Mayan Pyramids – Chichen Itza or Tikal?
I have traveled to Mexico and Central America on a number of occasions, now, and I have to admit, I have a certain fascination with the ancient Maya. I have visited several Maya sites with smaller ruins, as well as having gone to the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza and Tikal. I have to admit, though, that neither site is ideal for everyone. Which to choose?
The ancient Maya civilization spanned a huge area, covering part of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. They had a complex society, with a written language, amazing art, and impressive architecture, including huge step pyramids; there are hundreds of ruins across southern Mexico and northern Central America.
Two of the largest and best-known Mayan pyramids are Chichen Itza, on the Yucatan peninsula in southern Mexico, and Tikal, in northern Guatemala. Both offer stunning pyramids on large sites with many monuments, but both present challenges for travelers. Here is a comparison to help you choose which one is best for you:
Chichen Itza, in Mexico, is close enough to Cancun to be an easy day trip – 2 to 2.5 hours by bus. You can arrange a guided tour from any of the all-inclusive hotels in the area, and there are even tours available from Cozumel. From Cancun, most of the tours will also include a stop for lunch, and often a swim in a cenote, as well.
Chichen Itza covers an impressive 5 square kilometers (1.9 square miles), though the main attractions of the step pyramid (Temple of Kukulkan) and the Great Ball Court are relatively close together. The El Caracol observatory is also of interest; when I visited the site in 2006, you could still climb that structure to get a higher-up view of the site; however, I have heard (but not confirmed) that you can no longer climb it. The site itself is quite accessible, and relatively level and smooth (considering it is an archaeological ruin and all), with well-maintained grass that would be fine for someone who was a little unsteady on their feet, or for pushing a large-wheeled stroller. Even a motor scooter would probably fare fine here.
The main challenge of Chichen Itza is the sheer volume of people who visit the site. During high periods, there are thousands of visitors a day, meaning you are unlikely to get a photo that isn’t jam-packed with people, or a moment to yourself to enjoy the awe of these incredible structures. The popularity of the site means it is more commercial, and, due to the damage that the millions of tourists were doing to the structures, most of them are now closed to climbing.
The main advantage of Chichen Itza is it’s ease of access. The main disadvantage are the hordes of tourists.
Tikal is a huge site in north-eastern Guatemala. The original city had more than 3,000 structures covering an area of approximately 60 square kilometers (23 square miles), though the main archaeological site is smaller, at 16 square kilometers (6.2 square miles). Regardless, this is a huge site, so pack your hiking boots.
Getting to Tikal can be accomplished from within Guatemala or from neighboring Belize. Most people start from the city of Flores, which is approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the site; transport to Tikal can easily be arranged from there. When Trevor and I were there in 2009, we traveled in from Belize and overnighted in El Remate. This is an option for the more adventurous; after a rather confusing border crossing, we ended up getting dropped off the bus at a dusty crossroads; after sitting down at a little cantina to eat lunch and recoup and figure out where the heck we were, we ended up hiking the last few kilometers into El Remate.
Just as an aside, El Remate is a cute little town, but don’t expect the vast array of tourist amenities you would find in a bigger centre. There are hotels and some restaurants, and we enjoyed our time there, but if you want a curated experience, you might be better off to stay in Flores. Guatemala, in general, has much less tourist infrastructure than the more popular destinations like Mexico, and far fewer people speak English. This did not prove to be a problem for us as backpackers, but it is worth being aware of if you decide to travel there – do yourself a favor, and learn at least a few phrases in Spanish.
Tikal has a number of huge pyramids and other structures, and you are still allowed to climb most of them. This is unsafe at best; there are rickety wooden stairs, and, in some cases, no guardrails. We found it exhilarating, but I would not attempt this with young children. There are smaller structures that might be okay with kids, but stay off the big pyramids, with the possible exception of Temple 2 in the main square. Having said all that, we climbed both Temple 2 and Temple 5, and it was amazing!
The terrain at Tikal is not flat. The main square / plaza is pretty accessible, but the rest of the site is somewhat hilly, with stairs in places; some of those stairs are simply wooden berms filled with dirt. There are well-marked paths, but anyone who is unsteady on their feet will absolutely want a walking stick. You could take a sturdy stroller to the site, though I would probably opt for a carrier for babies and smaller toddlers, myself.
Given that Guatemala is a far less popular travel destination, and Tikal is in a rather remote corner of the country, there are far fewer tourists. Given the size of the site, you have a fair chance of having time to really explore by yourself, and, if you’re willing to hike away from the main square, you have a good shot at getting some tourist-free photos. With so few tourists, it has not been necessary to close structures to climbing, which will also be a big draw for some.
The main challenges of Tikal are the accessibility issues – a huge site, combined with uneven terrain – and the remoteness of the actual site. The main advantages are the lack of tourists and the ability to actually climb structures.
In all, if you struggle with any sort of mobility issues, or want to stay close to civilization, or just want an easy trip with the kids, Chichen Itza is an excellent choice. You get to see amazing pyramids and ruins, without the hassle of trekking into the middle of a remote jungle to do so. The major downside to this is that there are so many other people visiting the site.
If you are an adventure traveler or backpacker, Tikal may be the better choice. It can definitely be an adventure to get to, and the payoff is the chance to climb a huge pyramid in the middle of the jungle…possibly with few or no other tourists!
Whichever you choose, both sites are amazing, and I would recommend traveling to either one…or both!