What to Expect When Visiting the Ancient Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala

Nestled in the hilly, jungle-covered region of El Peten, I wandered among the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Only rediscovered in 1848, Tikal offers a step back in time to the turn of the millennium, but also a raw view of the true splendor of the Guatemalan rainforest.

If you’re planning an upcoming trip to Tikal, here is what you should expect from a visit to one of Guatemala’s most popular attractions. 

History of Tikal

Archaeologists believe that the foundation of the city of Tikal was laid around 700 BC, making it the oldest site found in Central America to date. Tikal was a major Mayan city, which at the height of its glory in the 6th century AD, may have housed over 100,000 residents.

It was abandoned in approximately 900, corresponding with the wider, regional decline of the Maya civilization. Since its rediscovery, Tikal has been named a world heritage site making it popular destination for visitors hoping the explore the El Peten region.

What You Will Love About Tikal

The highlights of our visit to Tikal are two-fold:

  1. The towering ancient pyramids
  2. The dense surrounding jungle.

The pyramids themselves are of course impressive, the tallest standing at 65 meters tall. There are 5 main pyramids (templos) available to view for tourists, Templo I-V. The most iconic is Temple I, which is in the Gran Plaza and was our first view in the park. It was built as a burial temple for one of Tikal’s most influential kings and it was the only temple that was found with a tomb still intact, adding to it’s iconography.

My favorite pyramid however, was temple V, which is a little off the beaten path (read, less visitors). It’s unique rounded sides and half-uncovered profile make it a special sight to see. With fewer people around, you can get a better feel for the smells, sounds and sites of the jungle. When Sam & I rounded the corner to view Temple V, we were the only people there and it left us truly in awe.


Speaking of the jungle, that was my other highlight from visiting Tikal. The name Tikal both refers to the ruins, but also the national park in which the ruins are housed. The biodiversity reserve is massive, filled with dense rainforest and rolling hills.

From the top of Temple IV (see photo below), you can get a view of just how expansive the forest really is. As you wander through the ruins, you’re also wandering through the rainforest. The trees have completely overtaken the site, which during Mayan times, was completely devoid of trees.

Only about 25% of the ruins are uncovered at the moment, the rest of the site left asthe wild and raw condition it was found it. There are excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing in Tikal, including howler monkeys, tapirs, turkeys and sometimes even ocelots & jaguars. Going at sunrise is the best time to go for wildlife viewing (although we didn’t do this), because you can hear the forest come alive. But even after sunrise, we got some great bird views and even saw a toucan!


Conclusion on Tikal

While we haven’t been to any other Mayan sites to compare Tikal with, I found it to be quite impressive and well worth a visit. Our tour guide wasn’t the best, so I learned most about the site by reading online and in tour books, but I am still grateful to have visited the site. The jungle setting is what I will remember most from the site, because I have never been to another archaeological site like it.

Ready to plan your trip to Guatemala? Don’t miss a stop at a coffee plantation or spending a few days in Antigua.

Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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