Tikal Guatemala Via Belize

Temple 1 at Tikal Guatemala Maya ruins
The main pyramid, Temple of the Two Headed Snake is the tallest structurte at Tikal.

Getting to Tikal Guatemala from Belize is about two hours over a smooth stretch of road. The once very bumpy road was rehabilitated in 2017. But we still recommend traveling in groups, as highway robbery is not unusual. Bandits are in the area and do intercept vehicles and tourist buses. This is not as frequent as it once was, but the risk is always there. Travel in Guatemala can be an adventure unto itself.

Local tour companies offer day trips to Tikal and other areas of Guatemala – including Guatemala City. You can easily find daily tour trips that take off from San Ignacio. Tour operators are knowledgeable about the area and since they are English-speaking, North American travelers will be at ease.

Tikal is the major Maya center in Guatemala. It has been well developed over the years and the park that encloses it is huge. Tikal is spectacular – its five skyscraper-like temples punch through the tropical rainforest canopy.

The largest urban centre in the southern Maya lowlands, Tikal stood 19 miles north of Lake Petén Itzá in what is now the northern part of the region of El Petén Department, Guatemala, in a tropical rainforest. Uaxactún, a smaller Maya city, was located 12 milesto the north. The Tikal Maya ruins are the central attraction of Tikal National Park, established in the 1950s and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Like many Maya centres of the southern lowlands, Tikal was first occupied as a small village in the Middle Formative Period (900–300 bce); subsequently, in the Late Formative Period (300 bce–100 ce), it became an important ceremonial centre with the construction of major pyramids and temples. Its heyday, however, came in the Late Classic Period (600–900 ce), with the planning and construction of its great plazas, pyramids, and palaces, the appearance of Maya hieroglyphic writing and complex systems of time-counting, and the ascent of Maya art as seen in monument sculpture and vase painting. The numerous stelae at the site date from the 3rd century ce until the end of the 9th century. Stelae featuring inscribed features of a high priest or Maya ruler, are inscribed with hieroglyphs and dates.

The tallest of these structures at 65 meters is the Temple of the Two Headed Snake built by King Yaxkin Caan Choc in 470 A.D. A must climb for the adventurous. Tikal was an important Maya settlement for over 1500 years, starting about 700 BC. During the Classic Period 300 – 900 AD, the city prospered through trade and military conquest when the population peaked at 100,000.

The nearest population centres to Tikal are Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize, and Flores and Santa Elena in Guatemala. These areas are well served by airlines flying into the international airport at Flores and also into Belize.

From Flores, Tikal is approximately 64 kilometers (40 mi) by road to the southwest. From Belize the distance is about the same but to the west from the border with Guatemala. Tikal is approximately 303 kilometers (188 mi) north of Guatemala City. It is 19 kilometers (12 mi) south of the contemporary Maya city of Uaxactun and 30 kilometers (19 mi) northwest of Yaxha. The city was located 100 kilometers (62 mi) southeast of its great Classic Period rival, Calakmul, and 85 kilometers (53 mi) northwest of Calakmul’s ally Caracol, now in Belize.

About The History Of Tikal

Tikal Maya Ruins layout diagram
Diagram showing the layout of the Maya Centre at Tikal in Guatemala.

Tikal is the largest archaeological site excavated on the American continent, located in northeastern Guatemala, Petén department bordering western Belize. It is the most famous cultural and natural Maya reserve of Guatemala. Tikal possesses a certain magic As with all the riddles without answers it fascinates anyone and some who have visited claim that Tikal is so irresistible that once you are there, you will find yourself wanting to stay.

This majestic archaeological jewel covers 576 square kilometers of rainforest around the ceremonial center. It took a team from the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to unveil about 16 square kilometers of structures in Tikal. However, much of Tikal still not has been excavated.

Tikal remained a mystery for centuries, after it was gradually abandoned  by the Mayas more than 1000 years ago and swallowed up by the unforgiving jungle. Only a legend survived among the Maya of a lost city, where their ancestors had achieved  advanced cultural development. But in 1848 the legend became reality thanks to a humble Guatemalan chiclero, giving way to an era of exciting discoveries.

This was the chance discovery made by Ambrosio Tut, a “chiclero”. On a trip exploring for zapota trees (manikalra zapota) that bear a sap from which chicle is made , he saw the crest of the temples in the distance. He relayed his discovery to Modesto Méndez, the then Governor of the Provincia of El Peten.  Governor Méndez and Ambrosio Tut then visited the site with an artist who recorded some of the sculptures of Tikal and the impressive temples, open plazas and buildings of various levels, where priests and kings had lived. Their discovery was published by the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1853. It was only a matter of a few years before curious researchers began traveling from all corners of the world to see for themselves what they had discovered in the jungles of El Peten, Guatemala.

A Traveler’s Impressions Of Tikal

Temple Of The Two Headed Snake Tikal forest canopy
The Temple of the Two Headed Snake at Tikal rises above the tropical rain forest canopy.

A recent traveler describes his first impressions of Tikal: “Early morning mists make the 1 km jungle walk to the first temple somewhat eerie. The jungle is as fascinating as the ruins. Fat-trunked ceiba trees and Spanish cedar bedecked with epiphytes and orchids, once provided timbers for houses and canoes.

“Spices and fruits abound and were used by the Maya, including pimiento and chicle, the source of chewing gum. Grassy glades extend around the Great Plaza, the centre of the ancient city of Tikal. What a magnificent spot! East and west of the plaza are the Temples of the Gran Jaguar and The Masks, while to the north lies the sprawling Acropolis.

“By midday the ruins are alive with tourists. The heat is stifling as the sun reflects off the white limestone walls and paths.

“I escape the blistering heat of the plaza by strolling the cool jungle paths – animals scamper here and there – the pizote or coatimundi, the rat-like capybara, and foxes do their thing. Being surrounded by jungle makes Tikal so different from the other famous Maya sites of Uxmal and Chitchén Itzá in the Yucatán.”

For those wishing to stay a while to explore Tikal and its surrounds, we suggest they overnight in nearby Flores, a colonial type Spanish village on the banks of Lake Peten Itza.

Flores is the anti-thesis of Melchor – more like a tidy little tourist village with good and cheap lodging, cafes and restaurants – some with a great lakeside view.

You can take tours of the lake in motorized canoes or visit the small town zoo. The local market is a good source of genuine Maya and Guatemalan hand-woven textiles, baskets, shawls and other exotic handicraft at excellent prices.