A Complete Travel Guide to Belize and Tikal, Guatemala
Belize and Tikal, Guatemala was an incredible adventure. This journey was actually our first international trip together and we both learned that we could travel comfortably around the world without getting irritated. This was a good sign for us! We booked this trip, 2 weeks after meeting each other. We know... we're crazy. Sporadic decisions may or may not work. In this case, it worked out splendidly.
Here are details.
We booked the tickets to Belize after seeing a deal on one of my favorite sites, Travel Pirates. We found tickets to Belize for $300 roundtrip from LAX, so we took the plunge and went for it!
What's wonderful about Belize, is that it's a country that has both crazy mountain adventuring and beautiful, tropical beaches.
We decided to go to start our trip in the mountains near the border for Guatemala. One thing that has been on the bucket list is the ruins of Tikal on the border of Guatemala and Belize. If you come from Guatemala City, the bus ride to get to Tikal is several hours away, so this was a great option. The ride was maybe 2 hours from the border through scenic Guatemala. And since this was the overall plan, we decided to start our trip in San Ignacio. A small town with plenty of adventures to do in the jungles of Belize.
We booked our transportation in advance from the airport in Belize City to San Ignacio.
Travel Tip: We always make transportation to and from the airport. It prevents from getting scammed and takes out the stress from coming off of a long plane ride, looking for a taxi cab that may or may not be legit, who may or may not know how to get to where you need to go. Yup, this has happened before).
Telephone: +501 620-3055
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org DRIVING TIME: Approximately 2 hours
PRICE: $60 per person from Belize City to San Ignacio
William turned out to be great! He had glowing reviews online and they were right. We ran into some issues bringing our drone into the country and the seized it at the airport. William helped us take care of it and assured that it would be safe. Alas, there were no drone shots because they kept my drone in one of the rooms at the tiny airport.
So warning to those with drones... Be careful. It may get seized and you need to make sure you can get it back.
Now back to the transportation. William wasn't just a service to get to San Ignacio, but he also brought us to some local stops to get us some treats. AND he had wifi on the shuttle, which made it super convenient.
Our accommodations were great. We had a little cabin all to ourselves. There was a beautiful pool to swim in and it was a great place to stay. We weren't right at the center of everything, but you have a pleasant 5-10 minute walk to the main street of San Ignacio.
DAY 1 – ARRIVAL TO SAN IGNACIO
San Ignacio forms the principal population center of Cayo District. Staying here is generally the more economical option for travel in Cayo; furthermore, there is no shortage of tour operators who were willing to show us the attractions and activities in the surrounding area. It is a friendly, functional base for our explorations of the region.
The hotel we stayed at was the Midas Hotel. Midas stands out as one of San Ignacio's better midrange choices. The large pool, funky bar and friendly staff complement an interesting array of accommodations. It's in a quiet location of about five-minute walk north of the market and the cabins were gorgeous.
Upon arriving to Midas, we walked into town and started to find where the tours were located. San Ignacio has a main street where most tour guide and restaurants were located. Here we began trying to find our tour company.
Travel Tip: If you don’t book your tours in advance (out of the country), we like to go from one tour company to another to compare prices, as well as services. If we have internet, we also like to do research on the company itself, if they are online. Some tour companies don’t have an online presence in different countries.
The tour company we decided to go with a tiny store the size of a closet with a cheerful guy who cut us a deal (because we knew how much everyone cost already). San Ignacio offers a variety of tours in the area because of it’s proximity to many Mayan ruins and artifacts. He suggested we go to ATM also known as Actun Tunichil Muknal, which we heard of on the internet but there was a lack of pictures or even reviews online compared to other tours. He explained that this one would be the highlight of our trip. We decided to trust him. After speaking to a few more locals, they also suggested ATM and said that this would be the best part of our trip. So we took his advice. The following morning would be our first adventure
DAY 2 - ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL - MAYAN CAVING ***HIGHLIGHT OF THE TRIP****
Our tour started early with an 8AM pickup. He drove us deep into the jungle and explained that at ATM aka Actun Tunichil Muknal having a camera was prohibited including cell phones. The reasoning to the rule was a tourist took a photo of a skull with his phone and dropped it on the ancient skull breaking the teeth of this ancient artifact. The lack of photos explained why ATM wasn’t reviewed much online and is really one of the best kept secrets. Like the locals said, THIS WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF OUR TRIP.
The only picture we have from ATM because cameras including cell phones are strictly prohibited. If our tour guides get caught, their licenses could get taken away so alas! I didn't want to risk that!
Don’t walk to ATM, run because it’s that amazing! (actually don’t run.. the jungles of Belize are littered with big cats. Yes, big cats… you heard me, BIG CATS : Jaguars, Cougars, Jaguarundi, Ocelot, Margay, and mountain lions.
