While planning my trip to Belize, it just so happened that a Belize to Tikal day trip came highly recommended. And if one of the top things to do in Belize is “go to Guatemala,” who was I to argue?
After all, flashing my passport is one of my favorite pastimes. Obviously, I jump at any chance to use it, especially when said chance involves exploring ancient ruins of mysterious origin.
The Maya ruins of Tikal National Park are an incredible side trip that’s not too far from Belize at all—just a 2-hour drive from our jungle lodge outside San Ignacio. This ancient city is located in the rainforests of Guatemala and is one of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It’s a can’t-miss if you’re in Central America.
When you’re ready to check out this amazing ancient city, here are 17 important tips for your Belize to Tikal day trip.
1. Know your Belize to Tikal day trip will be a cinch
If you’re worried that crossing a border simply for a Belize to Tikal day trip will be too much of a hassle, think again. The whole Guatemala day tour process is both quick and easy.
Problem is, you’re probably judging all border crossings based on your experiences at LAX or Miami International. Not every customs line resembles the sidewalk outside a Best Buy on Black Friday.
Instead, it’s as simple as driving the lonely roads from your hotel in Belize to the Guatemalan border, walking through passport control, then getting in another vehicle on the other side and onto Tikal. Okay, that seems weird, but I’ll cover it.
And because you’re simply taking a Belize to Tikal day trip, there isn’t luggage to claim and check or a lot of paperwork. And, if you hire a great guide like we did, he or she will take care of all the nitty gritty for you and all you have to do is vaguely match your passport photo.
All this to say, don’t let the fact that you have to “cross a border” or “go into an entirely different country” deter you from heading from Belize to Tikal. It really is an incredible day trip!
2. Don’t forget your passport
I know bringing your passport to cross a border seems like a given, but so does not using the toaster in the bathtub yet we must still be reminded not to.
Judging by the number of times I was reminded to bring my passport for my Belize to Tikal day tour, I assume forgetting it is a common occurrence.
Personally, I was staying at the (amazing) Black Rock Lodge in nearby San Ignacio, a 45-minute drive from the Belize-Guatemala border. That’s still a long time if you have to turn around to go get your passport.
But many people take their Belize to Tikal day trip from Belize City or other areas in the eastern part of the country. That’s a 3-hour drive at least. If you forget your passport, consider your Tikal trip null and void.
Don’t forget your passport!
3. Don’t question the weird border policies
For someone who is telling you not to question the border control policies, I sure did ask a lot of questions. (I’m basically the neighbor’s kid from Home Alone though I prefer to call myself “passionately curious.”)
Remember when I said the Belize-Guatemala border crossing was a piece of cake? I wasn’t lying, but I also wasn’t being completely transparent. We had help. Not that we couldn’t have handled it ourselves—neither of us has ever brought a toaster to a pool party.
Our plan for our Belize to Tikal day trip came to fruition around 9:00 pm the previous night. We told the manager at Black Rock Lodge we wanted to visit Tikal and she responded, “Meet here at 7 am. Oh, and don’t forget your passport!”
That, I knew. But what I didn’t know was that we would have a Lodge-appointed escort for the entire day, a Guatemalan driver (in a brand new, air conditioned van), and a private tour guide we would pick up somewhere along the way.
Our escort from Black Rock Lodge, Victor, handled everything for us. At the border, he exchanged money for us, took our passports and did the whole shebang while I chatted with a tourism agent, and even gave me a dollar of his own to use the restroom. And I repaid him by asking a thousand and one questions about border control policies.
(Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the quality and benefits of staying at Black Rock Lodge in Belize. Click that link for everything you need to know about staying at this spectacular eco-resort in the jungle!)
Belize-Guatemala border control policies
Here are some of the questions I asked at the border that you will undoubtedly also have, and the answers given by my guide.
This is not your typical border crossing but that’s what makes it (and traveling as a whole) so wonderful. It may be different than what you’re used to, but it works.
Can you drive from Belize to Tikal?
Yes, but it’s complicated. We can’t just drive across the border? No. So you’re telling me we have to park our car in Belize, walk across the border, then have someone pick us up in Guatemala, in another car? Yes.
Well, what if I didn’t have a guide and wanted to go to Tikal by myself? There is only one rental car company in Belize that is allowed to cross the border. They have a license.
For the record, if you did have a car while in Belize and want to just drive to the Guatemala border (or take a taxi), Viator offers a Tikal day tour that picks you up at the border and continues the trip. So you can just park your car at the border and pick it back up when you’re done.
Where to exchange money for your Belize to Tikal trip
Where is the currency exchange? See that man walking around the parking lot with the envelop and huge wad of cash? He will exchange it. He has a license.
