My family of five (3 teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) recently visited Tikal Guatemala to explore the ancient Mayan ruins. Before booking our flights from Guatemala City to Flores, and our one day tour, I wasn’t sure what to do. Should we make this a Tikal Guatemala day trip? In other words, fly from Guatemala City early in the morning, visit Tikal, and then fly back to Guatemala City that night? Or should we spend a couple of days visiting Tikal and the surrounding areas? Online, I found lots of information about same day trips from Guatemala City to Tikal. It looked manageable, but would this be a mistake? Once there, would it feel rushed or contrived? What about the surrounding areas? Surely Flores, other small towns nearby and the jungle would be interesting to explore?
What we decided
In the end, we decided against a Tikal Guatemala day trip. Instead, we spent 3 days exploring Tikal and Flores. In addition, we hiked in Cerro Cahui, toured ARCAS (an animal sanctuary), and took a one dayboating and snorkelling trip at Crater Azul.
Would I do this again? I don’t know. However, what I do know is that a Tikal Guatemala day trip would have been a totally reasonable choice. We would not have felt rushed, overwhelmed or disappointed by only allotting ourself a day in Tikal.
One caveat – if you are passionate about Archaeology or Mayan history, then one day in Tikal would not be enough. You could spend days exploring Tikal and other former Mayan cities in the area. However, if your passion in Archaeology is “normal” – similar to your passion for food, culture, history, the arts, shopping, or outdoor sports – then one day should be sufficient.
Tikal Guatemala is an ancient Mayan city in the jungle of northern Guatemala. It is located in the “department” (similar to a province or state) of Peten, an area that makes up 1/3 of the total geographical area of Guatemala. Flores is the capital of Peten. It is a four hour drive to the Mexican border and 1 hour and 40 minute drive to the Belize border.
Tikal is considered one of the largest Mayan ruins in the world. It is located within Tikal National park which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The Park is approximately 576 km2 (or 142,333 acres). Between 200 to 900 AD, Tikal dominated politically, economically and militarily in much of Central America. It was eventually abandoned at the end of the 10th century. It is believed that at its height, Tikal had a population of approximately 100,000 which made it one of the largest cities in the world.
The buildings are made from limestone and include the remains of royal palaces, houses, administrative buildings and stone monuments. Several temples and pyramids are found throughout, including one of the tallest temples – Temple IV. We climbed up 21 m or 71 ft, and had unparalleled views of Tikal National Park and the tops of other pyramids peeking through the rainforest.
It took 13 years for the University of Pennsylvania to uncover 2.5 km2 (640 acres) of Tikal. It is mind boggling to think about how much of Tikal is still left to discover. One of the things that I loved most about Tikal was that you are free to explore most of the ruins as you wish. Occasionally a fence or two was in place, or separate stairs were built beside a pyramid to allow for easier and safer access to the top. However, apart from that, we moved without limitation. In some respects, being in Tikal felt like being on a giant playground versus an Internationally renowned archaeological site.
Details For Tikal Guatemala In A day
There are a number of reasons why a Tikal Guatemala day trip would be a reasonable choice.
Air travel between Guatemala City and Flores, a one hour drive to Tikal National Park is easy, fast and relatively inexpensive.
Everyday, there are a number of direct flights from Guatemala City to Flores. Flights leave Guatemala City as early as 6:25 am. From Flores to Guatemala City, they leave as late as 7:30 pm. The flight is approximately $100 USD each way with a one hour flight time.
La Aurora International Guatemala Airport (GUA) is six km outside of Guatemala City. It was very nice, comfortable and relatively modern airport. We found it easy to navigate and pleasant at check in, security and the luggage carousels. Maya Mundo International Airport is a few minutes from Flores. It was small yet also modern and effortless to navigate.
Travel Between Flores and Tikal National Park
As mentioned above, it was only a one hour drive between Flores and Tikal National park.
We drove along the Flores to Tikal road a few times during our 3 day stay in Peten as we explored the region. I can tell you that the road was in excellent condition. It was a relatively straight drive along a flat road, with very little traffic.
In addition, we felt safe driving on this road at night. We took one of the last flights out of Guatemala City to Flores and arrived in the evening. It was pitched black when we headed to the Jungle Lodge Hotel and Hostel, our accommodation in Tikal National Park. However, the condition of the road with reflectors along the middle line allowed our driver to drive quickly and safely to our hotel. It was a completely stress free transfer from the airport to Tikal National Park.
Notwithstanding we decided to spend three days in Peten exploring the region, we only allotted one day to touring Tikal. For sure, there were lots and lots of Tikal that we did not see. However, we spent five hours with our guide learning about Mayan history and Tikal. We explored, climbed and scrambled up countless buildings, temples and pyramids, and saw some spectacular views. For us, it was enough.
At the end of our tour, we had a very good lunch at Meso restaurant in Tikal National Park. Afterwards, we were transferred to our next hotel at the beautiful Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, a 10 minute drive away from Flores and the airport. We arrived at this hotel at 4:30 pm, our tour finished.
Can You Do A Tikal Guatemala Day Trip?
Accordingly, even though we did not return to the airport or fly back to Guatemala City that same day, we experienced many things that a Tikal Guatemala Day Trip would encompass. I expressly remember thinking to myself once we arrived at Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel that we could have done a Tikal Guatemala day trip without feeling rushed or disappointed that we didn’t allot ourselves enough time to explore Tikal. To summarize:
- the flight was easy;
- the airports were comfortable, modern and straightforward to navigate;
- the drive to and from Tikal was fast and stress free; and
- we felt that we had more than enough time seeing Tikal and learning about Mayan history during our half day tour.
