From Belize to Guatemala – Getting to Tikal

Guatemala….we’re headed to Guatemala? We never had the inclination to go there, but the suggestion to spend Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Antigua intrigued us. Two other families that we know online, the Lybberts of Living Outside of the Box and the Dennings of Discover.Share.Inspire were going to be there, and we were in need of a vacation…so we said, “why not, let’s go!”

The bus to Flores from Belize

We were to meet in Antigua on Wednesday, so we left a few days early to break up the long bus journey and to experience Tikal, the capital of the Mayan empire. The first class bus to Flores from Belize costs $25 US and is a 4-5 hour journey.  It’s really a mini-bus and besides being one hour late, it was relatively comfortable. It took 2 hours to get to the border and there was only 7 other people on the bus, so we had lots of room to spread out and relax.

There are several tour companies that sell the bus trip and they are all the same price. You can find the companies at both the Caye Caulker Water Taxi port or the San Pedro Belize Express water taxi port in Belize City.

The other option is to fly, which is much faster, but also much more expensive. You could also take the Belize chicken buses, which are cheaper, but take over 3 hours just to get to the border. And then you’d have to take a Guatemalan chicken bus to Flores. It’s a savings of $12 US and we didn’t think it was worth the time to do it this way.

The real bus to Flores, Guatemala. Pretty comfy.

The real bus to Flores, Guatemala. Pretty comfy.

The Belize Border

Upon entering the Belize border, which is clearly marked and nicely organized with the first section of exit fee payments ($37.50 bz) and beyond that another passport check and exit stamp. We didn’t have to pay an exit fee for our children. I’m not sure at what age they charge it, but it seems like little ones get a free stamp. Leaving the Belize building, there were many hawkers trying to exchange money and tell us that we were going to need to pay 20-50 quetzales ($2.67-$6.67US) per person to get into Guatemala. We walked right past them, knowing better. Luckily, none were aggressive and they didn’t hound us.

Belize Border Control

Belize Border Control

The Guatemalan Border

After paying our exit fee and getting our exit stamp in Belize, there is a narrow sidewalk that we walked over to get to Guatemala. We were impressed at how organized and clean the Guatemalan border was. Lines were clearly marked as either exit or entry. A quick look at our passports, stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp and we’re done!

Tip: There are NO entry and exit fees into or out of Guatemala for foreigners. Don’t be fooled. The proper authorities will not charge you the commonly talked about 20 quetzales to enter or exit.
Note: some people on our bus did pay a 20 quetzal fee, but it wasn’t to the people behind the counter, so be careful who you give your money to.
Guatemala entry/exit at the border of Belize.

Guatemala entry/exit at the border of Belize.

The entire border crossing took less than 30 minutes and our mini-bus was waiting on the other side. We had time to grab some really cheap, delicious tacos and have our first taste of Guatemalan beer – Gallo.

Flores, Guatemala

In less than 2 hours we were entering the island town of Flores. We were dropped off at the tour operators office and told/sold that we should book our tickets to Antigua now even though we weren’t leaving for another 2 days. Semana Santa is the busiest time of year for Guatemala, especially Antigua. We took his advice and booked the overnight bus to Antigua ($45 US) and also an early morning tour to Tikal ($20 US) that included transportation and a walking tour. (We were glad to have booked the bus, we took some of the last seats. Normally you could probably just do it the day of, but it was Semana Santa. More on the details of this bus ride in a later post.)

Next, the tour operator dropped us off at our hostel, Los Amigos Hostel in Flores and we tried to check in, but it looks like they lost our reservation and didn’t have room. Arg! Eventually, they did find a private room for us and we plunked down our bags and ate at their delicious restaurant onsite. We were happy with our $15 US/night accommodations and the eclectic people that were there. There was the typical European college/post college backpackers, but also a surprising number of older travelers (40s – 50s) that were staying there. Goes to show you that a Youth Hostel is not only for the young party crowd. We have come to love staying at hostels for their social nature. There are always some very interesting people to share world philosophies and travel stories.

Los Amigos had a wonderful restaurant and bar with plenty of comfy places to sit. A soundproof room played movies during the day and turned into a nightclub at night. They also book tours. We really enjoyed it, especially since you could charge things to your room…loved that!

I highly recommend the veggie panini and the Banana-cinnamon smoothie that my children couldn’t get enough of. And if you go, watch out for the crawling turtles on the ground. They normally stick to the corners of the room, but you never know.

Our room had a set of bunk beds and a queen size bed, clean sheets and towels and it’s own bathroom with a hot shower. What more can you ask for at $15 per night.

