1 Day at Tikal: Guatemala’s Ancient Mayan Metropolis

The Ancient Mayan City of Tikal in Guatemala

Note: This article shares our experience as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, and Adam is a Lindblad employee. The content that follows reflects our views and experiences and is not representative or influenced by Adam’s affiliation with the company.

Outside, misty blackness encircled our bus as we made slow, steady progress down a road riddled with potholes. Inside, every person’s eyes were wide open and trained on the view—or lack thereof. I expected at least a few of those eyes to be closed, catching a few more precious moments of sleep before reaching our destination; after all, I wasn’t the only one who awoke at 3:00 AM. If you want to be among the few who experience sunrise at Tikal, it’s worth sacrificing a full night’s sleep.

A rustling off to the right side of the road startled everyone into full alertness. Quickly, we tried to piece together what many of us briefly saw in the bus’s headlights. Was it a deer? No, it was much shorter than that. Maybe it was a tapir? Unlikely; it didn’t seem to have the right tail. Could it have been an elusive jaguar? We quickly dismissed that theory, too. Whatever it was, it reminded us of a world very much alive in the spaces we couldn’t see.

30 minutes later, stretching as we gathered our daypacks and water bottles, our adventure began in earnest. 10 hours of hiking, bird watching, photography, and wonder were ahead of us at Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest and largest ancient cities in Central America. To experience it all, we had to face our biggest challenge right away: a walk through the ancient city before sunrise.

The Importance of Tikal

Tikal Temple II circa 1902. Source: Wikipedia
Tikal Temple II circa 1902. Source: Wikipedia
There are plenty of manmade sites around the world that are older than Tikal, which was constructed sometime around the 4th century AD. In Central America, you would be hard pressed to find a place that so perfectly balances the known and the unknown. Tikal is one of the better understood Mayan complexes, yet there is plenty of information that eludes archaeologists and historians to this day. At its peak, Tikal was one of the most powerful capitals in the region, and at least 60,000 people—and perhaps as many as 100,000 people—called it home. Tikal was an economic and political powerhouse; its rulers maintained connections to cities including Mexico’s Teotihuacan until Tikal somewhat suddenly and mysteriously collapsed around 900 AD.

Today, visiting Tikal provides an incredible look into what life was like for the Maya, and it was more progressive—and violent—than you might expect. Evidence of sports complexes, libraries, hospitals, schools, and office buildings demonstrates the city’s sophistication. Evidence of battles against neighboring cities dispels the theory that Tikal was a quiet, peaceful capital; proof that humans were ritualistically sacrificed there casts aside any remaining doubt. For as much as Tikal flourished for almost 1500 years, by 1000 AD the people were gone and the jungle around it started to reclaim the buildings and temples. Overpopulation combined with drought and subsequent farming challenges likely drove Tikal’s residents away, and it would be almost a millennium before major excavations would start to tell the story of one of the globe’s most fascinating ancient cities. Like so many places rich in cultural significance and architectural excellence, to truly appreciate Tikal, you need to visit.

Sunrise at Tikal

The pre-dawn hike at Tikal
The pre-dawn hike at Tikal. You’ll want a flashlight!
Just after 5:00 in the morning, long before day would break across the horizon, a small group of weary yet inspired travelers set off on a long walk through a dark jungle. Adam and I joined a subset of fellow explorers spending a few extra days in Central America after an incredible week with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion sailing along Belize’s coast. Armed with flashlights and coated in bug spray, we followed our guides along footpaths we could barely see in pursuit of a great place to watch the sun rise over Tikal. Our walk—almost two miles in total—took us past sites we would see in greater detail once the sun was up. Adam was awestruck; I found myself shaken by the size of some of the spiders we encountered. To their credit, they seemed as interested in avoiding us as we were committed to avoiding them.

