By: Katja & Victoria
What is Tikal?
If you’ve ever dreamed of stumbling upon a lost ancient civilisation while trekking through the jungle in an Indiana Jones kind of way then Tikal is sure to delight. Because, even though this ancient city-state has already been discovered, the ruins of Tikal that you see today represent just a fraction of what originally made up this Mayan civilisation. So if most of this ancient city has not been excavated yet, then surely there’s the possibility that you might just stumble across a hitherto undiscovered temple or mask or stela. Right?
Located deep within the jungle in the northern province of El Petén, Tikal is one of the most impressive pre-Columbian sites of Mayan civilisation and a fascinating place to visit with kids. Built over a period of 800 years, from 6th century BC to 10th century AD, the city was constantly evolving with each new ruler building on top of buildings that had come before. In its heyday (around 700 AD), the area housed an estimated 90,000 to 200,000 people. The Mayans started to abandon Tikal in the 9th century however and, although the exact reasons the city fell into decline are unknown, it’s thought that wars, drought, disease and / or over-farming may have contributed. Tikal was declared a UNESCO World Cultural and National Heritage site in 1979.
What makes Tikal particularly fun to visit is the walk between temples. Although areas within the National Park have been cleared (the Grand Plaza for example) the majority of the site is thick jungle home to exotic birds, racoons, wild turkeys and Spider and Howler monkeys. The park is so vast, and the foliage so dense, that Tikal never feels that crowded even during peak periods such as when we both visited (in contrast to Machu Picchu for example that is packed with tourists!). We both visited Tikal with our families on separate days in December / early January.
What to see in Tikal
Tikal National Park occupies some 576 square km but the main part of interest to visitors is where a number of temples and complexes have been uncovered and restored. This area covers around 16 square km. Hidden within the park are some 3,000 to 4,000 buildings of which only 20% have been uncovered! In addition to the Grand Plaza, the city’s epicentre, there are six main temples (named Temple I to VI), three acropolises (North, Central and South) and seven twin pyramid complexes.
The Grand Plaza
Positioned between the Central Acropolis and the North Acropolis is the Grand Plaza, the heart of Tikal. To the east is Temple I, otherwise known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar (47m) and to the west is Temple II, also called the Temple of the Masks (38m). To the north, in between the two temples, is the Acropolis del Norte, an area with a number of smaller temples on platforms and large stone masks built into the walls. Look out for the Maya stelae, tall stone shafts carved with figures and hieroglyphics.
The grassy plaza is a good place to rest or, in the case of Victoria’s kids, do cartwheels! My children seemed more interested in chasing the wild turkeys or catching grasshoppers than exploring the temples but that’s the nature of travelling with kids!
The Central Acropolis
The Grand Plaza is flanked by the North Acropolis to the north of the square and the Central Acropolis to the south of the square. The Central Acropolis is where most tours start and was the former palace and residential area for Tikal’s elite. It’s a great place for kids to scramble around and explore, a maze of small rooms and courtyards. Get the kids to try and find the throne and bed chambers (and remember to mind your head!).
Jungle trail from Temple III to Temple IV
From the Grand Plaza you can walk past Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest) and along a narrow jungle path to Temple IV (The Temple of the two-headed snake). The jungle is so dense that you can’t see very far either side but this part of the fun! Look out for the incredible twisted rope vines, giant mushrooms and “Faraway Trees”, the kind that Enid Blyton wrote about. No doubt your jungle walk will be accompanied by the sound of howler monkeys.
Temple IV is the tallest temple in Tikal at 70m but it is definitely worth the climb! From here you can see Temples I, II and III punctuate the jungle canopy and then nothing else for miles. The views are like nothing either of us have ever seen – simply breathtaking! Star Wars fans might recognise the view, it was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.
When Victoria first visited Tikal some 20 years ago, you had to climb the stone steps of the temple to reach the top. Today, however, there’s a safer and more child-friendly set of wooden stairs at the back of the temple.
