It’s a well-known fact that I love ruins.
I post a bit obsessively about how much I love visiting them; like when I visited Pompeii, Italy, or that time I trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I posted a picture last week on Instagram with a caption I ❤️ ruins, and my friend joked that she’s going to make me a t-shirt with that caption, which I’ll gladly accept and wear with honor.
It’s a thing for me.
Walking around hundred-year-old temples, I’m humbled by the vast creations. It’s a feeling of respect for the many lives that lived here before where I stand now; respect for the bare hands, blood, and sweat that created what is now left behind. Surrounded by these ancient buildings, I have images and scenes of what it used to be and think to myself, “If only these buildings could speak – imagine the stories they’d tell.”
So, whenever I have the chance to take in a little piece of human history, I jump at the opportunity to be inspired.
Tikal Was High on My Must-Do List
Tikal is Guatemala’s biggest and most famous Mayan ruins site about an hour’s drive outside Isla de Flores. It’s a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and universities from around the world have come to study and uncover what the Mayan culture created. According to my guide, only 25% of the entire area is uncovered and the rest remains buried underneath the overgrown jungle.
I knew I wanted to visit Tikal before I arrived in Guatemala. In light of news that my trip to Central America would look drastically different than expected, I did some research on Pinterest (yes, this is one of my favorite research tools – don’t judge me!) and added Guatemala and Tikal to the top of my list. (Confused? Read here for the story behind how I got here.)
PS – If you’re like me and into this type of thing, visit El Mirador on the border of Guatemala and Mexico. They’re newly discovered ruins, and the site is supposedly bigger than Tikal. There’s also a trek involved to get to there… another one of my favorite hobbies (!).
Wandering the Mayan Ruins of Tikal
The afternoon we arrived in Isla de Flores, we booked our Sunset Tour for the next day. I chose to do a tour, and my temporary Italian travel partner decided to explore on his own.
When we arrived at the park around 1:30 PM the next day, it was the heat of the day with almost nobody there. We had an entire park full of Mayan ruins all to ourselves. That never happens. It’s not a thing. Have you been to Machu Picchu? It’s swarming with people all the time. Have you been to Chichen Itza? Me neither… but I hear similar stories.
It was scorching when we arrived, but the fact that I had a historian’s amusement park to myself for an entire afternoon made bearing the heat and humidity completely worth it. I explored the jungle-covered temples virtually alone listening to howler monkeys imitate dinosaurs as they yelled at each other.
My budget-friendly mind tends to question sometimes if certain sites and experiences are worth it. This one, in particular, to have the chance to see a UNESCO designated site by myself, was a rare experience. Bounding from one temple to the next, climbing stairs that were half my height with the jungle all around me, all I could think is, “How lucky am I right now?”.
Harrison Ford and George Lucas would have been proud as I channeled Indiana Jones and imagined where the hidden and lost treasures of the Mayans might be found.
Tour and Cost Information for You
Depending on how you’d like to see Tikal and what you’d like to do, there’s a range of ways you can experience the ruins. Most agencies charge between Q70-Q100 for a tour ($10-$14), including transportation. It also costs another Q150 ($22) for tourists to get into the park, on top of extra expenses for specific tours, which last around seven to eight hours, from pick-up to drop-off.
This tour starts at 3:30 AM (yes, you read that right). The beauty of this early-bird-gets-the-worm experience is, depending on weather, you’ll get an incredible sunrise to start your day of ruin exploring. Very Jurassic Park-style if you ask me. The bummer, though, is that on top of all the costs mentioned above, it’s another Q150 to do this tour.
I decided against it because a) I wanted to sleep after traveling all day the day before, and b) I didn’t want to spend the extra money for a sunrise I may or may not see. May is technically the rainy season in Guatemala, so the weather is hit or miss. For me, it was the right decision, but my suggestion is to feel it out, talk to other people, and decide what’s best when you’re there.
Early Bird Tour
This tour starts at 4 AM, so you miss the sunrise, but you’re beating the heat of the day. You also don’t have to pay the added Q150, and you’re back in Flores around noon, which gives you the afternoon to do what you want – like sleep.
