Two weekends ago I visited Guatemala. The main goal was to check out the beautiful Mayan ruins of Tikal in the rain forests of Northeastern Guatemala near the border of Belize. We did end up having some time though to briefly explore Guatemala City as well. Over all it was a great trip. Tikal is surreal. Guatemala is beautiful with a wide-ranging landscape, delicious and cheap food and truly genuinely friendly and welcoming people (more so than many of its neighboring Central American cities, and yes I seem to say that about every one of them, but each time I visit a new one they seem to just top the other).
I had always wanted to visit Tikal after finding out it was an actual place having seen it in Star Wars IV: A New Hope as Planet Yavin, a rebel base. And yes, I stood atop Temple IV from which the establishing shot was filmed and saw the exact scene, it was magical. Previously I had heard many horror stories of travels in Guatemala and how unsafe it is and as such have avoided it. I have since met many people, including some who grew up there, who shed light on to the real Guatemala, and just like my own discoveries of Middle Eastern countries, what we have heard in mainstream media is nowhere near the truth. Yes there are areas you avoid, yes dont be stupid, and yes there is still a high rate of crime and violence in the country, but it certainly is not plagued with warfare like it had been earlier in the decade. We hauled our bags and walked around the central plaza/ Cathedral and Palace, and were clearly the only tourists around but were never bothered or approached by locals (and yes, I was with two white people).
Traveling to and within Guatemala is actually really simple and cheap. Domestic flights arent too expensive (operated by Avianca or TAG), but the cheapest way is to get a bus from city to city, which has had mixed reviews in terms of comfort and reliability, nonetheless people have gotten to their final destination in one piece. Within Guatemala City, just take an uber, our 20 minute uber from the airport to the central Plaza cost USD$4 (~30 quetzal). If you choose to stay in a hotel in the downtown area right by the airport, most of them provide complimentary scheduled airport shuttle services. In Flores (and island town on Lake Peten, which is home base for most tourists visiting Tikal), we took a mix of shared taxi from the airport USD$3 (20 Quetzal/person) and Tuk-Tuk to the airport for USD$0.75 (5 Quetzal/person). On the island itself, just walk!
We had pre-booked a tour for Tikal. This is the easiest and best way to do Tikal. Many will warn you about being ripped off and lied to about tours when you step out the airport and when taxi drivers say they know a guy/ will take you to Tikal as well. There are usually three tour times to choose from, Sunrise (leaves at around 3/4AM), day tour (leaves around 8AM), and Sunset (leaves 12:30PM). Each have their pros and cons, and honestly with sunrise and sunset it just depends on luck and weather. Given our tight weekend schedule and the slightly cloudy weather, we opted for the day tour, which also gives you the most time in the park. After reading a few reviews we settled on Crasborn Travel Agency, through them we arranged our round-trip bus and guide for $150GTQ (USD$20), cash only, their fees do not cover park entrance fees which is $150GTQ (cash or credit with valid ID: US State IDs worked), and if you opt for sunrise or sunset its an additional $100GTQ (USD$13) for after hour operations. More on the logistics of Tikal below in the itinerary.
There are a range of hotel options in both Guatemala City and Flores/ Lake Peten. From Hostels to boutiques to AirBnBs, and even a few luxury hotels. In Guatemala City, we transited at the Hyatt Centric Guatemala City (USD$109/night) on Friday night, and in Flores we stayed the Hotel Casa Amelia (USD$58/night for a triple), rates above are tax exclusive.
- After a slight delay we arrived into Guatemala City La Aurora Airport at 9PM.
- Hotel staff awaited us and we hopped on the hotel shuttle to Hyatt Centric
- After checking-in, we headed to the rooftop bar/ pool of the Hyatt Centric. It was a very happening rooftop bar filled with majority locals, and offered panoramic views of the city with a nice drink selection at decent prices.
- Having an early flight next morning, and a few beers/ cocktails we called it a night.
- At 4:15AM we boarded our shuttle from the hotel to the airport for our 6AM departure to Flores.
- Took off from Guatemala City at 6AM onward to Flores.
- 7AM arrival into Flores. Upon exiting the airport we were greeted by an onslaught of taxi drivers, most are in some uniform and operated shared taxis for 20Quetzal/ person, and will either drop you at your hotel or at some mid point for everyone onboard.