Los Amigos Hostel in Flores - simple, but clean and really fun.

Los Amigos Hostel in Flores – simple, clean and really fun.

We went to bed early so that we would get up on time to catch our 4:30 am shuttle to Tikal to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately, we were so paranoid of oversleeping, we didn’t sleep much. In the wee hours, I fell asleep. Luckily, K woke up spot on at 4:30 am! We scrambled to get dressed, forgot to brush our teeth and while quickly walking through the hostel, I twisted my ankle on the cobblestone stairs and pierced the side of my foot on a sharp piece of stone. But it didn’t matter…we HAD to go! Our shuttle was patiently waiting. Off to Tikal with a bloody foot and flip flops!

Tikal – The Capital of the Mayan Empire

The van ride from Flores to Tikal is about 1 1/2 hours. We picked up our tour guide, Luis, along the way.

Tikal was the center of Maya activity during the height of the Mayan period. It was discovered on accident by a gum collector finding ‘chicle’ (gum in Spanish) trees. Today, Tikal is one of UNESCOs World Heritage sites and is preserved as a National Park.Tikal is the largest excavated site in the American continent and holds a particular mystique that is fascinating. It is 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center. Tikal was abandoned by the Maya over 1000 years ago, but no one knows exactly why.

Entrance for foreigners is 150 quetzales ($20 US). There are a couple of hotels at the site and a restaurant to grab some breakfast, coffee, and something for lunch.

Tikal “Land of Sounds”

Tikal symbol - "Land of Sounds"

Tikal symbol – “Land of Sounds”

Tikal means “Land of Sounds” and our tour guide demonstrated the unique acoustic properties of this area. He explained that the Mayan hierarchy could ‘talk’ to each other from the tops of the temples and the sound waves could be heard at the other temple tops, but not below to the common people. Many messages were relayed this way.

He also had us stand in front of one of the temples, cup our ears in our hands while he clapped. Amazingly, the sound that reverberated from the temples and trees was the sound of the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. It was SO COOL!

The Sacred Ceiba Tree

We came to a Ceiba tree (aka Kapok), a tree that was sacred to the Maya since it roots point to the 4 cardinal points. It’s a tall, tall, tall tree. The Ceiba tree is the energy connection with the Cosmos, Earth, and the Underworld. It is also used in many medicinal and holistic Maya treatments. Unfortunately, the Spaniards burned most Mayan books so there is little written down about Maya healing.

The Ceiba Tree...the sacred tree to the universe.

The Ceiba Tree…the sacred tree to the universe.

Luis, our tour guide was awesome. He explained the different ways the Maya used plants and trees, why they built temples, the reasons for the architecture and lots more. The Maya were incredibly connected to nature and the heavenly stars. They looked to the sun and stars to plan when to plant and harvest crops.

We recommend paying for a walking tour at Tikal. It was so informative and gave us a sense of how the Maya built and utilized their capital, Tikal.

I was surprised to learn that they clear cut the entire forest area of where they built, plus a radius outside of Tikal, so as to not interfere with the sun and sounds. I think, how ‘non-environmental’, but I see how we build our modern day cities and we do the exact same thing. And then we plant trees and grass to give a little bit of green. And back then, there was a lot more green around than there is now.

Another tower I climbed with a bum foot and 30 lb child.

Another tower I climbed with a bum foot and 30 lb child.

We climbed temple after temple after temple. It was wonderfully tiring, especially with a bum foot and carrying our children. G and I could climb some of them, but the steps are very steep and the rise of the steps are tall. Why would that be since Mayan people are really short? The top of the temple was reserved for heirarchy, who tended to be quite tall. The steps were reserved for priests to stand on during offerings and ceremonies. They stood in a snake pattern and the commoners had just enough room on the bottom level of steps to ‘kneel’ and pay tribute. Interesting, eh?

All temples had offering stones on them where sacrifices would take place. Mr. King held Miss I over one of them. She kicked and screamed. Apparently she didn’t think that sacrificing herself was an honor. It must be a cultural thing.

Temple IV – the highlight of Tikal

Temple IV is the highlight of Tikal and Luis made sure we got there early before the regular tour groups and park visitors would crowd it. It is the highest temple, standing over 70 meters high. Luckily, we didn’t have to climb the stone steps, there were safer wooden steps built on the side of it for us tourists to climb up.

Temple IV from a distance

Temple IV from a distance

The view was magnificent.

Tikal - look familiar? This is a scene out of Star Wars - filmed here.

Tikal – look familiar? This is a scene out of Star Wars – filmed here.

