How to Experience Tikal, Guatemala's Off-the-Radar Hotspot

by  Jess Novak | Apr 10, 2015
Jess Novak
Jess Novak

Tikal National Park, home to what was once the capital of a powerful Mayan kingdom, has been uninhabited by anyone but spider monkeys for more than a thousand years. If you're looking to be transported -- or hankering to get back to nature -- this UNESCO World Heritage Site provides the perfect off-radar escape.

Many travelers interested in touring the site opt to stay in the nearby city of Flores, where plenty of diversions balance out the remote adventuring. But if you'd like a true escape with more picturesque tranquility, we suggest making La Lancha, a property located directly above Guatemala's second largest lake (Lago Petén Itzá), your home base.

Entrance to the park itself is $20, but if you’re as interested in Mayan heritage as you are in the silent wonder of the park’s natural splendors, you’ll want to invest in a guide, too. Tours run anywhere from $20 to $200, depending on how much personal attention you want -- and whether you’re looking for a pampered experience complete with packed lunches. Otherwise, grab your own snack and some very necessary bug spray. Hit the tree-lined trails -- and don't forget all the opportunities for swimming, canoeing, and simply relaxing, too.

The forest paths are flat and well-marked, so wandering the ruins is comfortable for most fitness levels, even if it may take up a good chunk of the day. Spotting wildlife is amazingly easy; you’re bound to see plenty of monkeys and cat-sized, playful mammals called coatis, whose most remarkable feature are their fluffy, alert tails. Rows of leafcutter ants work their magic along the rainforest floor, and parrots and toucans also abound (morning is usually the best time for general birdwatching though many to avoid the fog that gathers in the early part of the day). Keep your eyes peeled for anteaters, too. And while it’s highly unlikely you’ll see one -- they’re incredibly shy, and even locals say they might only see one in a lifetime -- jaguars and pumas do inhabit the area.

But don't let the sound of all this natural beauty let you forget that there was once a very sophisticated city in Tikal. And though there's no question you're getting a glimpse into an ancient past here, it’s surprising how modern the acropolis’s layout feels. The buildings are surrounded by a series of reservoirs and arranged around ballcourts, market complexes, temples, public sculptures, and homes.

If there's only one thing you see here, make it Temple IV, Tikal's tallest structure that ascends past the trees to 212 feet. While visitors are encouraged to climb to the top, nobody is expected to use the original, crumbling stone steps to make this journey. Fortunately for most of us, there's a sturdy wooden staircase to take instead. From the top of the temple, you'll be rewarded with views of the sky that extend all the way to the horizon, with tips of other temples peeking out of the leafy blanket created by the rainforest treetops.

Of course, part of the pleasure of a visit to Tikal is simply soaking in its mystery. No one is certain why the city fell from power and came to be abandoned -- and although excavations began in the 1950s, there are many temples left in their half-emerged state, their mysteries still hidden and unexplored. When you come back, let us know what you discover there!

Jess Novak

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