Guatemala with Kids: Channel your inner Indiana Jones at Tikal!

Tikal with Kids
The view of Temple I (taken from the top of Temple II)

 

As far-flung lands go, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal ticks all the boxes in our Art of Family Travel philosophy. Remote, immersed in nature and culturally rich, this mysterious UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Guatemala is guaranteed to spark the imagination of all wannabe archeologists, particularly those who dream of an Indiana Jones style adventure. And with plenty of temples to climb and jungle trails to cover, exploring Tikal makes for a lovely walk as well.

 

Channel your inner Indiana Jones at #Tikal! @tikalpark #FamilyTravel #Guatemala Click To Tweet

 

What is Tikal? 

Tikal with Kids
Tikal’s Great Plaza

 

Buried deep within the jungle of Guatemala’s northern province, Tikal is one of the most impressive Mayan sites in Latin America. Built over a period of 800 years, from the 6th century BC to 10th century AD, the city was, like any modern city today, constantly evolving over time. New monuments and buildings were constructed on top of old ones and during its golden era around 700AD it’s thought the city housed somewhere between 90,000 and 200,000 people.

Tikal went into decline around the 9th century, although no one really knows why the Mayans started leaving the city. Maybe wars, diseases, droughts and limited resources played a part? I’m not certain we’ll ever know the exact reasons.

 

 

I draw your attention to the last sentence….

 

The best way to explore Tikal is with a guide. We booked ours through an excellent agent (I’ll be sharing more details soon!) who took us on a private tour of all the key sights and sites. Covering some 576 square km, the Tikal National Park is so vast, and the foliage so dense, that it never feels that crowded, even during peak periods such as when we went (in contrast to Machu Picchu for example that is packed with tourists!). We visited Tikal in December, just before Christmas.

 

 

What to see in Tikal

Tikal with Kids
An incredible 80% of the buildings remain hidden under mounds of earth, such as this one on the right

 

Hidden within the park are some 3,000 to 4,000 buildings of which only 20% have been uncovered. It makes me want to whip out a pick-axe and start digging. Just imagine what lies beneath those mounds of earth (of which there are many)…. maybe faded treasure maps and philosophers’ stones?? Ask your kids!

 

 

Naturally, it would be impossible to explore the entire park in a day (our guide told us a Canadian man once attempted this and got lost for 10 days!). The area to concentrate on is in and around the Grand Plaza where most of the temples and complexes have been excavated and restored. In total, there are six main temples (named Temple I to Temple VI), three acropolises (North, Central and South) and seven twin pyramid complexes. This main area covers around 16 square km so there is still a fair amount of walking to do between the sites. That said, it’s not an arduous trek – my iPhone app clocked 9.5km that day (and 41 ‘floors’!). In any case, the jungle is full of distractions – exotic birds, racoons, wild turkeys and Spider and Howler monkeys to name but a few – and my children were blissfully unaware of the mileage they covered.

 

The Grand Plaza

Tikal with kids: Temple II as seen from Temple I in The Grand Plaza
Temple II as seen from Temple I in The Grand Plaza

 

Positioned between the Central Acropolis and the North Acropolis is the Grand Plaza, the heart of Tikal. To the east is Temple I, otherwise known as the Temple of the Grand Jaguar (47m) and to the west is Temple II, also called the Temple of the Masks (38m). To the north, in between the two temples, is the Acropolis del Norte, an area with a number of smaller temples on platforms and large stone masks built into the walls. Look out for the Mayan stelae, tall stone shafts carved with figures and hieroglyphics. The grassy plaza is a good place to rest (or do cartwheels as my daughter preferred to do).

 

Tikal with kids
Can you spot the face?
Temple I (to right) and Temple II (to left) which you can climb up
Stellae record the lives of the rulers to whom the temples were dedicated.

 

 

The Central Acropolis

Tikal with Kids
The Central Acropolis

 

The Central Acropolis sits south of the Grand Plaza and is where most tours start. It was the former palace and residential area for Tikal’s nobility and the children enjoyed scrambling up the many steps and through a maze of small rooms and courtyards. Ask the kids to try and find the throne and bed chambers (just remember to mind your head!).

 

Tikal with Kids
A fun place for kids to scramble around
Tikal with kids: a throne
A throne!
Tikal with kids: Left: A jungle gym Right: A bed chamber for noblemen
Left: A jungle gym Right: A bed chamber for noblemen

 

 

Jungle trail from Temple III to Temple IV

The wonders of nature!

 

From the Grand Plaza you can walk past Temple III (Temple of the Jaguar Priest) and along a narrow jungle path to Temple IV (The Temple of the two-headed snake). The jungle is so dense that you can’t see very far either side but if you keep an ear out you will likely here the roar of howler monkeys as we did. Look out for the incredible twisted rope vines, giant mushrooms and “Faraway Trees”, the kind that Enid Blyton wrote about.

 

 

Temple IV

Tikal with Kids
The staggering view from the top of Temple IV

 

Temple IV is the tallest temple in Tikal at 70m and the breathtaking views from the top are definitely worth the climb! From here you can see Temples I, II and III punctuate the jungle canopy and then nothing else for miles. Star Wars fans might even recognise the view, it was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.