- We arrived at Hotel Casa Amelia, checked-in, prepared for our day at Tikal and left our bags with the front desk as our room was not ready yet.
- Across the street was Crasborn Travel, we paid for our tour and got our bus tickets. After which we waited in the hotel lobby for the bus operator to come by as he rounded all travelers on the island that were to board with his buses.
- This is where things can get a little confusing, but as long as you have your travel agency issued tour and bus voucher (all in one) you will be fine, also knowing a bit of Spanish helps, but all operators speak English. If you dont have a prearranged bus or tour guide, you can still buy yourself a seat on the bus to get you to Tikal and also decide at Tikal if you want to join a tour group or get a private guide, HIGHLY ADVISABLE. It is not expensive, so worth it, and if you get a great guide like we did, Luis, you will learn more than just about the ruins.
- At 8AM, We were walked to the main perimeter street of Flores island right in front of the bridge that crosses to the mainland.
- Here there is a fleet of mini buses that await with different drivers and a couple of tour operator/ coordinators.
- You get shuffled into a bus, and there was some confusion since there were two groups of three from Casa Amelia but we nonetheless all boarded. They took everyone’s tour vouchers except our’s, and there seemed to be lots of travelers still waiting to board buses. After about 15 minutes of waiting around and coordinating we finally departed.
- On the 1.5 hour journey, we had a tour operator on board to explain the logistics and confirm everyone’s itinerary in both English and Spanish
- NOTE: there are hotels and resorts inside the rainforest grounds, but ALL travelers must purchase entry fees at the main entrance, it is then another 17KM drive into the forest to reach Tikal. There are other ticketing logistics associated with those who stay inside the park grounds for visiting Tikal, but again this requires arrangement and communication with both your agency and/or the hotel you book.
- After about an hour drive we arrived at the main Tikal park entrance. We all got off the bus to line up to purchase our entry tickets at 150 Quetzal/ person. Upon returning to the bus, our tour voucher was finally collected. We confirmed that we did have a Tikal guide included.
- Once everyone got their tickets, the bus continued for about another half hour before arriving at the entrance to the ruins. Here there are cafe selling snacks and beverages as well as bathroom facilities.
- Before entering the park, you must validate your entry ticket and get a pink wristband at the park entrance.
- At around 10:30AM, we were then shuffled into English and Spanish tour groups and met our guides before finally proceeding into the park.
- The rest of our journey was in the hands of our wonderful guide, Luis. He took us through shortcuts and went the opposite ways of other larger groups. Luis also introduced us and informed us about the diver Flora and Fauna in this rainforest and literally “called” to Howler Monkeys who actually responded!
- Our first stop was the ruins of what was a noble family’s home just outside the city center’s gates. We then hit Temple I, one of the most intact temples (partially reconstructed) and then the “Place of Voices,” the main square between Temple I and II where voices and sounds echo off the temples and priest houses on the sides. You cannot climb up Temple I but you can do so for Temple II. From there we walked by Temple III that is still covered in forest and has yet to be fully excavated. One exciting thing was that the Astronomy Tower/Temple had recently been opened to the public and visitors can now climb to the top for stunning panoramic views of Tikal, and many still think this is off-limits. From there we walked to Temple IV, the top of Temple IV offers the famous views of Tikal as seen in Star Wars and is the prime spot for Sunrise/Sunset views. Our tour took about 4 hours including multiple 30-40 minute breaks to explore on our own as well as take restroom/drink breaks (small stands along the way sell beverages and snacks). It was well paced, not too big of a group and the fact that we had some time on our own to explore was a big plus.
- Tikal is truly magical, surreal, and awe-inspiring. It does not have quite the scale or grandeur of Teotihuacan in Mexico City. However, there is something about ruins in the middle of a giant rain forest covered by canopies that makes Tikal mysterious and mythical. You really feel like either a Mayan or Explorer traversing the ruins, or a Galactic Empire Rebel. It is a place you have to see for yourself to visit as no panoramic shot can do the feelings you get while there any justice.
- While nearing the end of our tour, it began to pour, we stopped at one of the last spots, another square that tells time (sun alignments with small pillars on the ground) before running to shelter at a restaurant in the middle of the park for some warm soup and cold beer. The rain then stopped before we proceeded out of the park
- At 3:15PM we boarded a bus and headed back to Flores.
