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. I love that the jungle is continually attempting to re-engulf this ancient city. Great photos and good light, too. My husband has been to Tikal and Guatemala, but I haven’t yet. One of these days!

      Thanks, Cassie! Hopefully you’ll be able to see it for yourself someday!

    I went to Chichen Itza about 10 years ago and didn’t find it to be too badly overrun with tourists, but no doubt it’s change a bit since then! I was lucky to go before they cordoned the pyramids off and we were actually able to climb them. Anyway, Tikal is definitely on my bucket list, and these pictures just reinforce that!

      Tikal is definitely worth having on your bucket list, in my opinion!

      You can still climb one temple at Tikal – used to be at least 3 you could climb, but sadly people don’t treat old ruins as nicely as they should.

    Great pics to highlight your post. We too really enjoyed Tikal. We got there very early when the park first opened and so we got to experience the jungle waking up with virtually no people. We liked to listen to the howler monkeys the most. The morning fog made the place look eerie and cool.
    We happened to be there on winter solstice and wow, what a treat! The Grand Plaza was turned into a camping area for Mayan spiritual leaders that had come from all over Guatemala. They had a marimba and a huge fire that they splashed rum and other things into. Just amazing! Definitely enjoyed it much more than our trip to Chitzen Itza.

      Oh wow! Being there for a solstice celebration sounds like it would be fascinating!

    WOW! Amazing, I loved reading this post and I don’t like a lot of tourist either and certainly don’t want them in my shots! Was it difficult to reach these ruins and where is the main city to fly into? I have been to many ruins and certainly would like to see this one!

      It’s not terribly difficult to reach Tikal, though it is sort of in the middle of nowhere. You can visit as a day trip from Belize, or the closest town in Guatemala is Flores/Santa Elena.

    Tikal looks very interesting! I would love to explore some of the Mayan ruins especially with less tourists.

      There’s a lot to learn about the Maya people, and visiting sites like this is definitely one of the best ways to do it.

    I would really love to go here someday. I love that there aren’t as many tourists, mostly because I don’t like random people in my photos in most cases. Crazy how quickly the jungle grows back over the ruins!

    You’re right, I am definitely jeals of the photos with the blue sky. That first image with the clouds is stunning!

      Haha, for once you are jealous of MY photos! Yesssss. 😉

      We did really luck out with the weather though, for sure!

    So awesome, I love the ancient history of the Maya. It is amazing how the jungle continues to encroach upon the ruins. Every 3 months? That is serious. Thanks for sharing, I’d like to check it out one day.

      Yeah it’s crazy how quickly the jungle can creep back in! Really fascinating, though.

    Maya? Who are they?
    Very interesting and beautiful place.
    Great photos as always.

    I love love LOVE Tikal!! How did you get there for sunrise? I slept in the hammocks outside the main gate. $5/night I believe was the going rate. An amazing experience in itself, sleeping with wildlife all around you, deep in the jungle, and right outside the ancient temples! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

      Tikal was truly awesome!

      We weren’t there for sunrise, though – we were there for sunset!

      However, we DID camp in the campground that’s in the national park, not far from the entrance to Tikal. While I’m not much of a camper, it WAS pretty awesome to go to sleep with those amazing stars overhead, and to be woken up by the monkeys and parrots! Definitely something I’ll never forget.

    I haven’t been to Guatemala, but Tikal is definitely a place I want to visit. I did visit Chichen Itza when I was in Mexico a couple years ago. It was interesting, but I wasn’t prepared for how busy it would be. It would be pretty neat to go to a place that’s a little quieter like Tikal.

      I’m really glad that I had a chance to visit some of these more chilled-out Maya ruins, as opposed to a hugely popular one like Chichen Itza.

      Hopefully you make it to Tikal someday! Definitely worth the trip.

    Looks incredible. Would love to see Tikal and Mirador, whch is a ruin only accessible through a 2-day jungle trek. Have you been there too?

      Nope, have not been to Mirador! So far just Tikal, Xunantunich, and Cahal Pech. But really enjoyed all 3 of those!

    Have you actually been to Chichen Itza? It is really worth seeing, I wouldn’t dismiss it that easily. I went to Mexico a few years ago, and it was not that crowded, though it was summer. (but it was before 2012, so things might have changed since then). The great difference is that it is not in the middle of the jungle, but there are other sites in Mexico that are right in the jungle and really impressive. And of course, there’s Tulum, which is magical.
    Anyway, I’ve never been to Guatemala (yet), but Mexico is a must-see too!
    PS: first time I comment but I really like your website, keep up the good work 🙂

      I have not been to Chichen Itza yet – though I definitely would go if I was in the area, just to see it. Even if it was sort of crowded. I’ve just seen lots of photos with tons of people crowded around the main pyramid! But that definitely doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting!

        Wait, you wrote this without even having been to Chichen Itza? You’re telling people to skip Chichen Itza, though you’ve never been there yourself? That’s ridiculous.

          Well, really, I’m just telling them to go to Tikal. They don’t have to listen.

          If that’s ridiculous, then so be it.

            I’ve been to both, and I say Tikal is way better than Chichen itzá. If you want a raw experience and adventure, go to Tikal. If you want to shop for souvenirs go to Chichen Itzá.

    Great photos! We are heading to Central America in a few months so this is definitely now on the list! Im really fascinated by the Maya ruins so cant wait to see them for myself. Thanks for the tip as to which ones are better to see!

      Great to hear! I would definitely recommend Tikal in Guatemala. And there are also a bunch of great ones in Belize, too – all of which are much less touristy than Chichen Itza!

    If you get the chance I also highly recommend Calakmul temple. I accidently came here twice on two different tours. But it was ok because it’s so gigantic, the first time I never made it to the top!
    I strongly recommend getting a rickshaw to the temple through the jungle to save your energy for the climb. It has incredible views from the top overlooking a sea of tree-tops and temples.
    I didn’t goto Itza either after hearing how swamped it is by tourists.

      Calakmul sounds awesome, too. As did Caracol in Belize (though I didn’t make it there, either). Actually, I think just about any Maya ruin you visit in Central America would probably be awesome, and MUCH less crowded than Chichen Itza!

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