My golden rule of travel is No Tours.  I like being independent and making my own arrangements.  I like guiding myself through an attraction at my own pace, with the freedom to dwell on something that captivates me, or to jet when I’m bored.  The S.O. likes hiring our own car, which gives us even more freedom to explore where we want, when we want.

But we made an exception to our no-tour rule for our day trip to Tikal — mainly because we would have been crossing the Belize-Guatemala border in a rental car, which we didn’t want to fuss over.

And at the end of the day, we were both so surprisingly happy with the tour — our local guide gave us so much insight about Tikal and life in rural Guatemala, which we never would have learned on our own.  Scroll through for some shots around Tikal National Park and some Tikal travel tips.

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Temple IV is the only climbable temple on the site:

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It’s an easy climb on a wooden staircase zigzagging up one side — you’re not climbing the [surprisingly steep] rock staircase on the front face of the temple.  The rewarding view and the welcome breeze are well worth the stair-climb.

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We learned that the difference between a pyramid:

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…and a temple:

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…is that temples contain a sanctuary on top, which was used for ceremonial purposes, while pyramids have a flat top and are more often used as tombs or to pay tribute to a god.

Most of the structures at Tikal have not been uncovered, as wind and rain will more rapidly erode the uncovered structures.  Walking around the grounds, every little “hill” is really a buried temple or pyramid.

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Because Tikal is relatively isolated — a good 2-3 hour drive from a town with considerable tourist infrastructure — many visitors to Guatemala and Belize [an increasing popular destination for Americans] skip it.  But Tikal is one of the largest and most significant Mayan sites in Central America, and should not be missed!  Here are some tips for how to incorporate Tikal into your Belize trip:

  • Get to San Ignacio.  San Ignacio, Belize, is the ideal home base for exploring ancient Mayan history as well as the rivers and jungles of upcountry Belize.  The Xunantunich and Cahal Pech sites are only minutes from downtown, and Caracol, Tikal, and Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave are all within 3 hours.  You’ll find ample lodging and dining options, and numerous tour companies downtown will accommodate you next-day.  Most hotels will also arrange tours for their guests.  Hire a car at the airport in Belize City and drive the easy 2.5 hours to San Igancio.
  • Consider the included costs on your tour.  Look for a tour that covers the cost of the border crossing, Tikal National Park entry fees, and lunch — with all of these costs included, a $125 per person tour becomes a good value.  You’ll also be spent after walking through the hot, humid park all morning, so having someone to pilot the vehicle on the 3 hour drive back to your hotel is a nice treat.
  • You can eat at the park.  You’ll find a little restaurant near the Tikal parking lot, where you can refuel after walking around the park.  There are also snack and beverage vendors at several locations in the park — mostly at major sites such as Temple IV and the Grand Plaza.
  • Bring bug spray and wear good walking shoes.
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