- We arrived back at Flores at around 5PM. On the way back to the hotel we decided to walk along the waters. Flores is extremely low, so much so that during high-tide and storms, the lake floods large parts of the perimeter road. We returned to the hotel to freshen up as another wave of downpour swept through the city.
- After the rain died down, we walked out into yet another downpour and headed down the street to have dinner at La Luna. Unfortunately, there are not many restaurants in Flores that serve traditional Guatemalan food as most cater to western tastes, they will have 1-2 dishes but thats about it. For more local tastes, you will have to stick to street stalls that normally line Calle 15 Septiembre (the lakeside perimeter road) on a dry day or street stalls are set up on the bridge’s midpoint park as well. Nonetheless La Luna was tasty, we had some Chorizo with Cheese appetizer, paired with some Gallo beer and I ordered a Guatemalan dish: Chile Relleno (Stuffed Peppers), it was delicious. After dinner, the owner offered us some 8 Year aged Anejo Rum to try, how very kind! As we finished, the sun began to set.
- We walked to the lakefront to watch the sun set and began walking on Calle 15 Septiembre to make a loop around Flores. Unfortunately, a large part of the road was flooded so we had to do the second half of our loop on an inner road. It took about 20 minutes to walk around the entire island!
- We passed by many restaurants and bar as well as the popular and frequently booked Hostel Amigos. We also meandered to the island’s central and only hilltop where the quaint little Cathedral and plaza stand. Along the way we encountered a strange natural phenomenon wherein flocks and flocks of birds lined the electrical lines and stood there, straight out of a Hitchcock film!
- Sad that none of the usual street vendors were out on Calle 15 Septiembre due to the rain, we opted to walk to Parque Concordia in the middle of the bridge that links Flores island with the mainland city. Here we had Tostadas, a typical Guatemalan street food of toasted corn tortilla with a chile spread topped with your choice from a variety of meat/ veggie salads and pastes including guac! Incredible, 3 tostadas for 5 Quetzals! We also had some delicious tres leches cake and almond caramel cake.
- From there we meandered back to Flores island, and stopped by the Kapee Bar on the rooftop of the Los Estudiantes hostel, there are many a rooftop bars and restaurants in Flores. And I dont think you can go wrong with any, similar vibes, views, prices and menu items.
- By this point it was around 10PM and we decided to call it a night, it was after all a long day of jungle trekking, temple climbing, and soaking in the tropical rain.
- We woke up at around 6AM, checked out and hailed town a Tuk-Tuk in front of the hotel, they come by frequently so this is a cheap and easy option. It was 5 Quetzal/person, the three of us grown men with our bags managed to squeeze into the back, to give a perspective on the limits of the tuk-tuk.
- We boarded our 7:30AM flight back to Guatemala City and off we went.
- Arrived at around 8:20AM. Ordered an Uber and headed into town.
- 20 minutes later we were at Plaza de la Constitucion.
- We walked into the Catedral Metropolitana, and walked by (could not enter) the National Palace of Culture (formerly the national palace and housed all ministries, now just the Ministry of Sports and Culture).
- From there we took another uber to 4 Norte Degrees – The Directory, a redeveloped urban industrial neighborhood, now filled with cafes/bars/ restaurants/ and boutique/hipster stores. This is a great place to go at any time of day, but probably best after noon when everything is open. Granted, this was also a Sunday morning. When we arrived at 10AM, we managed to find one place open, Saberico, a very cool restaurant. Here we ordered Mayan Hot Chocolate, Limonada (sparkling lemon beverage, popular in Guatemala), Guatemalan coffee from Antigua (an hour away from Guatemala City at the foot of the famous Fuego Volcano) and Chicken Pepian de indio, a traditional Guatemalan/ Mayan stew. All delicious.
- After a wonderful “brunch” we ubered back to the airport for our 1PM flight back to the United States.
- A noteworthy thing about Guatemala City Aurora Airport is the Zacapa Anejos Lounge that is accessible to Priority Pass card holders. This lounge has a complimentary a la carte menu (one dish per guest) and an extensive drink menu that includes a few reserves/ aged house rums (each guest gets to sample three drinks, yes, including all top shelf Rum they have available). Worth a visit to sample some great Guatemalan rum, and you can pick up a bottle on the way out too.