The iconic ruins of the ancient Mayan city and the nearby picturesque city of Flores in northeastern Guatemala: what, why, how, when, how much and other travel tips
This article has been updated on July 25, 2021
Let’s cut straight to the chase. The answer to the question in the title is rather simple: Yes, Tikal ruins & the city of Flores are certainly worth visiting. The ruins of Tikal are in fact one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America and Flores is a nice little lake town that serves as a gateway to visit the Tikal National Park.
In the following post, we’re therefore mostly going to talk about what to expect from your visit to the site, how to get there, how much will it cost you and so on. Furthermore, we’ll also talk a bit about Flores, its nightlife, safety as well as about other possible activities and attractions in the area that are worth your attention.
Ruins of Tikal
If you travel across Central America, soon you realise that among “things to see lists” there’s quite a lot of Mayan or Aztec ruins. Plenty of those sites are very impressive, some of which are well accessible from major destinations, such as Mexico City, Yucatán and so on.
However, after visiting several of them, many travellers’ inner “Indiana Jones” curiosity begins to wear off a little, especially when it comes to the sites that are harder to access. After seeing a dozen or so ruins, some sceptics would even perhaps make a remark that would go along the line “just another ruins”, especially after they’ve made a long journey to reach the desired location.
And this is the time when they start looking into exceptional ruins that feature something unique if compared to the previous sites they’ve seen. And this is what gets us to Tikal because in this case, we’re talking about one of the coolest Mayan ruins in the region.
What’s so special about Tikal ruins?
What makes Tikal stand out from other ruins is the immense 576 km² (222 sq miles) of the park itself that lies within the huge inhabited jungle which consists of Maya Biosphere Reserve, the neighbouring National Parks of El Mirador and Laguna de Tigre, not to mention the Mexican Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul. If you zoom out the map, you’ll see what a tremendous wild jungle area I’m talking about. So it feels like that the jungle goes on forever and while you can’t see it in the distance – you can see it, hear it as well as feel it.
The tremendous amount of wildlife there and the general atmosphere is rather overwhelming, especially towards the end of the day when colours began to change and the jungle’s night shift animal and insect armies begin to let their presence known. I can tell you that witnessing all this, right next to nearly two thousand years-old ruins of an ancient city is a rather special experience, regardless of the number of ruins you’ve seen in the past few weeks.
The site itself dates back as far as 1000 BCE, however, the major constructions were apparently built at about 400–300 BCE. Tikal‘s population peak is estimated to had been between 10 000 and 90 000 inhabitants, at about 700 – 830 CE. The city of Tikal has covered an area greater than 16km2, including nine different plazas with over 3000 structures.
Being the largest urban centre in the southern Maya lowlands, in between 100–600 CE, Tikal was an important trading post in its heydey but because of the mercury and toxic algae poisoned the settlement’s reservoirs, the city was abandoned in the early 10th century, long before the conquistadors’ arrival.
The Tikal National Park was established in the 1950s and UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage site in 1979. Except for the Mayan ruins, the park also boasts of incredible natural biodiversity, including 200 tree species, over one hundred mammals and quite a few endangered as well as endemic species. In case you wanted to learn more about Tikal‘s history and/or biodiversity, please check out the interesting and informative links near the bottom of this article.
Architectural highlights of Tikal ruins
To be honest, I’m positive that your guide will explain the structure and the major architectural structures of the site to you, including the iconic temples I and II and IV. You’ll also visit the North Acropolis, Central Acropolis and Mundo Perdido Complex. You’ll be explained what were the living quarters, what were the temples and/or monumental tombs and you’ll also learn the basics about the park’s fauna & flora.
If you however prefer to arrive a little prepared so you know what to look out for once you reach the site, please click here to read an informative article with details about the site’s structure and its architectural highlights, by Mark Cartwright in World History Encyclopedia.
Tikal tours + how much
A tour from Flores would cost you about 85,-GTQ (€9,70), which is for the guide as well as to get you to the site. The park entry is further 150,-GTQ (€17,20). Then there’s a clever marketing trick to pay an extra 100,-GTQ (€11,10) in order to be able to stay in the part for the sunset, which I fully recommend to pay in order to experience the amazing sunset in this scenery.
So a sunset tour with a guide would cost you €37 ($44), which, I admit does come across as a little excessive sum of money for a 1/2 day. You can also visit the site by yourself but it wouldn’t save you much money, plus you’d have the experience reduced by the knowledge of the guide. I personally recommend taking a tour and thinking about this sum as a fee you pay for an unforgettable memory that lasts a lifetime 😉 When it comes to sunrise tours, you get ready for a 3:30 am start, while the fee remains the same.
FYI, you can also opt for multiday tours, to cover both, sunset and sunrise with one, slightly more “bargain” of a fee. And how to pick a tour company? Well, I did it the old fashion Trip Advisor reviews way and I ended up booking my tour with Los Amigos Hostel. For possible updates and further details, I’d also recommend checking the official website for Tikal National Park.