At the bottom of the stairs is a shaded cabana with a drinks stall where you can reward yourself with an ice cold Gallo beer post-climb, plus drinks and crisps for the kids.
‘The Mayan Playground’
Hands down the favourite thing for Victoria’s kids was the ‘Mayan Playground’ (as their guide referred to it as). A hanging U-shaped vine created what was, in her kids’ eyes, ‘the most awesome swing ever’. It was hard to move on from this spot. Fortunately their guide had saved it for the end of their tour!
Tikal with Kids
It’s absolutely possible to take kids to Tikal. For me, Tikal was actually our easiest day of our Guatemalan holiday with our toddler! For kids, the site of this ancient civilisation is one big outdoor adventure playground and they all loved it. There are a couple of things to be aware of:
- Climbing temples: Climbing the temples that are open to visitors (not all of them are) involves a lot of steps. Be prepared! The highest temple, Temple IV, is accessed by a wooden staircase with railings, which makes it a lot easier and safer to climb. But be aware that there are no railings at the top of Temple IV so keep an eye on your kids!
- Heat: We both visited in December / early January when the weather is marginally cooler than at other times of the year. Much of the park is shaded but it can get very hot in the sun. Water is available at a handful of kiosks throughout the park. Mornings and evenings can be chilly so bring a jumper with you.
- Toilets: There are toilets throughout the park, most of which we found well-serviced.
- If travelling with a toddler, forget the stroller and bring a backpack or baby carrier instead.
- Victoria hired her guide through a local agent (more details to follow) and my family had a guide courtesy of our hotel, La Lancha. It’s absolutely worth getting a guide as they not only know the best routes but can point out all the places and tell all the stories that kids will love.
Tikal: The Kids’ Highlights
- The Mayan Playground holds number 1 spot for Victoria’s kids.
- General scrambling and exploring. Tikal is like a huge playground for kids.
- Surprisingly, the climb up the temples (I think they even rated the climb over the view!)
- Chasing wild turkeys and catching grasshoppers (eh hem..)
- Watching women make dolls out of palm leaves and birds’ feathers.
Tikal: The Highlights for Us
- The view from the top of Temple IV
- Besides marvelling at the Mayan achievements, exploring Tikal makes for a fantastic walk! Walking between the temples (we spent around 3-4 hours exploring the site and must have walked around 5km
Where to Eat
Victoria: At the end of our tour, we were all ravenous! Fortunately they is a decent restaurant on site which caters to bus loads of tourists (our lunch was included in our tour, as I suspect is the deal for many people visiting Tikal through a tour operator). As one Tripadvisor reviewer put it, ‘after 4 hours of hiking in brutally humid sun, anything probably would have tasted good but El Meson was a pleasant surprise’. That is exactly what we thought too.
Katja: Our hotel, La Lancha, had sent along coolers of beer and tortilla chips with guacamole dip for our post-tour munchies. We then headed back to our hotel for lunch.
Getting to Tikal
By road: From Guatemala City, it takes approximately 6.5 hours to drive to Flores and a further 1.5 hours to get to Tikal.
By plane: One-hour domestic flights in small hopper planes fly from Guatemala City to Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores. Domestic airlines flying this route include TAG and Avianca.
When to Visit Tikal
December – February: the best time to visit when the mornings and evenings are cooler
February – May: the rains start at the end of February making these months very hot and humid
March – May: These months are very hot!
The park is open year-round.
Sunrise vs Sunset Tour
Tip from a friend: “It is possible to do a sunrise trip to see the sun come up from the pyramid. I have mixed feelings about that – the jungle means that sunrises are usually hazy rather than clear, and you will be on the pyramid with hundreds of other tourists which affects the atmosphere. I may be biased because I had to carry a sleeping child for 45 minutes (and for 200 steps up the pyramid), but I would skip it and do a guided tour in the morning instead.”
What to Bring
- Insect Repellent
- Good walking shoes
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