Is it worth taking your children to Tikal National Park whilst you’re travelling Flores, Guatemala? I say, you just can’t visit Guatemala and not go to Tikal. That’s like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower, so it’s a definite yes from us. Here are Our Top Tips On How To Make Tikal Work With Kids.
Get The Kids Interested Before You Go
Built over two thousands years ago, Tikal is an almost undiscovered Mayan ruin that’s been gradually covered and eaten by the jungle. You can seriously get your Marco Polo on and touch still unearthed temples that sit covered in soil. Just imagine how many hidden wonders lie underneath those mounds.
A documentary from 2018 showed just how much of Tikal lies undiscovered. I haven’t watched this documentary but I’ve seen the photos on National Geographic and I think it’s going to be one of the major discoveries of our lifetimes.
In order to build kids eagerness, there are books to be read, games to be played and loads of videos to be seen. I’ve shared a few below. In my opinion showing the kids the positives and making it sound magical and wonderful is the key to their engagement.
Books To Read Before Taking Children To Tikal
- Guatemala ABCs: A Book about the People and Places of Guatemala
- Dream Wishes in Tikal
- Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya
- The Mirrors of Tikal
- Tikal: The Center of the Maya World
- The Snake
Games To Play Before You Visit The Ruins
Videos To Watch That Teach Kids About Tikal
- Tikal. Mayan City | History – Planet Doc Full Documentaries
- National Geographic: Ancient Maya 101
- Khan Academy: An overview of the Mayan civilization as well as the great city of Teotihuacan.
- Tikal National Park (UNESCO/NHK)
- Guatemala: The Mayan City of Tikal
- For older kids & a more analytical viewpoint: History Summarized: The Maya, Aztec, and Inca
A Brief & Violent History Of Offerings At Tikal
A lot of mystery still shrouds Tikal but we do know it was the most prosperous city of the Mayan Classic Period and the heart of the Mayan empire.
Buried deep within the jungle of Guatemala’s northern province, Tikal is one of the most impressive Mayan sites in central America. Built over a period of 800 years, from 6BC to 10AD, the city constantly evolved with new monuments and buildings constructed on top of old ones. By 600AD Tikal had a sports stadium, a school, a hospital and a library packed with thousands of books. The limestone buildings include royal palaces, houses, administrative buildings and inscribed stone monuments and it’s estimated that the city housed somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 people.
The Mayans were quite a brutal bunch however, displaying aggression in battle, they also displayed other violent traits such as human sacrifice. Ritual human sacrifice with a bow & arrow was practiced and depicted upon the walls of Tikal Temple II. There’s also another structure depicting a human sacrifice in which a person is bound to a stake and is being disemboweled. Nice! The Mayans thought life was a continuous circle in which one eventually came back to earth which is possibly why they had a more philosophical outlook on sacrificial slaughters.
Tikal went into decline around the 9th century, although no one really knows why it’s thought that water ran out and the area was no longer sustainable to life.
Prepare Kids For Walking
You may have read that there are approximately 222 square miles of jungle surrounding the ancient Mayan City of Tikal however, do not worry, the actual excavated site (which accounts for only 20% of the unearthed structures) is much smaller and relatively easy to hike. An incredible 80% of the buildings, an estimated 4,000, remain hidden under huge mounds of earth which you can see and touch and even sometimes climb.
The Grand Plaza is positioned between the Central Acropolis and the North Acropolis. The Grand Plaza is described as the heart of Tikal. To the east is Temple I, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar (47m) and to the west is Temple II, the Temple of the Masks (38m). To the north is the Acropolis del Norte, an area with a number of smaller temples on platforms and large stone masks built into the walls. Keep an eye out for the Mayan stelae, tall stone, carved shafts and drawings.
Temple IV (the temple of the two-headed snake) is 70m high and the tallest temple in Tikal. In order to get a spectacular view, you’ll need to climb up it. From here you can see Temples I, II and III across the jungle canopy and then nothing else but trees and trees for miles upon miles. Star Wars fans might recognise the view as it was used for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.
Don’t Go For Sunrise
Not only do you have to buy your ticket the day before (if you intend to visit at sunrise) but you also have to go as part of a tour. Sunrise is a waste of time in my opinion but sunset is brilliant. One of our best memories from the Peten area is sitting at the top of a temple for the sunset from Yaxha.
If you go for sunrise you’ll need to be up for 4am and in the park for roughly 5am, if not earlier. The chances of you seeing the sun rise are roughly 20%. I don’t think it’s worth it but if you’re interested in doing so, watch this video from Growing Up Without Borders who did.
Temple IV gives the best sunset view.
Hire A Tikal Guide
Tikal is big and there are a number of paths that snake through the jungle floor that you might well miss. By going through the jungle you have an increased change of seeing the Monkeys swing around above you and don’t forget to look out for the incredible twisted rope vines, giant mushrooms and faraway trees.
There are also not enough signs to be able to do the national park justice. I would recommend getting a guide because the Mayans are such great story tellers and they keep kids entertained well. They know where to look for animals and the stories of Mayan myths and legends really stimulate their imagination.
What Animals Can Kids See There?
Binoculars are not essential to see animals here as there is loads to be seen on the jungle floor.
Although you can see and hear Spider & Howler monkeys, frolicking in the trees high above your head, there are also colourful, wild turkeys, racoons, birds, insects, arachnids, lizards and tortoise.
Negotiate, Stop & Snack Regularly
There are two restaurants located near the car park, one of which is El Meson. It can be quite busy but serves nice food at a good price. These are the only places you can buy food within the park so I’d recommend taking a picnic, small snacks and a decent amount of water to drink. We asked our guest house for some food and they provided us with delicious tomales.
Take your time, stop regularly and if your kids are reluctant to continue, negotiate with them. It is hot and there’s about 8km of walking to do if you want to see everything. You might not be able to see everything so pick what’s essential to see and work on from there.
Cover Up With Thin Layers
Bug spray is bad for you, bad for everybody else, bad for the environment and terrible for other animals. It isn’t necessary to visit Tikal and we survived just fine without it, although I did get a lungful of somebody else’s bug spray which was not pleasant.
Many of the routes at Tikal are shaded under the enormous canopy of jungle trees. So whilst it’s still hot (I mean it is the tropics after all) it’s not overly sunny. We recommend taking thin layers and a lightweight, waterproof raincoat. Something that will roll up and fit into a backpack with not too much presence. We took ours but didn’t need them in the end.
If you feel like you need bug spray, please opt for something that is organic and non-toxic. An eco friendly bug spray like this one.…… Alternatively coconut oil used as a carrier with essential oils can act as a repellant too. We use citronella, peppermint, lemongrass and eucalyptus. I only use ethically harvested, vegan, high grade oils such as those ones that are free from parabens and synthetic fragrances.
Make It Fun & Let Kids Climb
Quite a few of the ruins are climb-able whilst some have wooden steps. Let them climb on the ones that can be climbed. One of the most impressive and tallest structures is 230 feet high. The views above the canopy are spectacular. You can access the top by a staircase on the backside. To get to the top would be the equivalent of climbing about 4-5 flights of stairs.
Play games like eye spy, follow the leader, Simon says , 20 questions, who can count the stairs & ABC guessing game. Stop to learn the names of leaves, see if you can hide behind the enormous trees without being seen, if it’s been raining watch the rain drops balance on leaves, catch shadows or do cartwheels on the grass.
We bought our kids point & shoot cameras and they really like to practice their skills when we go places.