When I first visited Tikal some 20 years ago, you had to climb the stone steps of the temple to reach the top. Today, however, there’s a safer and more child-friendly set of wooden stairs that run up the back of the temple. But be aware that there are no railings at the top of Temple IV so keep an eye on your kids!

At the bottom of the stairs is a shaded cabana with a drinks stall where you can reward yourself with an ice cold Gallo beer post-climb, plus drinks and crisps for the kids.

 

Tikal with kids: A wooden staircase makes it easier / safer to climb Temple IV
A wooden staircase makes it easier / safer to climb Temple IV

 

 

 

‘The Mayan Playground’

Tikal with Kids
The Mayan Playground

 

Hands down the favourite thing for my children was the ‘Mayan Playground’ (as our guide referred to it as). A hanging U-shaped vine created what was, in my kids’ eyes, ‘the most awesome swing ever’. It was hard to move on from this spot but fortunately our guide had saved it for the end of our tour.

 

Tikal with Kids: The best swing ever!
The best swing ever!

 

Tikal with Kids

For kids, the site of this ancient civilisation is one big outdoor adventure playground. There are a couple of things to be aware of though:

  • Heat: We visited in December when the weather is marginally cooler than at other times of the year. Much of the park is shaded but it can get very hot in the sun. Water is available at a handful of kiosks throughout the park. Mornings and evenings can be chilly so bring a jumper with you.
  • Toilets: There are toilets throughout the park, most of which we found well-serviced.
  • If travelling with a toddler, forget the stroller and bring a backpack or baby carrier instead.
  • I hired my guide through a local agent (more details to follow). It’s absolutely worth getting a guide as they not only know the best routes but can point out all the places and tell all the local stories that kids will love.

 

Tikal with Kids
The view from Temple IV

 

 

Tikal: The Kids’ Highlights

Guatemala with kids: Dolls made out of leaves, flowers and feathers from Tikal
Dolls made out of leaves, flowers and feathers from the park

 

  • The Mayan Playground holds number 1 spot for my kids.
  • General scrambling, cartwheeling and exploring. Tikal is like a huge playground for kids.
  • Surprisingly, the climb up the temples (I think they even rated the climb over the view!)
  • Chasing wild turkeys and catching grasshoppers (eh hem..)
  • Watching women make dolls out of palm leaves and birds’ feathers.

 

Wild turkey, Tikal
Wild turkey

 

Guatemala with kids: Cartwheeling round Tikal
Cartwheeling round Tikal

 

 

Tikal: The Highlights for Us

Tikal with kids: The view from the top of Temple IV
The view from the top of Temple IV

 

  • The view from the top of Temple IV
  • Besides marvelling at the Mayan achievements, exploring Tikal makes for a lovely walk. Walking between the temples (we spent around 3-4 hours exploring the site and must have walked around 6-8km (although my iPhone clocked 9.5km in total that day)

 

 

Where to Eat

Tikal with Kids
End of Tour Lunch

 

At the end of our tour, we were all ravenous! Fortunately there is a decent restaurant on site. It appeared to be the only one so be warned that it caters to bus loads of tourists (our lunch was included in our tour, as I suspect is the deal for many people visiting Tikal through a tour operator). As one Tripadvisor reviewer put it, ‘after 4 hours of hiking in brutally humid sun, anything probably would have tasted good but El Meson was a pleasant surprise’. Those were our exact thoughts as well.

 

Getting to Tikal 

 

By road: From Guatemala City, it takes approximately 6.5 hours to drive to Flores and a further 1.5 hours to get to Tikal.

By plane: One-hour domestic flights in small hopper planes fly from Guatemala City to Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores. Domestic airlines flying this route include TAG and Avianca.

 

When to Visit Tikal

Guatemala with kids: Tikal Temple IV
At the top of Temple IV

 

December – February: the best time to visit when the mornings and evenings are cooler

February – May: the rains start at the end of February making these months very hot and humid

March – May: These months are very hot!

The park is open year-round.

 

Sunrise vs Sunset Tour

A top tip from a friend: “It is possible to do a sunrise trip to see the sun come up from the pyramid.  I have mixed feelings about that – the jungle means that sunrises are usually hazy rather than clear, and you will be on the pyramid with hundreds of other tourists which affects the atmosphere.  I may be biased because I had to carry a sleeping child for 45 minutes (and for 200 steps up the pyramid), but I would skip it and do a guided tour in the morning instead.”

 

What to Bring

  • Sunscreen
  • Insect Repellent
  • Good walking shoes
  • Water

 

 

Channel your inner Indiana Jones at #Tikal! @tikalpark #FamilyTravel #Guatemala Click To Tweet

 

You May Also Enjoy the Following Posts:

To view all our posts in the series, Guatemala With Kids, see our Family Guide to Guatemala.

Things to do in Antigua with Kids

 

 

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Guatemala with kids: Tikal via @farflunglands

 

 

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