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Tikal National Park in northeast Guatemala is a phenomenal and almost otherworldly place to visit. With its massive pyramids and dense jungles spanning more than 220 square miles, Tikal is the largest excavated archaeological site in the Americas. While getting to Tikal from Guatemala City or the beautiful resort town of Antigua requires a lengthy bus ride or self-drive, it is actually quite easy to get to Tikal from neighboring Belize. In fact, a day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio – the popular backpacker destination near the Belize-Guatemala border – is one of the best things to do in San Ignacio.
This guide to taking a self-guided day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio details how to get from Belize to Tikal – tips for visiting Tikal – and necessary information travelers need for a fun and rewarding Tikal day trip.
About Tikal National Park – location, size, and quick facts
Tikal National Park is easily one of the top things to do in Guatemala. Although there are a lot of Mayan ruins in Belize and even outside of Mexico City and near Tulum or Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Tikal is by far the most impressive ancient ruins site in Latin America. Located in northeast Guatemala in the state of El Petén, this UNESCO World Heritage site is approximately a two hour drive from the Belize border.
The park itself is massive. There are approximately 142,080 acres of expansive jungle lands surrounding the ancient Maya City within Tikal National Park. While still under excavation, much of Tikal remains unearthed. In fact, it is estimated that only 15 percent of the site has been fully excavated. The parts that have been restored consist of nine plazas. Within those nine plazas there are six large temples that have been unearthed in the park, including two that face each other in the Grand Plaza – one of the main highlights of any Tikal day trip from Belize.
History of Tikal National Park
The history of Tikal National Park, and the many mysteries surrounding this ancient Mayan city, makes a day trip to Tikal that much more fascinating. While no one knows exactly why the city was abandoned, historians believe it was once a superpower of the Mayan empire and, at its peak, was home to approximately 100,000 people!
Tikal dates back to at least 700 BC, and sometime around 900 AD the city was abandoned and was slowly consumed by the jungle and reclaimed by nature. Eventually it became completely hidden, only to be rediscovered in the mid-1800s.
While there is still a lot to be learned about this ancient Mayan city shrouded in mysteries as dense as the jungles that once encompassed it, historians have been able to somewhat piece together what life might have been like during Tikal’s prosperous reign.
From artifacts that have been discovered to documentations depicted on the walls of Tikal’s temples, it is believed that Tikal was equally progressive and barbaric.
Ritual human sacrifices were undoubtedly practiced in Tikal, and there is plenty of evidence that suggests the Maya dynasty that ruled there had very violent tendencies. Yet the ancient ruins also seem to indicate a civilization that functioned much like cities do today, with administrative buildings, a library, a school, and even a sports arena.
With such a fascinating history and so much to discover, it is no wonder a day trip from San Ignacio to Tikal is one of the most popular activities in the region.
How to get to Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize
There are several ways to get from Belize to Tikal. You can book a guided tour, take public transportation, or rent a car and drive into Guatemala from Belize. Regardless of which way to choose to get to Tikal from San Ignacio, don’t forget your passport! Everyone will need a current, valid passport, as you will be crossing the border into another country.
A guided tour to Tikal from San Ignacio is perhaps the easiest and most popular way to get to Guatemala’s esteemed national park. The price varies on day tours to Tikal, as does group size and what is included. However, small group tours typically include transportation to and from the San Ignacio town limits, assistance crossing the border, a local lunch, tour guide, and entry into Tikal. You can choose a day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio or book a 2-day tour to Tikal from the town of Flores, Guatemala.
Rent a car and drive
Renting a car and doing a self-drive to Tikal is another option if you prefer to explore at your own pace or prefer a self-guided experience over a tour.
The border crossing procedures from Guatemala to Belize can be a bit confusing. But there are a few important things to be aware of if you plan to drive to Tikal.
Most rental car companies in Belize do not allow you to take their cars across the border into Guatemala. If you want to do a self-drive Tikal tour, we recommend renting from Crystal Auto Rentals, which allows you to drive into Guatemala. However, you must let the rental car agency know in advance that you plan to drive into Guatemala, as you have to get a Tikal permit.
Additionally, your rental car insurance is invalid in Guatemala, which means if anything happens to the rental car in Guatemala, you will be out the expense for any repairs. All of this, as well as the unique border crossing procedures are covered in our Belize-Guatemala border crossing guide.
Tikal Day Shuttle
Finally, if you don’t want the hassle of driving across the border, nor do you want to book a group tour to Tikal, your final option is to take a shuttle service to get to Tikal from San Ignacio. The shuttles leave at 7:30 am from downtown San Ignacio and leave Tikal at 2 pm. This option gives you approximately 4 hours in Tikal National Park. However, you can also book overnight accommodations at Tikal and take the next day’s shuttle back to San Ignacio.
The shuttles are roughly $60 USD per person round trip. That does not include admission to Tikal National Park or the entrance fees and taxes to cross the border.
Our Experience on a self-guided day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio
Although you can take a guided tour to Tikal from Belize, we chose to do a self-drive because we were traveling with a toddler at the time. Plus, a self drive allowed us the freedom to stop when we wanted and travel on our own schedule while in Guatemala with kids.
Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of walking and climbing you will do in Tikal, or maybe it’s the journey into Guatemala and the tricky border crossing procedures, or possibly it is the hours spent in the hot Central American sun that made our day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio long and exhausting. If we had to do it over again, we would have booked a hotel in Tikal National Park and spent one night there.
Overall, however, a day trip from San Ignacio to Tikal is well worth it to see this ancient marvel.