We reached our destination, Tikal’s Lost World pyramid, just as the sky started to lighten. After spending the better part of an hour steadily climbing natural and manmade inclines, we faced a long climb up a staircase to reach the top of the temple. When my foot touched the first step I was overwhelmed by sleepiness, the humidity, and the physicality of climbing the 102-foot structure; when my foot touched the top of the pyramid I was overcome by the view and the fact I made it all the way to the top of Tikal’s largest ceremonial complex. Adam and I were the fifth and sixth members of our group to reach the top; we cheered for each person as they joined us, wiping sweat from their brows and grinning widely.

We were hoping for a picture-perfect red and orange sky when the sun came up, but that wasn’t meant to be. It was murky as we looked out over the ancient city; fog embraced the structures we could see, creating an almost ghostly ambiance. As it turned out, seeing the sun rise wasn’t why we climbed to the top of the temple: we were there to watch the jungle wake up around us. In companiable silence, we watched a pair of parrots glide between trees and a few colorful toucans land on branches to survey the world around them. Howler monkeys called to each other in the distance. Birds we couldn’t easily identify chirped cheerful songs. Before long, the jungle was awake and noisy and embarking on its own morning rituals. We sat still and listened to all of it, delighting in the chance to eavesdrop on nature’s conversation.

The Temples of Tikal

It took half a day to trek through a huge part of Tikal, and we only saw a fraction of the excavated structures; thousands more remain unexcavated after decades of work.

For most visitors, and certainly for us, the most memorable part of any visit is time spent at the Great Plaza. The Great Plaza served as the ceremonial center for the ancient city, and it is surrounded by some of its most significant structures. Perhaps the most famous—and possibly the most photographed—is Temple I, the Temple of the Great Jaguar. Mayan ruler Jasaw Chan K’awiil was buried there in 734 AD, and the temple’s nickname derives from the carving of a king seated on a jaguar throne located toward the top of the temple. The view at ground level is breathtaking but climbing nearby Temple II provides one of the most famous views within the complex. We undertook our second steep staircase climb of the day for some iconic photos of Temple I as we walked up Temple II, which is known as the Temple of the Mask and is dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s wife. We were blown away by the panoramic views; Temple I loomed in front of us, and to the left the North and Central Acropolises stretched out along the Great Plaza.

The view from Temple IV
Although our legs burned from the hiking and climbing, we saved the tallest pyramid for last. Temple IV, which extends 230 feet into the sky, is among the tallest pyramids built in the Mayan world; only structures at Teotihuacan and El Mirador are believed to have been taller. Of all the staircases we scaled during our visit, this one was the longest and yet the easiest; the stairs were built in segments with multiple platforms between them to rest or take a sip of water, and by the time we reached the top we were barely winded. The view from the top is impressive; we saw the tops of Temples I, II, and III peeking above the lush jungle canopy. For Adam, Temple IV offered one of the most exciting views of the day; he recognized it from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in a scene where the Millennium Falcon lands on Yavin 4. I remembered the scene, but I was more excited for the steady breeze that cooled me after my climb.

Our guides told us many people need three days to fully experience Tikal, and I believe it. Our visit kept us onsite for almost 10 hours, and there were dozens of sites we missed due to the city’s immense footprint and our desire to spend quality time at some of the most well-known spots. Some members of our group darted ahead and returned with pictures of temples we didn’t see; others lingered in the Great Plaza and missed a few attractions we loved. The beauty of Tikal is in how much there is to appreciate. There’s no right or wrong way to visit; sprinting through the complex and slowly strolling past the most famous temples will provide an equally fulfilling experience. In many ways, Tikal is the best kind of choose-your-own-adventure vacation. Hike the temples or sit in front of them. See it all, or just see a sliver. You’ll leave inspired no matter what path you take.

Tips for Visiting Tikal

Here are a few things to help you make the most of your day at Tikal.

Bring sun protection

TikalThe jungle will provide lots of shade, but many of Tikal’s most famous and photogenic spots are located in full sunlight. Sunscreen, a hat, and wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt will go a long way toward keeping you safe from the sun. Our visit subjected us to harsh rays and plenty of heat and humidity, and we left without so much as a rosy glow thanks to dressing appropriately and reapplying our sunscreen a few times during rest breaks.

