Ready for take-off? This week Frequent Flier is heading to Guatemala to check out the stunning Mayan site of Tikal.
A visit to Tikal National Park is something special, and the experience is unforgettable — you’ll know what we mean when you first spy the tip of a soaring temple sprouting from the jungle canopy. The UNESCO World Heritage site is surrounded by vegetation and lush jungle, and is one of the major sites of Mayan civilization. Taking in the series of temples, palaces, residences and other structures amid the jungle is breathtaking, no matter what your level of interest in Mayan culture or history. As you gaze out at the site from atop one of the larger towers, it’s amazing to think that while it might now be crawling with tour groups and archaeology students, at its height, Tikal was home to approximately 50,000 to 100,000. We suggest climbing at least one of the larger temples to get the best view and really get a feel for the magnitude of the site.
Where to base yourself
If you’re not planning on staying in the park itself (which we didn’t do), the small village of El Remate offers the closest accommodation to Tikal and is a great choice for a relaxing few days. The small, charming village on Lake Peten Itza is on the route to Tikal, making it easy to get to the park on your own if you want. We booked transportation through our hotel (see “Where to sleep”) but saw many people hopping on buses to the site or taking cabs right from the village.
When you’re not exploring Tikal, take a dip in cold but crystal-clear Lake Peten Itza. There’s no sandy beach to ease your way in; you need to jump in, which you can do from one of the many public docks in the village. The freshwater dip we took was one of the highlights of our stay in El Remate, thanks to the secluded setting (think being at the cottage, but in Central America) and the bracing but refreshing water.
If you’re feeling active, grab your walking shoes, put on some bug spray and hike one of the two well-marked trails in the Biotopo Cerro Cahui nature reserve. We spied some colorful birds and even some howler monkeys on our hike (we did the longer of the two trails, which clocks in at about three hours).
Where to sleep
Book a room at sprawling La Casa de Don David right in EL Remate, just 15 minutes from the entrance to Tikal. Rooms are simple but clean, and airy and well-appointed, and Wi-Fi, bottled water and one meal are included in the price, which is per person. The best part about the property, aside from its proximity to Tikal (and the nature reserve) are the grounds. The beautifully landscaped garden is filled with plants native to the area and is a great spot to unwind after temple-hopping all day. There are spots to lounge in hammocks, as well as the open-air Cahui deck, where you can relax and watch the sunset over Lake Peten Itza. Thirsty? The Toucan Express, a 200-meter hand-cranked zip-line cart, delivers drinks to the Cahui deck. If you haven’t booked in advance or you aren’t planning to go on your own, you can book transportation to Tikal through Casa de Don David, which is what we did.
Making the most of your visit to Tikal
We didn’t hire a guide and still had a great experience, but if you want to really understand what you’re looking at, you can book one at the Tikal Visitors’ Center. If you have time, aim to make your visit two days so you don’t miss anything. Otherwise, for a one-day visit, plan on seeing the main spots (main plaza, Temple IV, Temple V, Mundo Perdido). Go early — the best time to spot animals in the park is around dawn. We shared a path with two strikingly colorful birds, and others we were with spotted monkeys and other wildlife. Plus, the park is less crowded the earlier you get there. It’s also a good idea to wear running or hiking shoes, since you’ll be doing a lot of walking and climbing, and pack snacks and water. There aren’t any places to buy food in the main park area. Nuts and energy bars are a good bet.
You can get to Tikal from many spots in Guatemala, Belize and even Mexico. We made the trip via Palenque, Mexico, since that’s where we happened to be, but there are more direct routes. If you’re only coming to Guatemala to see Tikal, you’ll likely fly into Guatemala City. From here, we suggest spending a day or two in pretty Antigua (take a bus or taxi right from the airport). When you’re ready, you can book transport to Flores from many hotels and guesthouses (try Yellow House Hostel; we used them for transfers elsewhere in Central America). Local buses from Flores to El Remate run regularly (roughly every hour), and the ride takes about 40 minutes. Alternatively, you can book a private shuttle in Flores to take you to El Remate. If you have time, spend a day in Flores — it’s a bit on the touristy side and quite crowded compared to quiet El Remate, but it is cute and offers a good chance to stock up on souvenirs and have a drink or coffee in some cute cafes and bars.
Pack your bags and join us next time when Frequent Flier heads to sunny St. Kitts.