Forget Chichen Itza – Go to Tikal Instead

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Chances are, unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, you've heard a thing or two about these people called the Mayas. They had that whole calendar thing that was supposed to bring about an apocalypse and the end of the world last year, remember?

Well, the world (obviously) did not end. But all the hullabaloo about that calendar and the people who created it have certainly sparked renewed interest in the Mayas, their culture, and the things they have left behind.


Scattered all over Mexico and Central America, the remnants of the ancient Maya civilization can still be found today in the form of great stone step pyramids and ruined cities that have been reclaimed by the jungle.

Perhaps the most famous Maya site is Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. This site was once one of the largest, most diverse cities in the Maya world, and today is one of the most-visited archaeological sites in Mexico — millions of people travel here each year to see Chichen Itza's “El Castillo,” which was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World back in 2007.

But, with so many tourists being bused in every day from Cancun and nearby resort towns, Chichen Itza really isn't the best Maya site to visit.

Skip Chichen Itza. Go to Tikal instead.



On a recent trip through Belize and Guatemala, I had the chance to visit a handful of Maya sites: Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and Tikal.

The last of these was, by far, my favorite.


Located in northern Guatemala, Tikal is not very dissimilar to Chichen Itza. It, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was also a major city in the history of the Maya civilization. In fact, thanks to its rather central location, Tikal was akin to the capital of the whole civilization for quite some time.

But the big difference here is that, unlike what I've heard about Chichen Itza, the Tikal ruins aren't overrun with tourists.

In fact, on the January afternoon that I was there, there were only a handful of other visitors wandering around the ruins of Tikal. It was peaceful. It was quiet. And you could easily take photos without any other people in them. Try THAT at Chichen Itza.


Tikal is actually a huge site as far as Maya ruins go. It covers roughly 7 square miles of jungle, and more than 4,000 limestone structures have thus far been mapped. Of these 4,000+ structures, however, only 21 percent have been investigated, and only 3 percent actually excavated from the vegetation.

Why? We asked our Tikal guide this, and were told that every excavated structure at Tikal not only automatically faces the wear and tear of the elements, but also requires near-constant maintenance. Since Tikal is located firmly within the Guatemalan jungle, the structures have to be re-uncovered every 3 months. Otherwise, the jungle reclaims them.


My visit to Tikal was brief — only about 4 hours. But, during that time, I learned a lot about the site and the Mayas in general, mostly thanks to our guide Juan. Juan was full of fun facts (for example, did you know that the Mayas invented corn? yes, INVENTED IT!), as well as a lot of knowledge about the history of the Mayas and of Tikal.

Tikal dates back at least 3,000 years, and at its height was likely home to up to 100,000 people. The city went through periods of growth, war, and decline just like any other, and most of its history is known thanks to giant standing stones covered in chiseled scenes and pictographs (kind of like Egyptian hieroglyphics) that have been found at Maya sites around the region.


My complete visit to Tikal included a trek through the jungle, some time to explore the Main Plaza (where the iconic Temple I and Temple II can be found), and a pre-sunset climb up Temple IV, which is the only temple at Tikal that you can still climb.


This was followed by another jungle trek, and then camping in Tikal National Park, complete with a brilliant starry sky and being woken up by howler monkeys.

It was definitely one of the highlights of my entire trip, and I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard more about this site before.

If you ever find yourself in Guatemala and inclined to visit a really cool archaeological site, be sure to get yourself to Tikal. (And hire a guide, too, because it's way more interesting that way.)


Is Tikal on YOUR must-visit list?



*Note: I visited Tikal as part of a complimentary “Land of Belize” trip with Intrepid Travel. As always, though, all opinions are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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59 Comments on “Forget Chichen Itza – Go to Tikal Instead

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  1. Loved Tikal. I visited in 94 and spent the night atop temple iv. a guard did catch us but simply asked for a bribe. approximately $5 each for my companion and i. best $5 i’ve ever spent. awesome going to sleep and waking to the sounds of the jungle.
    I’ve visited a lot of special ruins around the world, and Tikal ranks second only to Macchu Pichu for me.

    Although I have not (yet) gotten to Tikal, I can say the trick to Chichen Itza is to stay the night before at Valladolid, a cute colonial town in its own right, about 45 minutes away. We got an early bus and were among the few to arrive just as Chichen Itza opened. We felt like we had the whole place to ourselves for 3 hours. And just as we were finishing up…there came all of the tour busses from Cancun, right in the heat of the day. We then cooled off with a jump in Ik Kil, a very cool cenote. I’m sure we enjoyed our experience more than many.

    And if you’re going to Valladolid from Cancun, you can see Ek Balam along the way, another fantastic, and less known, Mayan temple.

    Thanks for a very interesting blog.

      Great tip! Going to popular spots early in the morning is always a good bet if you want to miss the crowds.