Pick the right shoes

Tikal is a hiker’s paradise, and there are limited options if you aren’t ready for a serious day of walking. Wear closed-toe shoes with great traction to help you navigate inclines, and ensure they are broken in so your feet are comfortable as you climb staircases.

Ask questions

We were fortunate to experience a guided tour with Lindblad Expeditions, and our National Geographic-certified naturalist Benny shared more information than we could possibly process about the animals, trees, and structures we saw. On a guided tour, be sure to ask questions as you have them. Tikal is the kind of place that inspires curiosity and will certainly pique your imagination, and there’s no better time to learn more about the spots that interest you than in the moment.

Take a tour

There are plenty of complexities to consider when planning a trip to Tikal, including how to get tickets and where to stay. We were beyond fortunate to visit Tikal with Lindblad Expeditions; Adam works for their marketing department, and we had a chance to join a 9-day expedition to Belize and Guatemala that kept us from worrying about a single detail. With our hotel preselected, our early morning transportation organized, and our tickets sorted before we arrived, our only task was to enjoy every moment of our trip. Consider a tour that worries about those details for you as well; Tikal is in a remote part of Guatemala that is 90 minutes away from Flores, the nearest city, and local transportation is all but nonexistent. We really appreciated the peace of mind that stemmed from our experience with Lindblad.

More Information: Expeditions.com

Don’t get close to the animals

Tikal is absolutely full of wild animals, some of which would never go near you and others that could view you as a threat to their well-being. From ocellated turkeys, howler monkeys, and exotic birds, to crocodiles, fer-de-lance pit viper snakes, and jaguars, the jungle around Tikal is teeming with wildlife. Remember that you are visiting their home; give them plenty of space, avoid making loud noises or trying to attract their attention, and don’t attempt to touch or feed them. You can appreciate them from a distance, which will also help them feel safe enough to go about their day while giving you a glimpse into what it’s like to live there.

One of our Tikal highlights was watching an anteater look for breakfast in a tree as we looked on; we had never seen one in the wild before, and it was an amazing sight. We also had the chance to watch several coati playing near the parking lot, and it was fun to see an animal we had never heard of before in their natural habitat.


Watch your phone battery

Tikal has spotty cell signals at best, and your phone’s battery will drain quickly as it endlessly searches for a signal. Consider putting your phone in airplane mode and disabling Bluetooth to conserve your battery; that will ensure you have plenty of power for some fabulous pictures! You may also consider bringing a power bank backup battery as a safeguard against a dead phone.

Don’t leave hungry

Tikal is a huge place, but there are several restaurants that serve breakfast and lunch to keep you fueled. We had both meals at El Meson; from excellent coffee and delicious eggs at breakfast to tender grilled pork and fried plantains at lunch, we weren’t hungry at all as we left the park. Our meals were included with our tour, but prices are very reasonable. Don’t forget an extra bottle or two of water before you leave—you’ll be glad to have them when you reach the top of Temple IV!

Enjoy Tikal!

Over dinner that night, Tikal was our main discussion topic and a clear highlight in a full week of incredible experiences. I smiled as I listened to people share their favorite moments; some loved seeing rare birds gliding above, and others enjoyed the challenge of scaling temples for once-in-a-lifetime views. I loved those things, too, but the best part of experiencing Tikal was unlocking a new part of my imagination. More than 1,000 years ago, Tikal was a bustling city where people lived and worked, where enormous structures were built without modern technology and human sacrifice was a high honor. I found myself sitting with questions I had never considered as I wondered about what it was like to call Tikal home at the height of its power and influence.

Today, Tikal sits only fractionally excavated from the natural world that first housed it and then reclaimed it as the jungle growth enveloped it after it was abandoned. Like the misty blackness that surrounded us during our bus ride, there is still a lot of mystery inside those temple walls. And that’s why we travel: we can’t solve every mystery, but trips like this remind us there is always something new and inspiring to learn.

Related Posts

Want to read about more interesting ancient temples and cities around the world? Check out these posts from our archives!

1 Day at Tikal, Guatemala