More info about ATM. You were provided with headlamps and helmets. Be expected to cross some rivers before entering the mouth of the cave. The mouth of the cave requires you to swim in a crystal blue river to enter it before coming to the actual cave ground. You will be wet. You will be swimming underneath rocks to pop out to the other side of them. Don’t let this scare you – It’s a quick second underneath the water. It’s slippery so bring proper shoes. We wore our sneakers in and out of the water. They got wet because we swam in them.
You will be hiking and swimming deep in the cave for a quite some time before reaching a up a wall with a ladder to the the final destination. After entering through a small hole, you are rewarded with cathedral like ceilings and a sacrificial chamber. Here, you will find the famous remains of the Crystal Maiden and other sacrifices, as well as a number of smashed mayan pottery. I cannot even explain the sheer magnitude of the room. It is huge and unexpected. After going through the cave system, the height of the ceilings alone is shocking. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. After doing a historical tour, you have to climb back down and out of the chamber back to the entrance of the cave.
P.S. Before entering the cave, our tour provided us with lunch.
Day 3 – TIKAL, GUATEMALA
The following day, we were excited to cross of a bucket list item by going to Tikal, Guatemala. We took the same tour company but were given a local guide from Guatemala. This was a few hours of a drive to cross the border and arrive at the famous ruins.
A wonderful treat was realizing that it was Guatemala’s independence day. We were lucky enough to see all the wonderful festivals and parades on the way to Tikal. We even got out to explore one for 5 minutes. Finally, we arrived in Tikal. Tikal has been on our bucket list for a while. The easiest way to get here is definitely through the Belize border as it is much closer than traveling from Guatemala City. From what I understand, you would be spending 10-12 hours if not more, trying to get to this side of the country.
Travel tip: Don’t forget your passport when going to Tikal. You are crossing the border, folks! Also, bring bug spray!!!!
Tikal is Guatemala's pride and joy... It is said to be the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Mayan Civilization. The place was absolutely AMAZING! The site is located within a national park that is home to an abundance of wildlife — such as coatis, pacas, tyras, and ocellated turkeys. PS here's a sample of a turkey we ran into! :D
We spent the whole afternoon with our guide that took us to the different structures and gave us a whole history lesson on the mysterious land.
Upon arriving to Tikal, we were greeted with giant Ceiba trees, which is the Guatemalan National Tree. Standing underneath the giant Ceiba tree immediately reminds you that you are in a prehistoric rainforest. DO YOU SEE HOW TINY WE ARE?!
Tikal National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located in Northern Guatemala's Petén Province within a large forest region often referred to as the Maya Forest, which extends into neighboring Mexico and Belize. Embedded within the much larger Maya Biosphere Reserve, exceeding two million hectares and contiguous with additional conservation areas, Tikal National Park is one of the few World Heritage properties inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria for its extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance.
This place is massive so be prepared to walk around for a while! I mean, you better... Get your money's worth!
It comprises 57,600 hectares of wetlands, savannah, tropical broadleaf and palm forests with thousands of architectural and artistic remains of the Mayan civilization from the Pre-classic Period (600 B.C.) to the decline and eventual collapse of the urban centre around 900 AD. The diverse ecosystems and habitats harbor a wide spectrum of neotropical fauna and flora. Five cats, including Jaguar and Puma, several species of monkeys and anteaters and more than 300 species of birds are among the notable wildlife.
TRAVEL TIP: It’s hot! BRING WATER and BUG SPRAY!!!!!! as you wander around the park with your guide. P.S. Having a guide was great. He knew everything and it made walking around the ancient ruins even m ore amazing. He even showed us where the royal toilets were! We spent the whole day exploring, walking up and down the pyramids, taking photos, learning about the history. In the afternoon, the sky began turning gray and a rain storm was approaching. The howler monkeys began… yes, you guessed it… “howling” very loudly. Luckily, it was time for us to go… The rain began pouring as we ran back to our vehicle.
After concluding the tour of the Tikal, we headed back towards the border. First, we stopped for food at a local Guatemalan place which was also included in our tour price. The food was delicious! And our guide helped us pick the right dish. Guatemalan cuisine was a delight. After food, we crossed the border back to Belize and had to go through the whole passport process. Our Guatemalan guide left us and we were led back to the jungle town in San Ignacio.
Another night of exploring the village of San Ignacio – More Tamales, More local food, More ice cream… more pool time. This was the life.
Day 3 – ZIP LINE TOUR/ CAVE TUBING
During our jungle visit, we took a Zip-line tour of the jungle. As we soared from tree to tree, like Tarzan, we experienced a bird’s-eye view of the Belize jungle, and scenery that cannot be seen from the ground. We’ve done zip lining before and never experienced one that went over the jungle and a pristine river.
Our package included cave tubing. After zip lining, you grab your tube and begin to do a short walk down the river.
We ran into some giant Tarzan-like vines. Michael had to swing on them.
On the hike, our guide took us to this cave where you can see formations up close.