Tips to visiting Tikal ruins in Guatemala

The ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, had never been on my radar until I was looking up places to visit in Guatemala. At one point, I thought about taking it off completely, but there it stayed. And I am glad. Of course, it helped that I booked a flight from Flores to Guatemala City, so unless I wanted to eat $200, we were going to Flores and if we were going to Flores, we would go to Tikal.

If I had not booked the airfare, I would have had us stay more nights in Caye Caulker, Belize, and skip Tikal completely. The journey from Caye Caulker to Tikal really should have been a total of five hours. I knew that wouldn’t be the case and opted for the earlier option of the bus.

Crossing the Belize border.

So we left Caye Caulker, Belize, on the 8:30 a.m. ferry. Mind you, the ferry did not leave AT 8:30 a.m., it was more like 8:45 or so. I expected the ferry to be on island time, based on how late our ferry was leaving Chetumal to get to Caye Caulker.

It was only a 50-minute ferry ride, and the person who sold us our ferry tickets said we’d have 15 minutes to go to the bathroom or whatever before the Express bus left for Flores. I don’t know why I thought I should buy a bus ticket to Flores instead of to Tikal as I didn’t know how we’d actually get to Tikal from Flores, but that’s what I did. After I had purchased our tickets, I saw that for $10BZD each more (which equals $5USD), we could go all the way to Tikal.  However, by that time it was too late. I had already ventured to the ATM (it was the third ATM that actually worked or took my American debit card) and back with enough Belize dollars to purchase the bus ticket with cash (even though I had been told credit cards could be accepted, but found that wasn’t the case when I actually got there) and enough Belize dollars to pay the exit fees for both me and my 9-year-old and spent all the remaining Belize dollars are snacks and water for the trip.

yellow Express bus
The mini express bus we took from Belize City to Flores. It only stopped in San Ignacio, Belize, and at the border. This is the bus waiting for all the passengers to cross the Belize-Guatemalan border.

We finally got on the 9:30 a.m. Express bus from Belize City, Belize, to Flores, Guatemala at 11 a.m. It was another half-hour before that bus actually departed. Someone I talked to later said that her family thought they were on the 11:30 a.m. bus, but then she remembered that right after she bought tickets for her family of six and two more people (who filled up the bus) purchased tickets, the bus showed up with us already on it. It was a small and packed bus. When we picked up the second group of passengers, it wasn’t long before it felt that the bus could hold no more people, but more people kept getting on. The way it was possible was that there were fold-down sets at the end of each row of seats, so once all the regular seats were filled, there were still six more seats.

It was two hours to the border. Right before we got to the Belize-Guatemala border, we dropped a few people off in San Igautio, Belize. Another 30 minutes took us to the border. We got off the bus to go through exit Belize immigration where we paid the exit fees, $20USD or $40BZ per person. I was ready with $80BZ. When it was our turn to get our exit stamp and pay the exit fees, I found out that children 13 and under don’t pay the tax. While I was happy to save $20, I was a put off because I had gotten Belize dollars for solely that purpose because the man at the bus ticket booth said only Belize dollars would be taken and that I had to pay for her too. Neither of those things were true.

Me and the girl just past the Guatemala-Belize border waiting for the rest of the passengers to arrive.

We then walked a short way from Belize immigration to Guatemala immigration. I was nervously watching the immigration agent stamp our passports to make sure we got the stamp and that it was printed clearly with the date because I had read stories from people who either did not get a stamp or the date from stamp was not clear and then they had to pay $100 to leave the country or had to go through other hoops.

We got back on the bus from two more hours to Flores. As people were coming back to the bus, we found a younger man behind the wheel of the bus than before. He quickly started talking to us in English, asking where we were staying and how were we getting from Flores to there.

He was young, handsome and very quickly told us how we could get what we needed from him. Before I knew it, he had arranged a shuttle from the bus to Tikal for us, as well as a sunrise tour and a ticket on the Collectivo from Tikal to Flores. The total cost for the two of us right about $100. Though my head was screaming “WAIT! IT’S TOO FAST! WHAT IF THERE’S A BETTER, CHEAPER OPTION?” First of all, I should have done better research before we went, and second, I actually did not know how we were going to get from Flores to Tikal. From what I read, it seemed pretty easy or I could take a taxi or an Uber.

While the bus was headed toward Flores, I turned on my data (I had 1GB of data in Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica for 12 days) to look up the cost of an Uber and other means of getting from Flores to Tikal, I couldn’t find any. And because I really didn’t want to end up on the streets of Flores with a 9-year-old trying to figure out how to get our hotel, I went with it. I am very happy I did. I never would have gone on the sunrise tour if he hadn’t brought it up. I had read about early entrance and quickly decided “no, not going before 6 am.”