Belize-Guatemala border car washes
Are those car washes? Yes. Cars crossing the border must be sprayed with chemicals to ensure stuff doesn’t cross the border. Don’t walk through the car washes! (See also: stuff that should be a given but that we still need to be reminded of.)
Side note: Border control does know about wind, right? How it can carry stuff wherever it damn well pleases? Ok just checking.
Belize-Guatemala passport control
Why don’t you (our guide) have to show your passport to get from Belize to Tikal? I am tourism. I have a license. (Read: He makes this trip multiple times a week—his passport would have to look like a phonebook to hold all the coming and going passport stamps. So they make exceptions for tourism workers.)
Belize is a British Commonwealth
Why does that sign (at the Belize-Guatemala border) say “Welcome Prince Harry?” Because the Queen is too old to visit.
There you go. I hope I’ve preemptively answered some of your Belize to Tikal border crossing questions.
4. Embrace the drive on your Belize to Tikal day trip
Traveling the world, you can learn a lot about a culture as a passenger in a vehicle. This is actually one of my favorite cultural learning experiences now.
Riding through Guatemala I learned proper etiquette is to drive on whichever side of the street has the fewest potholes. Sometimes it’s both, simultaneously, regardless of the size of the truck coming directly at you.
Luckily, the driver we picked up at the Guatemalan border promptly let us know he had a PhD—a degree in Pothole Diversion. Obviously, our Belize to Tikal day trip was THE FUNNEST.
Along the route to Tikal we saw beautiful mountains next to beautiful lakes, beautiful people in their beautiful houses with their beautiful ponies. Guatemala is just so pretty. We even saw a snake standing up in the middle of the street.
If you had been asleep, you would have missed that! On so many trips I’ve been with people who sleep on the bus or train rides and I just can’t understand it.
We may not be exploring the major cities, but it’s what is in between them that is so fascinating—everyday life! Beautiful scenery! Stuff you’ve never seen before. Sleep when you get home.
5. Prepare for intense sun and heat
When I envisioned visiting Tikal and acting out scenes from Indiana Jones, the Nazi face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but here we are. You’ll understand when you get my Christmas card this year and it’s just a picture of a skeleton holding a Belikin.
If you visit in the summer as I did, you can expect ungodly high temperatures and smothering humidity levels. However, the sun is not your enemy here. Your own denial is.
The last thing I remember saying before my skin ran down and puddled in my shoes is, “I don’t know how much we’re going to be in the sun. I mean, Tikal is in the jungle. I think we’ll be under trees most of the time.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that was a stupid assumption to make. Even Indiana Jones wore a hat. As someone who took an archaeology class in college once, here are my tips:
Dress like you’re going to the hottest place you can conceive. You’ll actually be in the sun a lot more than you’d expect. And yes, there are trees. But while they provide shade, they actually prevent airflow. Understatement of the year: You’re going to sweat an unholy amount on your Belize to Tikal day trip. Here’s what you need to bring to Belize to wear to Tikal.
Whatever SPF you normally use, double it. Unless you use SPF 8, then you’re going to want to at least square that.
Also, bring the bottle with you. That stuff only lasts like, what? 2 hours during swimming and sweaty activities? You’ll need to reapply often.
Wear the right shoes
Wear hiking shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of intense climbing (in the sun) on uneven, millennias-old structures with little support. And when you’re on the ground, you’ll be hiking through jungle terrain.
Hiking boots and socks will be way to hot and gross for this trip. Instead, I swear by Keens–breathable hiking sandals that are also incredibly sturdy and comfortable. (Bonus: They’re also the perfect, must-have shoe for touring the ATM cave!) Buy them here on Amazon or here on Zappos.
Bring a refillable bottle of water… and then another as a backup. Per person. This will get you through the first hour of your Belize to Tikal day trip if you ration.
Thankfully, you can buy water there and, more realistically, beer at the halfway point of your tour. Make sure you have extra quetzals on hand so you can hydrate your ass off. You will need it like you’ve never needed water before.
Trail mix, Clif bars, a banana, whatever you prefer to replenish the energy you’re going to lose mock-escaping a temple in a mine cart with Short Round, played begrudgingly by your husband as Big Sexy.
For something that helps provide energy and much-needed electrolytes, my readers love these replenishing Gatorade chews.
Pack all the right stuff
To help with making sure you bring the right stuff with you, read my eye-opening post on What to Pack for Belize (+ Guatemala).
6. Hire a private tour guide for your Belize to Tikal day trip
Our day trip to Tikal without our guide Aquilino would have been one hell of a half-assed learning experience. I can walk around and look at broken buildings any time I want—but I want information.
I want this UNESCO World Heritage site to come alive. And I want to learn! But I want someone to lead me around and tell me all the good stuff because it’s like super hot out.
