Tikal with Kids
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ancient city-state has already been discovered, the ruins of Tikal that you see today represent just a fraction of what originally made up this Mayan civilisation.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 visited. We 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 I’ve 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.
Once upon a time, you had to climb the temple’s stone steps 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.
Can you visit Tikal with kids?
Yes! Tikal is an amazing place to take the kids. For me, Tikal was actually the 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 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.
- We 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.
Where to Stay in Tikal
Most visitors to Tikal stay in a hotel in Flores, which is approximately a 90-minute car journey. We chose, instead. to stay in La Lancha, a hotel located on the banks of Lake Peten Itza. This characterful hotel consists of 10 casitas built in to the hillside and surrounded by jungle. The property is owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and has all the design flair of an award-winning movie mogul. Apparently, La Lancha is the favourite of his properties (he also has hotels in Belize, Italy and Argentina) and we were lucky enough to meet him briefly while we were there!
The rooms enjoy lake views and there’s an open-air restaurant that serves traditional Guatemala food and a selection of wine from the Coppola winery. There’s a pretty but cold swimming pool and a lakeside pavilion. It’s simple but elegant and a wonderful place to stay with kids. One word or warning, however, there are a lot of steps to walk down (and then up) to get to the lake and it wasn’t brilliant for our toddler (not brilliant because one of us had to carry him up and down the stairs!).
We organised our guide to Tikal through La Lancha and he was absolutely superb; knowledgeable, entertaining and great with kids. La Lancha also sent along coolers of beer and tortilla chips with guacamole dip for our post-Tikal snack. La Lancha is approximately one hour’s drive from Tikal.
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.
What to Bring to Tikal
- Insect Repellent
- Good walking shoes
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