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Tikal with Kids

Tikal is on anyones hit list for Guatemala and is considered a highlight of Central America as a whole. But is it doable with kids? Let me summarise our post/covid experience (July 2022) of Tikal with kids.

Tikal is a magical adventure and a must-do with children. The largest kingdom to exist within the Mayan civilisation, thoughts to cover an area of more than 200 square miles at its peak) it is located deep in the rainforest in the northern province of El Petén Guatemala.

A brief Crash Course on Tikal

Tikal was built-up over a period of 800 years to include a hospital, sports stadium, library, schools, temples, palances, residential properties, farms and burial grounds. It is thought to have had a population of around 100,000 at it’s height around the 9th century. Thereafter, the Mayans began to abandon to area, for reasons that remain a mystery (although war, climate, disease, over-farming etc may have all played a part).

Since the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, parts of the huge site have been cleared and excavated, however, the vast majority of the area is still prime jungle, home to wildlife ranging from various monkeys, coatis, amazing birds and insects as well as fascinating trees and plants.

The site is 576 square km in size and around 16 km of this is home to the great plazas and temples. There are between 3,000-4,000 buildings, many of which have not been uncovered yet. The main highlights are the Grand Plaza, three acropolises, several twin pyramid complexes and the six main temples (inventively labelled Temple I, Temple II etc.)

Getting there:

My first approach to getting to Tikal was a bus, which I had read was bookable online through GuateGo. I couldn’t believe the prices at $30 per person. We would have to get tickets for the kids if we wanted to guarantee them a seat, but are sometimes willing to just buy one for Max (the 7 year old) and have Quinn (3) and Willow (11 months) on our laps if there are no spare seats. The journey time was apparently four hours according to the website (compared with 90 mins driving according to Google maps) so this didn’t seem like a good option at all.

After finding a few travel agents that were actually open in Flores (much harder than we anticipated!), we were shocked to discover the cost of a shuttle and guide to Tikal. I did some good haggling, walked around bartering with neighbouring tour operators etc but everyone wanted $20 per adult for the shuttle and $15 for the kids (each - for all three of them, that’s $85 US dollars total!). I was surprised this was cheaper than just booking a bus and included a guide, but I was already aware from a quick Google that the cost of a car rental was going to be $80 at the absolute maximum with insurance. With a car, we would need to include fuel but this would leave us able to be flexible, leave when we wanted, break up the journey with lunch on the way home or stop at the other side of Lake Petén, perhaps El Remante (where we almost stayed instead of Flores island) where several beaches and rope swings etc exist.

We decided to get a taxi to Alamo/Enterprise/National near the airport and we’re surprised to find a car and baby seat was only $56 for two days without insurance and $145 with insurance. Even more surprising was the fact that the cars were new and decent (decent by western standards)! We got a brand new Corolla and decided on two days so we could also save on airport transfers because the rental was walking distance from the airport.

We opted to pay the insurance because a great deal of the roads in Guatemala are not paved at all, and those that are frequently have unmarked, almost invisible (and lethal!) speed bumps, as well as numerous huge potholes, often more than half a meter deep.

The drive to Tikal from Flores island was 1 hour 15 minutes in total. The “park entrance” (the ticket office, which is still 20 mins drive from the actual park) is roughly an hour from Flores. Here guides approached us to offer their services, these started at $50 and can be haggled down. Once again we declined a guide after much debate, feeling that we needed to go at our own pace (the kids set the pace which is almost always too slow or too fast to listen to anyone else!). We did a lot of reading in advance and bought along a guidebook to the site. We got our tickets, which required ID. These cost 150Q for two adults, and kids under ten don’t pay.

Tip: We were asked for our passports in order to purchase tickets. This scared the life out of us as I hadn’t read anywhere that passports might be required. Turns out they just meant some form of ID and our driving licences were ok. Phew!!

Visiting Tikal with Kids:

Once we had finally arrived at the entrance proper (as indicated by a car park and obvious museum/gift shop/information centre and toilets) we bought a map and studied the route. In the near 40 degree heat and actual 100% humidity we knew we weren’t going to be spending hours and hours at the site. Pre-kids we certainly would have but we wanted to leave with fun memories, not be dragging them around if and when they got tired. We arrived at 8am, having left our hotel in Flores at 6:30am. This was great, the car park was almost empty and we barely saw anyone for the first hour or so of our visit. Perfect!