When our guide Victor met us at 7 am we told him we wanted a tour guide for Tikal—and so exhausts my knowledge on where Aquilino came from.
We stopped at a rest stop somewhere on the side of a Guatemalan dirt road for coffee and when we got back in the van, there he was. And he was the BEST. I don’t think anyone in Guatemala knows or cares more about Maya culture and history (and native wildlife and plants) than Aquilino.
Hiring a tour guide has so many benefits
Maybe you already know a little about the Maya. Maybe you’re like me and the only thing you know is that the world was supposed to end in 2012? Now, thanks to Aquilino, I know everything.
Even that the allspice in my cabinet is a kind of pepper made from the fruits of the Pimenta tree, not actually a jar with all the spices. I smelled some right there on the tree; I’m afraid we’ve been misled this whole time.
That being said, Tikal isn’t really a do-it-yourself kind of destination. There is almost no signage or informational placards around the park so unless you just want a really good workout and to not learn anything:
- hire a guide – Talk to your lodging, they should be able to recommend someone.
- join one of the available Guatemala day tours that includes knowledgeable Tikal tour guides
- or stay at Black Rock Lodge and follow in my footsteps
7. Visit during the low season
The Central American low season goes from May to December. Gee, I wonder why. *thermometer explodes*
Maybe I’ve just been traveling around Europe too long, but I expect the crowds at top tourist destinations to look mostly like the pages of a Where’s Waldo book. But what I got on my Belize to Tikal day trip was this massive archaeological site nearly to myself.
I saw literally about a handful of other people during my entire day and two of those people were friends we’d made at Black Rock Lodge. What a refreshing change this was!
Our Tikal day tour was the complete opposite of visiting [insert any major European city here] in the summer and all the shoving, spitting, corralling, pickpocketing, and getting sweat on, harassed, knocked down that’s inevitably associated.
We had the park virtually to ourselves where we could move freely, get great photos, and enjoy a quiet day in this ancient space. Plus, summer is baby monkey season!
8. Prepare for a workout on your Belize to Tikal day trip
Don’t assume your Belize to Tikal day trip will be a leisurely walk in the park. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you will be walking… in a park. But it’s going to be exhausting. Physically, mentally, cosmetically.
To illustrate, here’s a photo of me taken just after our day at Tikal:
Yup, I died. I’m just flat out dead and the vultures have come to consume my body. (Shout out to Victor for asking if I wanted to pull over to take pictures of some birds eating a dead cow and not thinking any single bit of that was weird.)
You can thank the heat and humidity for a lot of the exhaustion you’ll experience on your Tikal day tour. However, you’ll actually exert way more physical energy than you expected.
This site is enormous and spread out and covered with incredibly tall structures. All of which you’ll climb. The Tikal temples are about 150 feet high and you’ll have to climb the most awkward steps to get up there.
You’ll be up and down and up and down all day—definitely wear your Fitbit, you deserve credit for this. The reward is that at the top of these towers are the best breezes in Guatemala.
9. Climb all the towers
Yes, all of them. There are so many—all different heights, meaning, design. Yes, climbing them is a lot of work and descending them is even harder.
But not only are the views up here spectacular, this is also where all the good air is. The gods have been bogarting the breeze! See, that’s what happens when you’re “under trees most of the time.”
From the tops of the towers, you can see much of the entire park and the temples poking up through the trees. You can pretend you’re a scout on Yavin 4 watching the Millenium Falcon come in for a landing. (OK Harrison Ford is way more prevalent in my Belize to Tikal experience than I expected.)
Up at the top, you can get a more intimate view of these ancient temples, how they were used, and develop a new appreciation for their construction thousands of years ago. If you are physically able, I highly recommend climbing all the towers you can.
10. But stay away from the edges
For the love of gods, don’t get so close to the edge. Watching people get their photos taken at the top of Temple IV is enough to make anyone’s heart race with the same intensity as when you lean too far back in your office chair.
With only about three feet of standing room up there and no rails whatsoever, you’re actually risking your life taking that selfie. That is a legit, serious statement.
Honestly though, just because you’re allowed to climb the towers doesn’t mean they have made any kind of effort to protect your life. This is not the US; there are no waivers involved, no protective barriers; your life is in your own hands. This is why you should always consider travel insurance!
Climb if you can, but climb at your risk. Pay constant attention to your surroundings and your footing. Be careful up there, for crying out loud.
11. Try the local beer while you’re here
You’ve earned it! It’ll seep right outta your pores in record time, but you still earned the act of drinking a beer in the jungle.
I always recommend drinking local when you travel and Gallo is actually a really egg-cellent beer. Definitely worth a break to try this cock-a-doodle-brew. Gallo is Guatemala’s oldest and most famous beer and I love it because of its distinct German-ness.
