Tikal excursion is worth effort, cost

The Grand Square is at the epicenter of the site.
The Grand Square is at the epicenter of the site. Photo Credit: Tom Steighorst

The ruins of Tikal, a Unesco World Heritage site deep in the jungle of Guatemala, are a lifetime checklist item for many travelers. But the location is remote, and for cruise travelers arriving at Puerto Quetzal on the country's Pacific coast, it takes a two-and-a-half-hour trip inland by bus and plane to get there.

The cost is steep, as well. My Tikal Expedition by Air tour, offered on a recent 14-day cruise aboard the Azamara Journey, was priced at $699 per person.

So what's so wonderful about Tikal that makes it worth the trouble and expense of getting there?

The Mayan civilization thrived between 800 B.C. and 1000 on the site, which was a commercial capital of sorts. After building temples as tall as 20 stories in the ninth century the Mayan population declined, and the site was abandoned to the rain forest, only to be rediscovered in the 1850s.

Wooden walkways and stairs protect the ruins from damaging the Mayan archaeological site.
Wooden walkways and stairs protect the ruins from damaging the Mayan archaeological site. Photo Credit: Tom Steighorst

Archaeologists have identified over 4,000 stone structures at the site, making it the most extensive and best understood Mayan location in Central America. Many remain buried under trees and brush, but others have been uncovered or are being excavated.

The Grand Square is at the epicenter of the site, with two monumental temples facing each other. The steep stone steps rise up a pyramid to temples at the top, where religious ceremonies took place.

An outlying structure, also mostly uncovered, is the tallest temple on the site at more than 213 feet tall. By climbing a set of wooden stairs set amid the scaffolding, visitors arrive at the summit and can look out over the vibrant, green jungle to see the peaks of other temples.

It's hard not to feel a bit like Indiana Jones as you survey the horizon and imagine the place as it might have been in the past.

To get to Tikal and return to Puerto Quetzal is an all-day affair. We had to rise at 6 a.m. to meet the tour bus on the pier. From there it was a 20-minute ride through the ramshackle port town to a Guatemalan Air Force base where we boarded our 19-seat turboprop plane.

A 90-minute flight past a few active volcanoes brought us to Peten, and it was another hour by bus from the landing site to the ruins. With the reverse trip taking the same amount of time, that left about 90 minutes to see the site and an hour for a pleasant lunch at a lakeside restaurant.

Another traveler on the trip, who had previously visited Tikal on her own while on a trip from Belize, said she paid about 30% less but had to stay overnight in Peten and find her own guide. What may tip the balance in favor of this expensive shore excursion is the convenience factor, and the guides from Maya World Tours, who were some of the best I've ever encountered on a shore excursion.


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