I didn’t remotely feel tired. In fact, my son and I went on a two hour hike on the trails around the hotel (where a jaguar crossed our path…. really!) after we unpacked some things in our hotel room. So if you can only set aside one day to fly to and from Flores and visit Tikal, you can do so without worrying that it would be too much. It would be a long day, for sure, but it would be very manageable and a remarkable day of exploring an amazing Archaeological site.
Should You Spend More Time Exploring The Peten Region Or Is A Tikal Guatemala Day Trip Enough?
Having said that, should you allot more time and explore other areas of Peten Department?
My advice – only if you have extra time to spare. What do I mean by this? We enjoyed our extra couple of days exploring the region, but except for Tikal, I didn’t think it was as interesting or beautiful as Antigua, Pacaya Volcano, or Lake Atitlan. So, if you are struggling to figure out how to divide up your time in Guatemala and you can’t do everything, then I would do a Tikal Guatemala day trip and not give up time in those other areas. However, if you have a couple days to spare, I would definitely give yourself more time in the region. Geographically, it is very different from Antigua and Lake Atitlan. It is flat, with lots of jungle, and wildlife roaming free. In addition, there are a lot more Mayan ruins left to explore.
On what basis do I make that recommendation? I outline below what we did in Peten over the next couple of days. In a future blog, I will discuss our activities in more detail but for now, here is a brief outline of what we did in the Peten region..
What We Did Instead Of A Tikal Guatemala Day Trip.
After touring Tikal, we spent two more days touring. One day, we
- hiked in Cerro Cahui,
- toured Flores,
- explored ARCAS, a wildlife rescue centre near Flores, and
- and toured Lake Peten by boat.
On another day, we snorkelled at Crater Azul, located1 1/2 hours drive from Flores and another 1 1/2 hours by boat. Crater Azul is a natural wild life refuge where intense blue clear virgin lagoon water and underwater plant life exist.
In Cerro Cahui, we hiked around Lake Peten in a wildlife refuge biotope in a beautiful rainforest. This was lovely but unfortunately, we didn’t see any animals.
We spent time in Flores and had some terrific meals. Our favourite restaurant was La Casa De Enrico, an Italian Mexican restaurant with “to die for” nachos, beef carpaccio and cocktails. It was interesting to see Flores but there wasn’t any memorable architecture, history or shopping like Antigua or even Panajachel at Lake Atitlan to make this a “must see” destination to explore.
We appreciated touring ARCAS, a NGO that is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries as having met the highest standard in humane animal care. We toured the facility and saw many animals very close up, including jaguars, that because of human interference or negligence, now sadly found themselves permanent residents at ARCAS. I liked learning about the facility and the animals, but not so much that I would have regretted missing it. Unless you are very interested in animal care, this is an experience that you could skip for a Tikal Guatemala day trip.
Lake Peten Itza
Finally, we toured Lake Peten around Flores. I liked seeing the different homes scattered on the shores across from Flores. We also boated around an island in the middle of the lake that for whatever reason, was home to dozens of iguanas tucked into the tress. Overall, it was interesting but not as much as Antigua or Lake Atitlan. I could have easily given this up for a Tikal Guatemala day trip, if it had been needed.
Crater Azul is the only exception. If you have an extra day to spare, I would try and fit in a visit to Crater Azul while it remains untouched by tourism.
We drove 1 1/2 hours from Flores. After, we boated another 1 1/2 hours on the dark and murky waters of La Pasion river, and along the stunning Pucte and San Teodoro streams. Along the river, we saw crocodiles, iguanas and snakes. Right alongside the wildlife, we watched locals washing their clothes and kids swimming. Then, we abruptly found ourselves on crystal clear blue waters on Pucte and San Teodoro where we could see and touch pristine aquatic plant and sea life with ease. We snorkelled and boated in this beautiful untouched and unique part of Guatemala and loved it.
Should you take a Tikal Guatemala day trip? If you only have one day to spare, then taking a Tikal Guatemala day trip is a perfectly reasonable decision. The flight to and from Flores is easy and fast. The transfer from Flores to Tikal is safe and efficient. Further, the half day tour of Tikal provides a wonderful introduction to this magnificent Mayan archaeological sight. It will be a long day, but it will be pleasant, stress free and fascinating.
If you wonder whether you should allot more time to explore the Peten region, that’s a little harder to comment on. Compared to our experiences in Antigua, Pacaya Volcano, and Lake Atitlan, the region is not as interesting or filled with as much natural beauty as southern Guatemala. Having said that, we enjoyed our time in the region. I wanted to spend time exploring the jungle, seeing Lake Peten and boating on the rivers and streams around Crater Azul. Accordingly, if you have a couple extra days, then I’d spend a little bit more time in Peten. If you don’t, then a Tikal Guatemala day trip is a good solution.
If you are interested in reading more about our time in Guatemala, please refer to the articles below:
- Antigua Guatemala: 8 Reasons Why It Is Worth The Fuss;
- Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: Hiking Up an Active Volcano;
- Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Unravelling Its Mysteries;
- Lake Atitlan Activities in Guatemala: 10 Of My Favourites.
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