We spent some time up here and then filed back down to continue the other half of the tour, seeing monkeys, brilliant turkeys and coati. Tikal is huge! Our visit to Xunantunich was tiny in comparison, both in size and different architectural structures. Only 15% of Tikal is uncovered and they say it’ll take another 300 years to dig out the rest. The jungle has covered it with dirt, trees, and plants.

It was a magnificent morning and we were exhausted at the end, but extremely pleased that we visited. A MUST DO for anyone visiting Belize or Guatemala.

Pictures from Getting to Tikal

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7 Responses to “From Belize to Guatemala – Getting to Tikal”

  1. Mary April 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    So beautiful, I am so glad you guys got to experience such an amazing place.

    I went to Chichen Itza in Mexico about a century ago:) I loved it, the acoustics, the history, and the grandeur! I’ll have to put Tikal on my ever expanding bucket list:)

  2. Lisa Wood April 18, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    I cant believe that a hotel room only cost you $15.00 per night! Incredible – gee your foot looks sore 🙁
    Wow that looks like a great walk…I so love hiking – havent done that in ages.
    Your little one sure looks like she had fun.

  3. Living Outside of the Box April 23, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Our friends (actually–ran into them by accident here in Antigua–they live near my parents in UT) just stayed in the same hostel last week, too! Looks like we are headed that way this week–it comes highly recommended 🙂

    How much does it cost to get into Belize? Will there be people waiting to pounce on me and rip me off?!

    • S King April 24, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

      The Belize / Guatemala border is one of the easiest border crossings we’ve ever done! No hassles and clearly marked.

  4. David Urmann May 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Good description of the border crossing. Your pictures make me want to go back and visit Palenque in southern Mexico but accessible via a jungle trek I think from Flores.

  5. Marol Kisan December 22, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Reading your blog brought back many memories. When I was a senior in high school in 1979, my grandmother took me on a trip to Guatemala to visit with friends of hers and to see the country. I had a wonderful time — such a beautiful country, lovely people, delicious food — and one of the highlights was a trip to Tikal. Back then one could only fly into Tikal from Guatemala City. We rode in a small Indiana Jones type aircraft and I can remember the seats facing in the opposite direction from the pilot area so we were all looking at things backwards. The floor was wooden with slats that gaped here and there, so we could see the miles and miles of jungle pass beneath our feet. We also shared the “plane” with several loose chickens! Arriving there meant a trecherous landing on a dirt strip that was just long enough to cruise to the end of and brake hard. I did alot of praying on that plane and then as now, I’m not even religious. But we arrived safely. My grandma had already researched and found we couldn’t do Tikal in one day (properly) so we toured some of it and then stayed in the only hotel there, “The Jungle Inn”, I kid you not. We were given a hut with walls that only came up to waist level, with a thatched roof overhead. Asking for some light, a worker handed us a candle, a book of matched and an empty Coke bottle to put it in. I still have pictures of that. I can remember watching ants crossing our path to the main building of the Inn, carrying leaves that were 20 times their size. All night long we could hear the chatter of the jungle, which really came alive in the dark. Monkeys, Quetzals, and other creatures chattered through until daylight, which came early with no walls to block out the sun. We dressed in our clothes from the day before back on and they were SOAKING wet from the humidity. It was like taking clothes out of the washer and putting them on immediately. But in a couple of minutes one forgot all about that. Off we went to the ruins again and spent the day climbing (I did) and looking (she did) until we were both exhausted. We hired a guide too and he showed up inebriated and burped gentle clouds of beer breath all day, but he was fun and interesting, insisting that he was an “ar-kay-oh-lo-geest” just slumming for the day by taking us around. I’ll never forget that experience and I think you are giving your children fabulous adventures and a real view of the fuller world around us past our state borders. They may not remember everything but your lovely pictures will fill in the gaps. Thank you for sharing your story and your marvelous photography with us. It was a pleasure to meander through the ruins again through your eyes. Grandma is gone but her memory still lingers on so I am grateful for being given a memory prompt by your own story. Thanks again! And, keep posting!!!

  6. Brenna Jean Randel April 20, 2013 at 1:57 am #

    Can you tell me what the name of the bus company that took you from belize city to flores was? Did you leave from the airport? We are going to Belize/ Guatemala next week and wanted to reserve a spot.
    Also I’m 6 months pregnant with my first and wanted a mom’s opinion on how the bus ride might be for me.
    My man and I were considering renting a car so we could make stops along the way…thoughts on that?
    what tour group was Luis with? if you remember

    Thank you!

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