Having purchased the sunrise tour, for which I got a piece a paper after I paid cash, I then had to purchase a sunrise entrance ticket, which was an additional 150 Quetzales ($20). Luckily, children 13 and under did not need to have an entrance ticket, so I paid 100Q for my regular entrance and 150Q for early entrance (so about $33USD). Buying the entrance tickets for Tikal is not quite as easy as one would think. When I visited Teotihuacan near Mexico City, Chichen Itza in the Yucatan in Mexico and Tulum in Mexico, I was able to buy the tickets right at the entrance. Apparently, that’s not the case with Tikal.

When the man on the bus kept insisting I had to buy my tickets somewhere in Flores before going to Tikal, I was skeptical. I had read about coyotes boarding the buses before getting to Flores, but I was expecting it much closer to the city than at the border. But I was still a bit concerned. However, I pushed away those concerns and repeated that to myself. That all would work out okay. (Spoiler alert: it did.)

I decided to just ride with the flow and all would be okay.

I also did an Internet search when we were in line and, in fact, the only place you can buy tickets is at a Banrural branch anywhere in Guatemala. There is a branch at the front entrance (if staying on-site, you’ll be by the second entrance and there is not a branch there), but it does not open until 6 a.m., so if you arrive after 6 p.m. (like we did), you won’t be able to purchase your tickets for the sunrise tour.

The store where the ATM worked for foreign cards.

The bus stopped at a large market (think Costco) with ATMs that actually worked for foreign cards. So all of us foreigners who had no local currency lined up to use the ATM and rejoiced when it worked.

After paying 950Q for the shuttle, sunrise tour and Collectivo (which, I found out, only has a few runs in the AM/early afternoon to Tikal and a few runs from Tikal to Flores, the last at 3:30pm), I was directed to a white van. I put our luggage in there and waited for the family of six from New York that would also be in the van with us (I was very happy to not be alone in a van headed into the jungle, a trip I bought from a random man that boarded our bus at the border). The family was purchasing their air tickets from Flores to Guatemala City from the man on the bus. They had to get enough Quetzales to pay for six tickets at $180 each (so that’s a LOT of Quetzales) and had to do so at the bank.

Our shuttle and our driver, Juan, waiting in Flores by the travel agency.

The lines for the banks in Guatemala, I learned, are INSANE. The lines just to get into the building are long, the lines inside the bank are long and sometimes the banks just close up and people line up to wait for it to open. So, the husband went into the bank with the man from the travel agency (he had some sort of in to get him further up the line) and I stayed in the van with the wife and our combination of five children. We waited for about an hour. When he emerged, his pants pockets were bulging with cash. Which is why he wanted his wife to go with him instead of him going into an unknown place with these people who just picked us up from the bus in a country he doesn’t speak the language.

Then, we were off to actually go into Flores from Santa Elena so they could pay for the plane tickets in cash at the travel agency. That took another 30 minutes or so, this time I waited by myself in the van with the kids. While we waited, the driver came over and told us in Spanish that we could hear howler monkeys (monos is what people called them). We all got out of the van so we could hear, they were scary sounding. They were loud and across the lake from us (in the photo at the top, they were in the jungle on the right).

So, by this time, it’s already been two hours since we’d gotten to the Flores area. And we had yet to buy our tickets to Tikal. From there, we headed to a bank, which was closed with a long line of waiting people. No one knew when the bank would open again. So all eight of piled back into the shuttle and went to another bank. This one was open. We left the dad with the kids, while the mom and I headed into the bank to get our tickets. It took a bit of time, maybe 30 minutes. It didn’t help that when it was our town, a woman jumped in front of us. Between that and the border crossing, I learned that you have to hold firm in line or someone will cut.

Driving through the narrow streets of Flores.

With Tikal tickets firmly in hand, we got back into the shuttle for the hour journey to the Jungle Lodge through the jungle. It was only 6 p.m., but it was dark. We had fun looking at the caution signs with different animals on them: snakes, large cats (likely pumas and jaguars), an animal that we couldn’t figure out what it was (a large rat or an anteater), but I now know it’s this kind of monkey that’s in the raccoon family and others.

Recap & things to know:

  • Have cash to pay Belize exit tax ($20USD or $40BZD)
  • It is not necessary to pay for children under 13
  • Plan for your journey to take much longer than you expect and start your journey as early as you can–and be ready to go with the flow
  • Get cash out of the ATM as soon as you get to Guatemala as you can
  • Purchase tickets for Tikal as soon as you can from a Banrural branch
  • Take extra water and snacks with you in the event the journey goes long
  • Plan as much as you can before you make the journey, at least know your options

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