Like most of the Latin colonial towns, Flores also comes with a nice atmosphere, cobblestone streets and colourful buildings. If compared to its fellow colonial towns, Flores perhaps lacks the amount of super impressive historical landmarks, this aspect is however balanced by the fact that the whole historical centre of town is built on a little lake island.
So yep, Flores is still a rather picturesque town and it serves as a perfect and functional gateway to visit the impressive ruins of the ancient Mayan city located about a 90-minute drive away. While the city itself is rather small (pop 15 000), the red-roofed historical centre located on the island of San Andrés is filled with hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars tour agencies, gift shops and everything else that every well functioning gateway to a popular tourist hotspot normally comes with.
The tiny island on Lago Petén Itzá has however much older history than its current, modern history incarnation. Flores was once the Maya city of Nojpetén, capital of the Itzá Maya, the last Mayan state that fell into conquistadors’ hands, resisting the Spanish attempts to conquer them for over 150 years until 1697.
Things to do in and nearby Flores
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into "want to go", once you arrive to the destination, it could make things easier for you to orientate yourself in the area, not to mention the (sometimes) helpful and informative reviews or the fact that it might also help you to determine your itinerary ;)
Although the ruins of Tikal are an indisputable highlight of the region, the site represents only a fraction of all Mayan ruins in the area. There are multiple smaller sites and several larger former Mayan cities, most of which are accessible for tourists, by vehicle but sometimes only on foot.
Uaxactún and Yaxhá
Only after 30 minutes of driving further north, you’d get to the Ruins of Uaxactún, a smaller but also a less visited ancient sacred Mayan place, which is an element that provides a visitor with a less touristy or perhaps more authentic experience. Next to the site, there’s a modern indigenous community village (more info here).
If you still needed more ruins after Tikal and Uaxactún, you could consider visiting other significant ruins in the area located just over 70km to the east of Flores is Yaxhá ruins, located on a ridge overlooking Lake Yaxhá (more info here). With over 500 archaeological structures, Yaxhá ruins are also very impressive and the whole experience is slightly reminiscent of Tikal, although it is perhaps less touristy and commercial.
A tip: a popular choice for quite a few visitors is to go for a Tikal sunrise tour and then head straight to Yaxhá, where you can also stay overnight in huts by the lake or in a hotel only 5 mins from the site…
El Mirador trek
For the more adventurous travellers, there’s an option to visit the El Mirador site on a 5-day hike through the jungle. It’s a very unique and perhaps the most Indiana Jones experience one can get 🙂 However, I must point out that this trek is recommended for only sturdy hikers, after all, you’re about to walk 120 km (75 miles) through a wild rainforest. Tours could be purchased for a sum from about 1400,-GTQ ($200), with Cooperativa Carmelita in Flores (see their website here).
Other attractions nearby Flores
In case you were looking for some fun, I’d recommend checking out Ixpanpajul Natural Park (website/esp) which’s just outside Flores. This small park offers to experience dense forests, lovely landscapes and great views from various heights perspectives, through a combination of forest paths, a half dozen suspension bridges, the forest canopy as well as zip-lining. Overall, Ixpanpajul Natural Park is a guaranteed 1/2 of fun 🙂 As for other fun activities, you could also rent a canoe to paddle on the lake Petén Itzá, visit a Petencito Zoo or take a boat trip around the lake.
Being a busy tourist hotspot, Flores boasts of multiple establishments, where you can dine delicious meals and/or pick a nice drink from a wide selection of beverages. Except for the island’s shores, there’s also a decent amount of rooftop restaurant bars and numerous nice cafes serving yummy breakfasts. To be honest, there are quite a few good places and it’s hard to pick the best one. In particular, I’d recommend visiting the charming San Telmo Restaurant, especially if you are a fan of craft beers.
When it comes to nightlife, Flores could come across as a bit of a party town, especially on the weekends, although from my own observation, the fun appears to be rather “segregated” in a divide between the locals and Western tourists for some reason. While, most Westerners appeared to be happy to socialize in the bar of Los Amigos Youth Hostel, which I admit was quite nice and one of the best ones on the island, the locals were enjoying the multiple establishments, located on the island’s shores, especially on its sunset side.
How to get there
The easiest and fastest way to get to Flores it’s by plane. Mundo Maya International Airport receives flights from Guatemala City, Cancun as well as Belize City. There are also buses from Belize City to Tikal, which takes about 7hrs for an equivalent of under €30.
In case you were travelling overland from Lake Atitlán, consider breaking the long trip in two and make a stop at Semuc Champey, to create some cool memories in a beautiful rural location (read more about this place here). The 190,-GTQ (€22) bus journey from Panajachel, Lake Atitlán to Semuc Champey takes 8-11 hours.
In case you were travelling Antigua, there are daily shuttles for around 150,-GTQ and they will take approximately the same amount of time. Then from Semuc Champey to Flores, prepare for also 8-11 hour trip for 110,-GTQ (€12). From Flores to Tikal, you’ll be taken with your tour bus.