What to see in Tikal National Park
One of the most impressive and tallest structures in Tikal National Park is 230 feet high, and you can actually climb it! You can access the top of the pyramid by a staircase on the backside. To get to the top it is the equivalent of climbing about 4-5 flights of stairs. The views above the canopy are spectacular, and worth the challenge to get there!
Besides the tallest temple, you can also climb one of the temples in the Grand Plaza by staircase. There are approximately three flights of stairs to the top of that pyramid.
While you are allowed to climb some of the ruins, others have signs specifically stating not to. It should go without saying, but it is important to respect the rules of the park and the Mayan culture to preserve this ancient treasure for others to enjoy.
In all, you can see most of the temples and ruins in about 4 hours, although more time would allow you to climb multiple pyramids and explore the park in more detail.
The jungle trails through Tikal offer scenic beauty and welcoming shade, at times. Many of the trails linking the various pyramids and plazas take you under a canopy of trees. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of monkeys hanging out above you. While the park is home to other wildlife, as well, like Toucans and even jaguars, the more threatening animals stay well away from the plazas frequented by visitors to the park.
Tips for taking a day trip to Tikal from Belize
Besides your passport and a sense of adventure, if you plan to visit Tikal from Belize, there are a few things you’ll want to make sure you bring with you.
Wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes
There is a great deal of walking required inside Tikal. In fact, to see everything, you will likely walk about four miles. From the parking lot, there is a short route that is slightly uphill. It is about an hour walk to the Grand Plaza from the parking area. There is a longer, flatter route you can take that goes by some of the other ruins first, but it will take an extra thirty minutes.
Bring water, bug spray, and plan for sweltering heat
You will want to bring plenty of water for yourself and for your family, if visiting Tikal with kids. This area of Guatemala can become scorching hot, particularly in the summer months. The plazas, where your main ruins and pyramids are located, are also in the direct sun. Besides bottled water, you will want to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray and wear breathable clothing.
We let our daughter explore openly, but keep in mind Tikal is in a jungle, so beware of insects, wildlife, and other possible dangers associated with a rainforest environment.
Bring a child carrier if visiting Tikal with kids
A child carrier is a must if visiting Tikal with a toddler or young child that will not be able to walk for a full 4 miles. A stroller would work too on portions of the walk, but the paths are dirt, and many of them have makeshift stairs or branches in the way. As mentioned, we visited Tikal as a day trip while on a family vacation to Belize.
Entrance to Tikal National Park
The drive from the gate of Tikal National Park to the parking lot is about 20 miles. It is paved and well maintained the entire way. But keep that distance in mind when you are planning your trip to account for the travel time it will take.
Admission cost for Tikal National Park is approximately $22 USD per adult. We paid in quetzales (Guatemalan currency) 150 GTQ. Children under 12 years old are free.
Even if you drive yourself to Tikal, you can hire a tour guide once you get to the park.
Tikal National Park opens for visitors at 6 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. However, visitors who stay in the park can opt to purchase a unique sunrise or sunset tour to see the ruins before other visitors arrive.
Facilities inside Tikal National Park
- There are a couple of restrooms along the trails in Tikal National Park. The restrooms do not have toilet paper in the stalls. Instead, you need to grab sheets of toilet paper from a small dispenser near the bathroom door before entering a stall.
- You will find several drink stations where you can purchase bottled water around the park. The drink stations only took Guatemalan currency when we were there, so be sure to have quetzales with you. You can exchange your Belizean or American dollars at the border. There is a permitted currency exchange vendor who walks around near the border that can exchange your currency for quetzales.
- There are two restaurants and a gift shop located near the parking lot. These are the only places you can buy actual food inside the park.
- There are some great places for a picnic with tables and seating, if you want to eat under the shaded trees in the presence of the ruins. This is a popular option especially if you are visiting Tikal with kids. You can bring outside food and drinks into the park, and let your children play and explore before or after you eat.
- There are hotels located inside the park if you choose to spend a night there. We did not stay in Tikal for the night, but as mentioned earlier, this is an option we would choose if we had it to do over again.
FAQs about taking a day trip from San Ignacio to Tikal
Understandably when visiting a national park as large as Tikal or taking a day trip that requires crossing the border from one country to another, you may have a few questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we have received about going to Tikal from San Ignacio Belize.
How far is Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize?
Tikal is roughly a two hour drive from San Ignacio. It is approximately 70 miles to the gate of Tikal and another 20 miles to the parking area once you are inside the national park. The border crossing can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on how busy it is when you arrive.
Is Guatemala safe?
Generally, crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala is safe, and crime in Tikal is low. Most of the crime in Guatemala occurs within Guatemala City, but tourist areas can be targeted as well for crimes like theft and robbery. However, your chances of being a victim of a crime during a trip to Tikal is low.
How many days do you need in Tikal National Park?
You can easily go to Tikal National Park on a day trip from San Ignacio. However, to appreciate the park more and see it without large crowds, it is worth giving yourself an extra day and staying the night in a hotel within the park.
Do you need to book a day tour to go from San Ignacio to Tikal?
A tour company takes some of the stress out of a day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio, but you can do a self-drive and self-guided tour to Tikal with some preparations.
Should you hire a tour guide at Tikal?
Even if you drive yourself to Tikal, you can hire a tour guide once you get to the park. A private guide inside the park will cost approximately $60 USD. The knowledgeable guides are great at explaining the history of Tikal, Mayan culture, and the significance of each of the ruins you will see in the park.
There are a few signs up throughout the park that provide some information and context, but not nearly as much information as you would get if you take a tour. The guides also point out things that you may miss, like hieroglyphs, if you choose to walk through the national park alone.
Have a question about Tikal National Park in Guatemala or taking a day tour to Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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This guide to taking a day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio Belize was first written in August 2016 but was updated in May 2022 for accuracy and current information.