Tikal is bucket list kind of destination and deservedly so. The Mayans built something truly impressive here and I dare you not to take 100 pictures from the top of the temples. Just walking the paths between the structures is an experience as well because of the diverse wildlife you can see (the howler monkeys and the toucans are my favorites) and the dense foliage of the jungle.
Tikal isn't the easiest of destinations to get to though, nor a luxury place to stay overnight--although I strongly recommend you do stay at least one night in the park. This summer marked my 3rd trip to Tikal and on each trip I have learned some helpful hints, many the hard way. Don't repeat my mistakes; here are 10 tips to make your trip better.
1. You Need Water. Lots Of Water.
The bad news is that Tikal is hot, and I say this as a person who grew up in the South. The temperature isn't the main issue, it's the 100% humidity. Walking through the jungle is sweaty business and you need to keep drinking water.
The good news is that water is easily found everywhere around Tikal. You can't drink the tap water but bottled water is readily available at your hotel, at small kiosks inside the park itself, at tourist stalls just outside the park and from roadside markets on your way in.
I dislike single- use water bottles (and it gets expensive after awhile) so we bought a large 8L water container from a Texaco minimart just after we crossed the border into Guatemala. It cost us about $5 and we refilled our reusable water bottles from it throughout the trip.
2. Bring Bug Spray And Use It Liberally.
Tikal is in the jungle, meaning you get the whole experience--the cool howler monkeys, the gorgeous birds, the lush foliage, and the aggressive mosquitoes. They aren't the worst I have seen, (that's reserved for the mutant, sadistic bloodsuckers on Capers Island, South Carolina) but they are abundant.
Using bug spray liberally will help keep everyone remembering how much fun Tikal was and not how many bug bites they got. FamilyOff worked fine for us but don't forget to reapply often as you will sweat it off. You will need to pack the pump kind as airlines dislike aerosols in luggage.
3. Wear Sneakers.
Part of the fun of Tikal is climbing all the temples and most of those stairs are not made with convenience in mind. Or modern safety standards. They are steep and the limestone can be slippy, especially if its rainy.
You will also walk miles everyday just to see everything. Tikal is not a good place for sandals and a downright silly place to wear flip- flops.
4. Take The Sunset Tour.
Watching the sunset from top of Temple IV or the big platform in Mundo Perdidio is an amazing experience but the real reason you should do a sunset tour is for the walk back to your hotel in the dark. It is surprising how quickly it gets dark in the jungle and how much louder the jungle sounds when it is pitch black around you. You will need headlamps or flashlights to see the trail but it will be an experience that you and your kids will love.
You must have a guide to be in the park for the sunrise or the sunset but they are easily organized through your hotel or online- see #5 below for guide recommendations.
Another great reason to do the sunset tour is that the day crowds are gone by late afternoon so it is your best chance to get pictures of the Grand Plaza without some photobombing tourist in the background.
5. Hire A Guide.
A guide is not a requirement in Tikal unless you do the sunset or sunrise tours. (The authorities don't like you in the park in the dark without someone who knows what they are doing, plus dumb people keep trying to camp on top of the temples.) But a guide will add a whole extra level to your trip.
There is so much knowledge (and literal ground) to cover when visiting Tikal that you will miss some of the more fascinating aspects without a knowledgeable guide. Plus, the good ones are also excellent wildlife spotters as well as patient answerers of the obligatory one million and one questions your kid will have. "Where did the Mayans poop? Did they sacrifice people?" How many people? Why?"-- the sacrifice thing will be a hot topic, I promise.
My family has paid around $80 for a 3-4 hour guided tour each of the 3 times I have visited Tikal and thought it was well worth it every time. You can hire one from your hotel or arrange one ahead of time- I have used Juan Bendfeldt with Arqueologia Mesoamericana and he was a hit with my 6 year old nephew who still talks about him. We also have used Luis (arranged through Horizontes Mayas) and he was great fun as well.
6. Bring Binoculars For Each Kid.
Ornithologists go crazy in Tikal what with the hundreds of birds all around you. And the most spectacular ones always seem to be at the top of the trees. The monkeys are also often at the top of the trees so binoculars can really help you see the detail of their movements and gestures.
The animals can move fast though so sometimes by the time you get a chance to take a look, the moment is lost. Your guide will have binoculars but a few extra pairs of cheap ones will make everyone happy and you don't have to hear as many "My Turn!" arguments.
7. Check Your Shoes Before Putting Them On.
This is the jungle so tarantulas and scorpions are around. My niece learned this viscerally when she went to put her shoe on and found a tarantula peering back at her. The subsequent squeal left the poor arachnid and us partially deaf. But I never again had to nag the kids to check their shoes so thanks, tarantula!
8. Bring Batteries For Electronic Devices And Actual, Paper Books.
If you are staying in Tikal National Park, there is only electricity from 630am-8am and 6pm-930pm when the hotels run generators. That means there is limited time for phone and tablet charging.
We didn't have any problems with this, except for being a little hot at night without AC, but the kids read their old school (to them) paper books while we recharged phones for more pictures. There are only so many outlets to go around.
*Headlamps will also come in handy when using the bathroom in the middle of the night after the hotel generators turn off.
9. Do A Little Research Ahead Of Time.
There is so much to know about the Maya and how and why they built their cities. A little background ahead of time will help you get a lot more out of your visit and things will make a lot more sense. We found documentaries on YouTube and checked every book we could find from the local library. We enjoyed watching the documentaries together as a family and the kids got spending money for Tikal souvenirs for each book they read about the Maya.
Our guide Juan sent a list of videos to watch--ranging from National Geographic to History Channel documentaries. I have watched most of the ones below and they were good, although some may be inappropriate for younger kids due to discussions of child sacrifice and blood letting ceremonies.
Suggested YouTube Videos
- Ancient Megalopolis discovered in The Maya World
- The Tikal Project
- The Dawn of the Maya
- Cracking the Maya Code
- Code of the Maya Kings
- The History Channel: Engineering an Empire: The Maya
- The Ancient Maya: Tools of Astronomy
- Lost Kingdoms of the Maya
- The Red Queen
- BBC´s Secrets of the Maya Underworld
- BBC´s Ancient Apocalypse: The Maya Collapse
- Climate change 800-1250AD:
- Mystery of the Maya
- Who Killed the Maya
- La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus * Not a Mayan video per say, but the kids will enjoy watching a familiar school bus become a Guatemalan 'chicken bus'- a cheap form of public transport that they will see often on their trip.
- Guns, Germs & Steel
10. Start Early.
Whether you hire a guide or not, I would start your tour in the morning as close to the 6am opening time as you can get everybody up and moving. There are a couple of reasons for this but mainly because it gets really hot in the afternoon. The morning is much better. Also the animals are most active in the morning so it is often your best chance of spotting them.
The bonus reason for starting early is that it is much less crowded. The day trippers don't usually start arriving until after 10am. There is something pretty neat about standing in front of those temples with only the jungle sounds around you. It is not the same when a tour group of 20 is next to you.