We decided that we would walk around the Grand Plaza and climb temples II and IV (in that order) and anything else would be a bonus. This would allow us to see the main highlights, one of which was getting a view from the top of Temple IV, which was the site of “Yavin IV”, the forest covered moon in Star Wars episode IV, A New Hope.

Tip: We were pleased to have brought the stroller and the carrier. We found that about half of the 3–4-mile trek we did was doable with the pushchair – this saved us some sweat, allows us to use it as a caddy for the drinks so we weren’t carrying everything, used it for shade etc BUT we folded it up and left it within the periodic drinking areas and put baby in the carrier when we ascended our chosen temples! This worked out perfectly.

The walk to the plaza took around half an hour at the pace set by our three-year-old. We stopped A LOT to look at bugs (see video below of the sea of ants!) and a number of “stelae! (tall stone tablets with figures and hieroglyphics caved into them). We had a great moment almost straight away when a coati climbed out of a tree literally 1m in front of the kids – they loved it and the coati seemed to enjoy it too, relaxed snuffling around right in front of them. The trails are through dense jungle and are mostly in the shade.

Eventually we came to the space between the central acropolis and north acropolis, giving rise to the Grand Plaza. At each end stands Temple I and Temple II. Temple II is climbable and offers a great photo opp for the view of Temple I. Wooden staircases had been built into the rear of the temple to assist with “safely” climbing up, however they had definitely seen better days and were rickety as all hell!! The 3 year old had no trouble at all with this though and was up like a shot, no issues.

The central acropolis area is ideal for kids! Whether yours are natural climbers like ours or not, they’ll love exploring and scrambling about, it’s a maze of small rooms and courtyards (just mind your head!).

The jungle trail between Temple III and Temple IV was possibly the most exciting bit for us. On this shortish 15-20 walk we were suddenly pelted with fruit from above and looked up to see two spider monkeys showering down discarded shells of palm fruits!! Amazing experience, the kids went nuts for them! Shortly after this was accompanies by the frankly terrifying sounds of a troop of howler monkeys. It sounded more like Jurassic park than anything, but the kids loved it! It made for an amazing atmosphere unrivalled at any other ruins we have previously explored.

Our final destination was Temple IV, the tallest structure at Tikal, for the climb up 70m, through the jungle canopy. Star Wars fans might recognise the stunning view, it was used as a filming location for Yavin IV in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.

The climb is up a wooden staircase snaking alongside the stone structure. Again, the kids managed this without too much trouble. At the top you break out onto the original stone steps for the last few meters – there are no guardrails and it is totally possible to just fall off the edge so have your wits about you! It was tricky to take photos because of this danger, so we just got a few jungle pictures of the outstanding views of Temples I, II and III peeking out of the canopy as well as the classic star wars shot and headed down before things got silly!

Tip: There are toilets and a shady drinking area at the foot of this temple which is a great touch so far from the entrance/exit and after all those stairs!

During our walk back to the entrance we debated pushing it and going a long way around to visit the Lost World among other sites but we sadly decided against it – wanting to leave in good spirits rather than pushing the kids over the edge. We were there trekking in the heat for more than 4 hours at this point and really needed to get some food into them. We decided to head back to the car and explore El Remate for the afternoon (an hours drive away).

The magical site did have one more treat in store for us – just around a corner, a group of coatis with several babies just ran out across the path in front of us! They were super cute and it was an absolutely highlight for all of us. We stared and watched them for ages in the shade, how wonderful!

In Summary:

This site is the most geared up for kids of all the Mayan ruins we’ve ever been to (and possibly Buddist and Hindu as well!). There was a great balance between protecting the site and really enjoying it, letting visitors climb all over bits of it. There were toilets throughout the site at good intervals, well marked maps, even a changing table in the main toilets at the park entrance! The first we have seen in our entire Central American Adventure.

For more information about where to eat and stay and other things to do around the province of El Petén, check out our Flores blog here.

Well done Tikal, none of us will ever forget it!

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