TIKAL: the most legendary of the Maya cities. Located in the remote jungle of the Petén region of Northern Guatemala, the ruins date back to as early as 6th century BC and cover 16 sq. km. within Tikal National Park.
Tikal National Park is encompassed within a much larger forest region, called the Maya Biosphere Reserve. This protected area exceeds 2 million hectares and extends into neighboring regions of Mexico and Belize. Five cat species, including Jaguar and Puma, several species of monkeys, anteaters, agouti and upwards of 300 species of birds are among the prominent wildlife within the park. The forest is also home to more than 200 species of trees and over 2000 species of plants.
In 1990 the Maya Forest Biosphere Reserve was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its extraordinary biodiversity and its importance as an archeological site of the ancient Maya.
But honestly, I didn’t even know Tikal existed. I went to Belize for the wildlife, the waterfalls, and, of course, for the barrier reef. But Tikal held a solid place on Greg’s bucket list, and since we would be so close to Guatemala, I jumped at the chance to visit another country and experience the park and the most powerful kingdom of the ancient Maya.
And man, am I glad I did, because our side trip to Guatemala was an intoxicating adventure.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND IN THIS POST
- An account of our own adventure
- How to get from Belize to Guatemala using public transport
- My packing list
- Our budget breakdown
- Tips on safety, currency exchange, guides
Having arrived in Guatemala from Belize the day prior, we were able to get an early start to Tikal from our hostel in El Remate. At 9:30AM we waited for our ride alongside the shore of Lake Petén Itza on a dirt road lined with lush tropical foliage. Just as it started to rain, we were joined by two fellow backpackers from Holland. We took cover under our rain jackets, making small talk until our car arrived and the four of us piled in.
The ride to the park took about an hour. At the park entrance, we were greeted by the National Park Service and a barrage of vendors, military escorts, and tour guides. Our driver instructed us to exit the vehicle and stand in line to pay the park entrance fee and pick up a tour guide while he saved our spot in the line.Due to the history of the park, it is recommended by the NPS to hire a guide if you are traveling outside of an all-inclusive tour. Many independent travelers opt out of paying for a guide, but we decided that we had it in our budget, as we were looking to get the most out of our experience there. After several minutes of bartering and shopping around for the best price, we hired an English speaking guide named Juan for $20 to lead us on an adventure through the park. Juan sat in the trunk while we all got back in the car and headed to the ruins.
The archeological site is located 17km inside the boundary of Tikal National Park. We gazed out the window, mostly in awestruck silence, as we passed through remote jungle and down the road that would transport us back in time to the most legendary of the Maya cities.
We spent the next 5 hours exploring the park under Juan’s guidance. We wandered the park on small jungle trails, away from the crowds of tourists, and under the thick canopy of massive Mahogany, Sapodilla, and the Mayan’s sacred Ceiba trees. All around us was alive with songs of the jungle: birds whistling, whipping and whirring, and the deafening roar of howler monkeys in the distance.
Each small trail connected us from one ancient building to the next as Juan educated us on the history of Tikal. Like the pyramids in Egypt, the temples at Tikal were built over the tombs of kings and constructed to be aligned with astronomical events, with accuracy to fractions of a percent. We walked past several low pyramids and stone dwellings, stopping every so often to learn more about the local plants, watch wildlife, or climb the staircases provided along the sides of higher temples for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding jungle.
We finally arrived at the Grand Plaza, where we were faced with a breathtaking view of the famous Temple IV, otherwise named the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. Rising 44m (143 feet) in the air. If this temple looks familiar to you, it might be because you’ve seen it featured at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as a rebel base.
We spent some time here, exploring the archeological site, enjoying the few rays of sunshine we were given between raindrops, and listening to the jungle buzzing around us.I can now see why Tikal is a bucket list destination for anyone interested in ancient history. This Mayan civilization collapsed around 1000 AD. It is thought that over-population or ongoing war led to its hasty demise, but the architecture they left behind is pretty spectacular.
Tikal is northern Guatemala’s main tourism destination, but getting there without a tour bus wasn’t entirely straightforward.
