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 edge 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 you get your passport stamped, we were lead out of the other side of the building into Guatemala. The whole thing felt very DMZ, with the one building straddling the border. From there, 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. Those 90 minutes would be far shorter without a long stretch of potholed dirt roads. 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 meant several more stops inside the park perimeter to check tickets, permits, etc. 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 jungle to traverse several miles over the next few hours to see the sites.
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.
-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.
-There are vendors by the vast complex near Temple I (the one you see in photos of Tikal) that sell snacks, water and soda. Otherwise, you’re on your own, so bring lots of water.
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 then the 2.5 hours 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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