Get around and safety
The historical centre of Flores, AKA the island part is walkable on foot, in fact, you can cross the whole area in 10 minutes. When it comes to safety, Flores is generally considered to be a safe location, not only by Guatemalan standards. The usual precautions of not advertising your valuables by flushing them around and not wandering into dark alleys tipsy&alone should do the job.
When to visit Tikal
Avoiding the rainy season (May to October) would be a good idea to enjoy the ruins of Tikal properly. Being a big fan of shoulder seasons, I’d suggest trying to plan your visit for between November and March. The high season is between December and February, which would make both, Tikal as well as the city of Flores rather crowdy.
Sort of conclusion
Although it’s a bit pricey, the ruins of Tikal certainly belong among the highlights and most popular destinations in the whole Central Americas. The sunrise and sunset tour options could also certainly add an undeniable edge to your experience, provided that you’re willing to pay extra for that, which (I repeat) is worth it. Plus, the site’s gateway Flores is also a nice little colourful historical town, where you can enjoy the local hospitality.
Is it all worth it, I hear you ask? Well, it, of course, depends on your interests and taste. I’d say that if you were keen on archaeological sites or if you were just nearby the region, it’s 100% worth it to visit the site. To be honest, there aren’t that many experiences that can beat a sunset over a jungle. In spite of the mass tourism element, the “mindblowing index” was hitting the red zone. Even the loud talkative American couple next to me went quiet when the colours began to change…
On the other hand, if you’re not that much into pyramids, I’m not sure if it would be worth it for you to travel this far only to visit Tikal. In such a case, perhaps think of a different location, where you’ll be also closer to other kinds of attractions to combine in with your favourite ways of having fun. I mean that if you are for example keen on beach locations, then consider checking out Tulum or Chichén Itzá Mayan ruins nearby Cancún (more details here) or if you prefer the buzz of big cities, then maybe check out Teotihuacán nearby Mexico City.
How long to stay
IMHO, although Flores is rather pretty and you could also kayak or swim in the lake, it isn’t exactly a town to stay in for an extended period of time. I mean it’s very small, it’s hot and outside the great variety of fine dining and drinking, except swimming, there isn’t that much to do. That is, of course, unless you want to explore also other sites in the region. To explore the ruins of Tikal only, 2 days should do, including both, sunrise as well as sunset tours, if you however wanted to check out some of the neighbouring ruins in the area, plan accordingly…
Due to the fact that the island is rather touristy, there are numerous options to stay, ranging across all levels of luxury. The major party hostel in town appeared to be the above mentioned Los Amigos Youth Hostel. I’ve however picked Hotel Aurora to have an option of no party. For $11, USD per night with a bathroom, it was the cheapest private room I could find. It was actually a nice and clean place, where I slept very well. The room was spacious and the place had a great terrace with a bar. I guess that’s it’s an OK place to stay if you’re on a budget and want to sleep in a private.
Useful and interesting links
- The official website of the park with further information, tickets and so on could be found here
- Tikal National Park: UNESCO’s page about the site
- Tikal’s history, plus the site’s structure and architectural highlights, by Mark Cartwright for World History Encyclopedia, could be found here
- Why Did the Maya Abandon the Ancient City of Tikal? Alex Fox writes for Smithsonian Magazine
- Uaxactún: the Mayan Ruins website’s page with more information about the site
- Yaxhá: the Mayan Ruins website’s page with more information about the site
- El Mirador: Chip Brown writes about the Lost City of the Maya for Smithsonian Magazine
- El Mirador Tour operator‘s Carmelita official website
- Ixpanpajul Natural Park official website (in Spanish)
- Famous films shot at Tikal: In spite of the fact that I’ve mentioned that the site is reminiscent of Indiana Jones movies, none of the famous fictional archaeologist’s films was shot in Tikal. There were however quite a few other films shot in this location, including for instance George Lucas‘ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) or Mel Gibson‘s Apocalypto (2006). For the list of all films that were partially shot at Tikal, please click here.
Other popular destinations in Guatemala
Only about 2,5-4 hours drive from Lake Atitlán, there lies one of the two most popular destinations in Guatemala, La Antigua Guatemala. We’re talking about a pretty colonial town with cobblestone streets lined up with old houses in Italian Renaissance style and some impressive baroque ruins, a rather vibrant nightlife scene and great tourism options in the region. To find out what there is to see and do, where to grab a drink, safety and so on in Antigua, please click here.
Only about 90km/2,5hrs journey away from Antigua, you’d reach a lake that many people including myself found to be a rather special place. Surrounded by steep hills and three volcanoes as well as numerous Mayan villages, Lake Atitlán comes with a lot of excellent trekking options with breathtaking views and a rich cultural environment that’s determined by the friendly and rather happy indigenous population. More details could be found here.
Semuc Champey is a beautiful natural area that consists of a series of limestone turquoise pools located in Central Guatemala that often serves as a perfect (and much needed) stopover between Antigua and Tikal Ruins. It’s rather a unique and hard-to-get-to place but if you are nearby, it’s definitely worth it to stop by and enjoy the atmosphere of this pretty valley and friendly locals for few days. Read more about Semuc Champey here.