Is Tikal on your bucketlist? If so, here’s the details of how we planned our trip and how to plan your own:
The first step in my planning process was a quick google search on how to get to Tikal from Belize. A plethora of tour companies offering all inclusive tours flooded my search results. I skimmed through them, only to realize that a “quick and easy” side-trip to Tikal might be quick and easy, but it definitely wasn’t cheap. If you’ve got the budget, an all inclusive tour to Tikal will run you anywhere from $150-200/person for one day on the cheap end to over $500/person for one night in the park.
But I tend to find myself shying away from tour bus travel, and with two days to dedicate to Guatemala we opted for a cheaper option and a more local experience, using knowledge of the best exchange rates, prices and mode of transport that we obtained from our local hosts.
GETTING FROM BELIZE TO GUATEMALA
To the border
- From San Ignacio: The most straightforward way to get to the Guatemalan border from San Ignacio is to take a taxi.
Wait at any taxi stop and hail any taxi with DCO in small letters on the side of the license plate. Tell them you’re going to the border and ask about the price of the ride before you get in. A taxi ride from San Ignacio should be about $5USD or 10BZE (Belize Dollars)
- From Belize City: Take a public bus to Benque, which is the last town before the border. Public buses don’t go all the way to the border, so you’ll have to walk or take a taxi (about 10BZE) for the remaining distance.
If you plan to use Flores as your base camp, express bus service is available from Belize City directly to Flores, with no stops in between. The ride is approximately 5 hours and the price of a one-way ticket is $25USD. The bus will arrive and depart from the Marine Terminal on North Front Street near the Swing Bridge. Service is provided by Fuente del Norte (Mundo Maya Travels)
Crossing the border
Cross the border on foot. Its kind of a funny thing, actually. You’ll proceed to Belize immigration and cross the Belize border. Visitors who have been in Belize for more than 24 hours will pay an exit fee of 40BZD ($20USD). Exit Belize.
Here you’ll be faced with what is basically no-mans-land between Belize and Guatemala. Proceed across this weird empty space, through a small tunnel, and keep left to enter (the seemingly-optional, but definitely-not-optional) Guatemala Immigration and Customs, where you’ll get your Guatemala entrance stamp. Then cross into Guatemala.
Here, you’ll be able to exchange currency (if you didn’t do so already).
Transportation in Guatemala
Once across, you have the option to take another taxi directly to your location or to take a colectivo. They will be parked a little bit down the road to the right.
- Taxi: a taxi is definitely your most convenient, comfortable, and quickest option as the taxi will take you directly to your location. And the prices aren’t terrible if you can split the price with other people heading in the same direction
You’ll have no trouble finding a taxi, as you’ll be faced with a plethora of taxi drivers offering “special prices – just for you” as soon as you get across the border. However, don’t take the first offer. Barter for a price in the range of Q290 (Guatemalan Quetzales) or $40USD total for the whole cab for anywhere near El Cruce/Flores/El Remate and Q550-ish ($70-80USD) to Tikal.
- Colectivo: Essentially a minibus/minivan crammed with people, but by far the cheapest way to get around. They just take a bit of navigating. (Read here for an account of Alex Berger’s colectivo travel)
- To Flores: Take a colectivo directly to Flores for approximately Q30 (about $4USD)
- To El Remate: colectivos don’t take you directly to El Remate. You’ll have to take a Colectivo headed toward Flores, but tell the driver you will be getting off at El Cruce (the junction of Flores and El Remate). Once you get to the junction, you can walk or take a taxi for the remaining 2km to El Remate.
- To Tikal: You’ll have to take a Colectivo to El Cruce for approximately Q30. When you get off at El Cruce, you’ll be able to take another Colectivo to Tikal for about Q20-25.
Where to set up base camp:
- Flores: Flores is a lively town with a small city vibe, located on the other side of Lake Peten. You’ll find much to do here, including night life and a wide array of vendors, shopping, and local restaurants.Ask your local host about organizing a ride to Tikal, or grab a taxi or Colectivo on your own.
