A Day Trip to Tikal from Belize
Small Belize has a vast number of Mayan temples within its borders, from single pyramids to vast cities buried in the jungle. It’s also about a 2 hour drive from its western border to the famous UNESCO site of Tikal in Guatemala. As a solo traveler, or even going as a group, I would not suggest driving there on your own. The border crossings alone can take ages if you’re not with a guided tour. Even with a tour, there’s a few things to keep in mind before you book. I wanted to give you an idea of what to expect when you’re heading to Tikal from San Ignacio, Beliz, based on my own experience.
We met up with for our guided tour with Mayawalk at their small office in downtown San Ignacio at 730AM. Our group of 12 piled onto a minibus for the 15 minute ride to the Guatemalan border. From there, we had to get out of our bus and walk into the customs building to get our passports stamped. In line, you’re able to change money from either Brazilian or US dollars to Guatemalan soles from vendors. Our guide claimed (and while I have no evidence to back this up I think he was correct) that the lone men offering to change money will give you a good rate.
Once we got our passports stamped, we were lead out of the other side of the building into Guatemala. The whole thing felt very much like visiting a DMZ or Checkpoint Charlie, with the one building straddling the border, and tour guides not allowed to set foot past a certain point. Once outside, we got on a Guatemalan bus with Guatemalan guide and driver. This is because laws prevent foreign tour buses from visiting Tikal. Belizean tour guides are (understandably) annoyed by this, as Belize does not have the same reciprocal rules about their own historic sites.
Back on the road, we had another 90 minutes or so of travel. One marked difference between the two countries you may notice is the quality of the roads. Belizean highways are for the most part paved, smooth, and easy to traverse. Within a few miles of getting into Guatamala, we could see that was no longer the case. A very long part of those 90 minutes were due to a long stretch (several miles’ worth) of massively potholed roads. I couldn’t help but think how much shorter the car trip would be if those were fixed. If you get carsick.. stay up front.
After a lengthy stop at a roadside souvenir shop/convenience store to pick up drinks, breakfast (delicious corn cakes with salsa, mmm) and more, our bus finally headed into Tikal! Which really meant several more stops inside the park perimeter to check tickets, permits, etc. I would say at least 3 checkpoint stops, but there could have been more. Seriously, don’t try this on your own unless you both speak Spanish and are 100% certain you’ve got all the correct paperwork. Our guide - worth every penny - handled it all. After finally parking, we followed him into the jungles of Tikal. We spent the next several hours, and walked several miles, learning about the site, the history, and got to climb up several of the pyramids. We also got to pass by a sign warning us to stay away from the monkeys, particularly in mating season, as they’ll sometimes throw feces at you! Between that and coming across a dead tarantula, were good reminders that we were in the jungle and needed to be aware of, and respectful to, the plants and animals around us.
Things I learned:
-Tikal is over 200 square miles, and they’ve uncovered about 12% of it. And it might stay that way! Countless other buildings have been found, but will not be uncovered. You can see them - as you go through the park, you’ll see large mounds overgrown with trees, roots, and plants. Those are additional Mayan structures, left as they are. To uncover them would disrupt the ecosystem too much. It’s interesting to see how modern archeology takes the surrounding environment into account. It also definitely helps you feel like Tomb Raider as you’re walking around.
-You can still climb one of the pyramids (one of the twin pyramids of the Group Q complex). Several others they’ve built separate stairways to climb to the top of (Temple IV being the most well-known and largest). The famed Temple I, the one in most of the photos, is roped off due to its condition.
-Don’t worry so much about sunscreen. You’re under tree cover much of the trip. It also may rain on you while there, so you may want to bring a poncho with you
-Did I mention the many miles you walk? Wear comfortable, closed-toed shoes. There’s a lot of insects crossing your path that you probably don’t want on your feet.
-Yes, Tikal was featured at the end of the original Star Wars as the rebel base planet. You can see the exact shot by climbing to the top of Tower IV. As you get up there on the modern staircase (thankfully!), remember that there was no road into Tikal, nor were there any stairs built, until the early 80’s. George Lucas and team took a plane to the site, and had someone haul that equipment up the pyramid.
-If you get hungry or thirsty, there are vendors by the vast complex near Temples I & II that sell snacks, water and soda. There are restaurants further towards the hotels and other buildings on the main road, but nothing else inside. It’s a good idea to bring a lot of water and some snacks with you. It’s also a good idea to make sure you clean up after yourself!
Even with the snacks, by 1:30 we were all tired and starving, and left the main sites to stop at a (serviceable but largely forgettable) restaurant on our way out of the park. Overall, our guide and Tikal itself were both fantastic. The only drawback was the 2.5 hours in the car on the way back, between driving and border crossing. Having had long car trips both the day before and after this, I probably could have opted for a closer trip, such as Xunatunich. Our fellow tourists on the bus kept raving about the ATM caves, which I also wish I had been able to experience. Tikal is fantastic, but think about how much time you have in Belize and prioritize how much time you want to spend in a car.
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