For those of us that don’t feel like getting up before the birds but want an equally special experience, this is the tour for you. Pick-up is at noon, and you return around 7:30 or 8 PM. You can also decide on your way to Tikal if you’d like to stay for the sunset or not, which is nice. It also costs another Q150 to stay for the sunset and gives you about 30 extra minutes in the park.
My advice: Watch the weather as you’re driving to Tikal. If it’s overcast, then you won’t see much, and I recommend saving your money. On the other hand, if it’s sunny or a slightly cloudy, spend the money to feel like Indiana Jones in your ruins as the sun goes down.
Pro tip: I’ve heard from various people that if you visit on the weekend and have a cool guide, you can get around the additional cost by paying the guards Q25 to stay later. Of course, I wouldn’t bank on that but if that’s your style, please go forth and conquer.
Explore Tikal Without a Guide
All that said, you can explore the ruins without a guide. You’ll pay around Q70 for roundtrip transportation to Tikal and be dropped off at the entrance. From there, it’s up to you where you go, what you do, and what you see. Explore away, my little wanderers.
Camping in Tikal
Apparently, it’s possible to camp in Tikal, which would be epic if you have nice weather. You have to bring equipment, you’ll be without any guide or group, and you have to pay for two days of entrance to the park… so it ain’t cheap but an amazing experience, nonetheless.
Ways to Save Money
Bring Your Own Food
Like any touristy experience, food and water are at least double what they would ever be normally. Bring your snacks and a big bottle of water. Need I say more?
Do You Really Need a Guide?
In hindsight, I wish I’d explored on my own, but I had a crappy guide who later revealed in the tour that he was hungover. *Cool, dude. I have no sympathy for you.* He was a bit informative, but towards the end when his hangover really kicked in, he was rude. I categorize him more as a babysitter who spotted monkeys for us. That said, I did walk by other tours and guides who seemed to be much better and more informative.
Hopefully, you don’t have my guide.
I paid for a tour because I wanted to know what I was looking at, but I didn’t get that much information. It was good, and I liked the other girl in my group (there were only two of us!), but I could have saved the money and wandered around on my own just fine.
Some Information About Flores
It’s a Well-Developed Island
Whenever anyone referred to Flores, there was no mention of the word “isla,” so I didn’t realize it was an island until I arrived. I expected it to be a small town, similar to Lanquin with little happening. Surprise! It’s not. It’s cute and developed with a vibe that’s closer to Mexico than Guatemala. It’s pretty clear when you arrive that it’s become a popular stopover for backpackers and travelers going from Mexico to Guatemala and vice-versa, which makes transportation coming and going easy.
Like almost all of my experience in Guatemala, Flores is expensive. Accommodation can be affordable depending on where you stay, but everything else is on the higher end for a budget-minded traveler. A basic meal in a restaurant in Flores will cost at least $5, and the town’s popularity makes shuttle prices inflated.
There’s a tiny market on one end of the island in the evening (it’s a small island so you can’t miss it), where you can get super cheap local food; think tacos for Q10 (about $1.50). There’s also a supermarket across the bridge from Flores in Santa Elena, the neighboring, bigger town.
In general, if money is tight, consider staying in Santa Elena since it’s less touristy.
Social yet quiet and more affordable, I stayed at Hostel Yaxha for $8 a night. It’s located right around the corner from Los Amigos, where many backpackers you meet will likely stay. The rooms have AC at night, the beds are comfortable, the bathroom is clean, and the staff is friendly. There’s no kitchen, but their restaurant offers a “cheap travelers” menu, which is not that cheap but it works. They also have good wifi – always a plus!
The equivalent hostel to Zephyr Lodge in Samuc Champey, Los Amigos, is the “party hostel” of Flores. Dorm beds start at $12 a night, and the rooms have AC. I didn’t stay here, but I did walk through it a few times to see friends, and it’s a pretty cool place. Not worth it for $12 a night, but that’s me.
And there you have it! All the information you could ever need to feel like Indiana Jones when you go and visit Tikal in Guatemala. Or, at least to get you started.
Any of you wanderers have tips I might have missed? Leave a comment and let me know!