- El Remate: El Remate is a small, one road town along the shore of Lake Petén Itza. It’s a good place to stay if you prefer more of a quiet jungle vibe. The heart of the town is located approximately 0.5-1.0 miles from where most of the hostels are located, so it’s easy to walk down the road if you prefer to eat locally.
- You can also grab a Colectivo basically anywhere along the main road to Tikal for around Q25.
Hostel recommendation: Alice Guesthouse, El Remate
Description: A super beautiful guesthouse nestled in the jungle. The property consists of a handful of private cabins, two shared dorm rooms, plenty of hammocks, and a restaurant with a European-style café vibe. Your days will be spent exploring the area, lounging in the hammocks, swimming off the private dock, and sipping locally ground coffee in the treehouse overlooking the jungle. You’ll wake up to the songs of tropical birds and howler monkeys.The guesthouse also offers horseback riding, kayaking, and rides to Tikal.Price: $35/night for a private cabin, $10/night for shared dorm
MY PACKING LIST
- Passport for park entrance
- CASH for park entrance fee
- Extra cash
- A lightweight backpack
- A rain jacket (if you’re not in the middle of the dry season)
- GOOD SHOES. Sandals will not comfortably suffice on the limestone paths. Trust me. Wear sneakers, grippy tevas or hiking shoes.
- Comfortable, breathable clothing
- A snack or lunch
- Bug spray
- Extra batteries
Q = Guatemalan Quetzales
*Taxi from El Remate to Tikal: our guesthouse organized our ride to Tikal. You can ask your guesthouse/hostel to organize your ride or catch a Colectivo on your own for a few dollars cheaper.
*Taxi from the border to San Ignacio: The price was doubled since we returned later in the day. We were informed by our local host that taking a taxi from the border in the evening will be more expensive since traffic TO the border is lowest at that time.
*GRAND TOTAL: This was our total for 2 full days and one night. Per day, we spent an average of $79, which included food/drinks/transportation/border fees/park fees/optional tour guide. This price is compared to the lowest price of $150/person for an all-inclusive one-day, 0-night tour offered from Belize. If you have a tighter budget, opt to travel in colectivos instead of taxis
TIPS AND FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- Border crossing: Safety concerns
Many travel companies raved about their “all inclusive” deals, which included taking care of the border crossing, passport handling, and currency exchange for you. And while this makes the trip sound safe and convenient, it will cost you, and in my opinion (in this situation), is unnecessary as long as you remain smart and aware.
Be mindful of your passport and cash and use common sense. Only use registered public transport and keep an eye out for sketchy activity. Always keep your valuables on you. If you are taking a Colectivo, keep an eye out for petty crime as it is easy to be pick-pocketed in such a crammed area. Consider using a small lock to keep your backpack zippered shut. It also helps if you speak marginal Spanish.
We did not feel unsafe while we were in Guatemala or while crossing the border and our local Belize hosts had no concerns for our safety. With that said, sex trafficking is a very real thing in that area so just be aware.
- Do taxi drives take US Dollars or BZD or do you need to exchange currency?
You need to exchange currency. You cannot use BZD and more often than not, you can not use USD. And most places do not accept credit card. Taxi and colectivo drivers only accept cash in Quetzales.
So bring cash. More than you think you’ll need, just in case of emergency.
*once you leave the border, in order to exchange for Quetzales, US bills need to be perfect and WILL be thoroughly inspected by the person exchanging your money. They will not accept bills for exchange if the bills are ripped, torn, too creased, or have any sort of pen marks on them.
If you need to exchange currency in El Remate or Flores, you can most likely do so at or somewhere near your hostel. Ask your host.
- What if I rented a car in Belize?
It is possible to drive your car across the border to Guatemala. However, many car companies in Belize will not let you do it, so you’ll have to find one that will. Try Crystal Auto Rental.
We rented a car and left it parked at our Airbnb in San Ignacio while we used public transport to get to and around Guatemala. If that sounds like an option for you, reach out to your guesthouse or local host and inquire about parking.
- Do I need to book a guide in advance?
Nope! You’ll have a chance to pick up a National Park Certified guide when you get to the park entrance.