Towering above the rain forest, Tikal is possibly the most magnificent of all Maya sites. The ruins, 68km from Flores down a smooth paved road, are dominated by five enormous temples, steep-sided limestone pyramids that rise to more than 60m above the forest floor. Around them are literally thousands of other structures, many semi-strangled by giant roots and still hidden beneath mounds of earth.
The site itself is surrounded by the Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected area of some 576 square kilometres that is on the edge of the much larger Reserva de la Biósfera Maya. Hundreds of species, including howler and spider monkeys, toucans and parakeets are found here. The sheer scale of the place is overwhelming, and its atmosphere spellbinding. Whether you can spare as little as a morning or as long as a week, it's always worth the trip.
Entrance to the national park (daily 6am–6pm) costs US$22 – if you arrive after 3pm you'll be given a ticket also valid for the following day. For tourist information, Inguat has a desk (6am–4pm) close to the ticket office. The websiteWeb: www.tikalpark.com has lots of useful information about the site and the reserve. At the entrance, the one-room Museo Tikal (Mon– Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–4pm; US$1.30) houses some of the artefacts found in the ruins, including ceramics, obsidian eccentric flints, jade jewellery found in Tumba 116 and the magnificent Stela 31, which was inaugurated in 445 AD. The museum also has a spectacular reconstruction of the great ruler Hasaw Chan K'awil's tomb. One of the richest ever found in the Maya world, the tomb contained 180 worked jade items in the form of bracelets, anklets, necklaces and earplugs, and delicately incised bones, including a famous carving depicting deities paddling a canoe to the underworld. The Museo Lítico (same hours; US$1.30), inside the visitor centre, holds nineteen more stelae, though they are very poorly labelled and there is no supplementary information in English.
The best way to reach the ruins is in one of the tourist minibuses (US$7 return) that meet flights at Flores airport and pick up passengers from every hotel in Flores, Santa Elena and El Remate, starting from 4.30am. It's wise to arrive early at Tikal when the air is fresh and heat less intense, but note that it's rare to witness an impressive sunrise over the ruins as the appearance of the sun is generally delayed by mist rising from the humid forest.
Plane and local bus schedules are designed to make it easy to visit the ruins as a day-trip from Flores or Guatemala City, but if you can spare the time it's well worth staying overnight. You'll need the extra time to do justice to the ruins themselves, but more importantly this allows you to spend dawn and dusk at the site, when the forest canopy bursts into a frenzy of sound and activity. The air fills with the screech of toucans and the roar of howler monkeys, while flocks of parakeets wheel around the temples, and bats launch themselves into the night.
There are three hotels at the ruins, all of them fairly expensive and not especially good value. First choice is the attractive Jungle Lodge (Tel:2476 8775, Web: www.junglelodge.guate.com ; Price: $31–100), which offers comfortable bungalows each with two double beds, a few basic rooms with shared bath, and some tents (US$10) with good mattresses; there's also a decent restaurant (US$10 a full meal) and a pool. The Tikal Inn (Tel:7926 1917, Web: www.tikalinn.com ; Price: $61–100) is a good alternative, offering pleasant thatched bungalows, clean airy rooms and a heat-busting swimming pool. Otherwise the overpriced Jaguar Inn (Tel:7926 0002, Web: www.jaguartikal.com ; Price: $61-80) has 13 bungalows with small verandas and hammocks, a five-bed dorm (US$10 per head), hammocks with nets (US$5), camping (US$3.50 per head), a reasonable restaurant and wi-fi. You can also camp or sling a hammock at Tikal's basic campsite (US$4), complete with rudimentary shower-block. Hammocks and mosquito nets (essential in the wet season) are available for rent from the Comedor Imperio Maya, opposite the visitor centre. It's illegal to camp or sleep out among the ruins.