for example. If heading to Belize, get off at Puente Ixlu just after El Remate and wait for a bus coming from Flores. 

The trip back to El Remate : SSS / L&R / Free / 30mn
There is a very good reason not to buy a return ticket : you are able to negotiate the return price and, at worst, will pay the same ! For me, I was invited in the minibus of two French tourists & their guide that I had just met before...