    ABSOLUTELY!!!! We are in total agreement! Our experience with Chichen Itza was not nearly as good as Tikal.

    1) Ability to actually explore inside the ruins and around them.
    2) the Sunset Tour was one of the best things we did from temple IV and listening to all of the howlers wake up!
    3)Less tourists and hawkers!

    We really loved Tikal! It’s not as easy to get to, but like all things, a little work pays off in big rewards.

      It’s definitely worth it! Such a unique place to be able to explore.

    Good to know. Thanks for the info and I didn’t know that Mayan invented Corn. That is a funny statement. I need to dig deep into it.

    How can you say that one site is better than other if you dont know one of them, your arguments are very poor and only based in “crowd”, you must to learn more about the Mayan Culture, your are very limited in knowledge, there are other sites like Uxmal, the temple of the Dolls and Palenque and of course other sites in Guatemala and Honduras.
    Thats the problem when the people go to this kind of sites without additional study and knowledge, for instance, do you know the history of Uxmal is beatiful.
    Very poor arguments, lack of knowledge, low level of culture from you.

      Thanks for that judgment on my knowledge and culture, Carlos. This is not an academic site – it’s a travel blog, and it’s about my experiences alone. I can write about Tikal without having been to every other Mayan site on the planet if I want to. (I’m sure Uxmal IS beautiful, but it’s not relevant to this post.) You want to write about Mayan history and show how cultured you are? Awesome, start your own blog and do it. 🙂

    Tikal was also used as the Rebel Base in Star Wars. In that last picture I imagined seeing the Millennium Falcon Flying over those trees.

    If you knew the Mayan history you wouldnt post to forget Chichen itza.. You cant not recommend a place without even havent been there.. As simple as this.. Tikal have taller pyramids..Chichen itza way more amazing details on each structure.. You definitely have to visit both…

    The crowd really depends on what time of the year you visit, as well as the day. I am returning to the Mayan region in a few months and currently trying to figure out my route. Tikal is on my Mayan bucket list but not sure yet if I will head over there. I am trying to figure out how to get to/from Tikal and Palenque on this trip.

    One interesting point to consider, if more people visited the ruins, just as the inhabitants did thousand of years ago, the jungle would have a harder time reclaiming the ruins. That was one point I never realized until I visited Chichen Itza. The Spanish explorers described how you could see the entire grounds back then and they are still trying to uncover the rest of Chichen Itza too. Gotta love the power of mother nature.

    Loved your post about camping in Tikal. The howling wouldn’t bother me since I can’t hear them in my sleep anyways. Thanks for sharing your experience. You gave me something to think about.

      Glad I gave you something to think about! I really enjoyed Tikal. I’m hoping to visit some more Mayan ruins (in Mexico) later this year.

    Hi – would like some advice on how to get to Tikal from Guatemala City. I know there is a bus that goes, but we are thinking of stopping at least one night on the way and perhaps twice to break up the trip (hear it is 8 to 10 hours). Is this possible (are there towns along the way and transportation)? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

      Hey Craig. I’m sorry but I’m not going to be much help on this one. I went to Tikal from Belize (with a stop in Flores), so I don’t know much about getting there from anywhere else. I was also part of a tour group, and we were traveling by mini bus.

    We visited a handful of different ruin sites in Mexico (we had a car), and couldn’t believe we had some of them to ourselves after seeing all the people at Chichen Itza

      I know, right?? There are plenty of ruins to go around.

    I have been to both Tikal and Chichen Itza. The trick to seeing Chichen without the thousands (literally) of tourists that get bussed in everyday is to stay one night in Piste (where Chichen Itza is located). When staying in Piste you can walk to Chichen Itza early in the morning (park opens at 8am) and be finished taking your photos and site seeing before the first buss arrives around 11am! My Maya archaeology professor gave me this tip while we were there this past summer. All my photos have absolutely no one in them!

      Very good tip!! Going early is always a good idea when it comes to sites that are really popular with tourists.

    Such great pictures. I love how it’s in the middle of the jungle. The ‘remains’ just seem to belong to nature there. I’d definitely choose Tikal over Chichen Itza!

      The fact that the jungle is constantly encroaching definitely makes it more dramatic and special, I think.

    Great post! Im off to Chichen Itza next week, and then to Tikal a couple of weeks later. Have to say though, from reading your post, I’m now super excited to be visiting Tikal! I’m staying in the jungle & booked in to do a sunrise tour with a guide called Roxy, so should be a blast!

      Great to hear that I’ve got you excited about Tikal, Brigid! That’s great that you’re staying in the jungle and doing a sunrise tour – I’m sure that will be awesome!

    Totally into this. Fewer people sounds great. Tikal is also the subject of a boardgame, so there is geek factor. And bits of Star Wars used shots of it, so double geek factor.

      It’s the subject of a board game? I did not know this! Did know the “Star Wars” bit, though – so cool!

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