And if you still want to try Gallo but simply can’t fathom drinking alcohol in those conditions, you can find it labeled as “Famosa” here in the US.
12. Remember this is still an active Maya ritual site
Oh, you thought the Maya disappeared thousands of years ago? Never to be heard from again? I guess it’s time I let you in on a little secret: the Maya are still around. They’re still people, guys. You’ve just been looking in all the wrong places.
In 1996 the Maya people were given the right to once again worship in their ancient sites however they pleased.
Here at Tikal, major festivals and casual Sundays are devoted to practicing their rituals and ceremonies and there’s even a not-at-all-unreasonable anti-Columbus day. The Maya—back with a vengeance!
I make jokes here but, when visiting, remember this is still an active worship site and should be treated with respect.
13. Remember Tikal is located in a thriving jungle
Your Belize to Tikal day trip is just as much about wildlife as it is ancient life. As much about monkeys as it monuments. As much about roots as it is ruins.
Don’t be shocked when a toucan flies right past you or when a monkey swings from a tree ten feet from where you’re standing. Or when a tarantula crawls up your leg while you’re scrolling through pictures on your phone. Seriously, just be cool.
As you can imagine, this was one of my favorite aspects of my day trip to Tikal. Seeing how the jungle has completely overtaken this one prominent metropolis leaves you with the same sense of wonder and imagination as when you first played Jumanji and then had to live alone in the jungle for 26 years. Man, those were good times.
Because Tikal is located in such a thriving natural environment, remember to conduct yourself accordingly:
- Don’t feed the animals – Seriously, the coatis will try to manipulate you out of the snacks you brought. Don’t fall for their cuteness, it’s seriously damaging.
- Leave only footprints, take your trash with you.
- Don’t touch or harass the animals in any way.
- Bring a zoom lens so you can get great wildlife photos from afar. (I imagine you do not want to get too close to a mama monkey and her babies.)
- Remember, you’re in their house now.
- And I know you would never do this, but please don’t carve your name into any trees.
14. Pay attention to the trees
When you hear sounds in the trees, don’t assume it’s just a couple of squirrels chasing each other. That is so North American of you. Here at Tikal, it could be anything.
And you know what? It’s probably a kickass monkey. Holding a baby monkey. With a group of other monkeys.
I just want the record to show that this mama monkey is carrying a baby on her back, while pregnant, and hanging upside down from a tree limb by her tail to get food. Anyone who says humans are the superior species is out of their minds.
On your Belize to Tikal day trip you can expect to see howler monkeys (the bigger black ones), spider monkeys (the skinnier black/brown ones), and lots of babies of both! You’ll see toucans and coatis galore. Bats, lizards, and all kinds of other jungle critters. Just remember to always keep your eyes to the trees!
15. Visit the Star Wars Tikal site
If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you probably already know that Tikal was the filming location for Yavin 4, the jungle-covered fourth moon orbiting the gas giant Yavin, a rebel base. If not, you can find this scene in Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.
It’s a super short scene, but still very cool that you can visit a filming location from such a famous franchise. Aquilino explained to us that George Lucas heard about the site and made the trip all the way to Guatemala to film the five-second scene.
This was back in the mid-1970s, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when Tikal was still a fledgling archaeological site and not yet open to the public.
To get the same view as in the movie, you’ll want to climb to the top of Temple IV (that should be easy to remember). Templo IV, Yavin 4, Star Wars Episode IV.
You can also see Yavin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, by this point we have CGI so it doesn’t look all that much like Tikal anymore.
16. Eat at the on-site restaurant for lunch
There is an on-site restaurant at Tikal and it’s a great place to sit down, relax, and replenish during your Belize to Tikal day trip. You’ll need the break; don’t be a hero.
In true Ashley fashion, I recommend the fried chicken and fries. And the homemade limeade. Victor said it was thirst-quenching, I said, “GIMME!” Also good: the fajitas and a Gallo. It really is an eggs-quisite beer. Chicks love it.
17. Plan on spending more time in Guatemala
We dropped Aquilino off at the same rest stop where we found him on the way back to Belize, now knowing the beauty and history of his country. He schooled my husband on all the different types of Guatemalan liquor at the gift shop and, against all advice, he still purchased the stuff called “fire water.”
A Belize to Tikal day trip is a must-do if you’re visiting Belize, but one day in Guatemala is not enough. There is so much more to see and experience in this country that touches both the Pacific and the Caribbean.
It’s home to natural beauty, volcanoes, rainforests, and countless more ancient sites to explore. There are beautiful cities and amazing food. Definitely plan on spending more time in Guatemala in the future. Intrepid Tours has some great, longer Guatemala tours that visit a number of incredible Maya sites.
In the meantime, here are some great Guatemala day tours for when you only have time for a Belize to Tikal day trip.
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