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Tikal is Guatemala’s most popular tourist attraction, and it’s easy to see why. As the capital city of the Mayan classic period, Tikal’s vast causeways and towering pyramids draw visitors from all over the world. These jungle-shrouded limestone buildings look like something from an Indiana Jones movie, and even today this ancient kingdom is cloaked in mystery. But as with most tourist attractions, Tikal can be expensive. Here’s how to do it on a budget.
Tikal National Park sits deep within one of Central America’s largest rainforests in the Peten department of Guatemala. As you’d expect from its jungle location, getting here isn’t quick or particularly easy, and while there are a few hotels in the park, they’re expensive. Save your money and stay in the island town of Flores, about 1.5 hours drive from Tikal.
With copper-coloured rooftops, cobbled streets and bright painted buildings, Flores is a charming town, and many tourists use it as a base for exploring Tikal. If you have the time, enjoying Flores’ peaceful atmosphere and beautiful lake is a wonderful way to spend a few days, but if you’re just using it as a jumping off-spot for Tikal, stay at one of the many budget hostels here.
You’ll probably set off for Tikal very early, so make sure you have a good meal the night before. Flores isn’t short of good cafes, but for an authentic experience head to La Galleria del Zotz. This hole in the wall restaurant has the cheapest food on the island: for only Q15 you can enjoy an enormous meal that will keep you going for hours, and it’s delicious.
Alternatively, you can stay in El Remate, which is even cheaper than Flores and closer to Tikal, too. Unlike Flores it doesn’t have much in the way of shops, restaurants or bars (it’s basically just two roads) but its location, at the eastern end of Lago de Petén Itzá, is pretty and it has a laid-back ramshackle vibe, as well as several decent budget hostels.
People might tell you it’s “essential” to book a tour as it’s the most convenient way to get to Tikal. Don’t listen to them. Entrance to Tikal isn’t cheap as far as Guatemalan prices go (Q150, about $22) and it doesn’t make sense to pay three times that amount doing a tour that prohibits you from exploring at your own pace.
The thing to remember is that Tikal is huge. Covering an area of 575.83 square kilometres, the best way to explore is by simply picking up a map and making your way from temple to pyramid. It’s much more enjoyable doing it in your own time, stopping and starting whenever you wish (make sure to take some time at the top of the 70ft Temple IV, from where you can enjoy views of the pyramids peeking through the rainforest canopy).
Instead of a tour, pay Q60 for a round trip shuttle service, or Q20 for a one way trip on a chicken bus.
You’ll be spending the day at Tikal, so bringing food with you is imperative. There are a few places to eat in the park – a few hotel restaurants, which are very expensive, and the more reasonably priced Comedor Tikal near the park entrance – but as you’ll probably need three meals, you’ll save a good amount of money by bringing your own food.
The most cost effective way of keeping fuelled is to buy some fresh fruit from the market and then stock up on pupusas in Flores. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings — usually refried beans and cheese, sometimes pork — and then fried until the surface is crisp and the inside squashy. Served with salsa and cabbage, pupusas are deceptively filling and very, very cheap. Pupuseria Excelente is a Flores café that’s ideal for travellers to fill up for a dollar.
Bring lots of water, too. You’ll need to purchase more anyway, but Tikal can be sweltering so bringing a couple of big bottles in your backpack will save you a few more dollars.
NB: There are no ATMS at the park and credit cards are not accepted. Make sure to change your money before arriving if you don’t already have Quetzales.