Famous Tikal Mayan ruins

Adventure Travel to Tikal: The Mayan Site in Guatemala

It’s amazing that a three-hour flight in a Twin Commander can take you to a place with a totally different culture from what we are used to here in the U.S., and an important and well-preserved historical site as well.

This article is about flying to Tikal, a Mayan ruin on the shore of Lake Flores in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula in Guatemala, and of course what’s to be seen in Tikal and the surrounding area. Central America, which Guatemala is part of, flourished under the Maya Indians at the same time the Incas were developing South America.

Before departing the U.S., you need to obtain an authorization to land in Tikal. This became a requirement of Guatemala Civil Aviation after the U.S. implemented its eAPIS and TSA pre-approval requirements for foreign aircraft coming to this country. The requirements for flying to Guatemala are more complicated because, believe it or not, Guatemala City has the largest flying club in the Americas with more than 1,000 members and 600 airplanes based in Guatemala City.

The most important part of the Guatemalan request, besides the pilot’s license, medical, and aircraft registration information, is providing proof of an insurance policy showing that flying in Guatemala is covered and that there is sufficient liability coverage.

After filing the U.S. eAPIS outbound from your airport of departure and filing an international flight plan, you’re on your way. If you are flying out of Florida you’ll be overflying Key West, and then be handed off to Havana Center. But because you won’t be overflying the Cuban mainland, you do not need a Cuban overflight permit.

As you approach the coast of Mexico you’ll be switched over to Merida Center, who you will be with all the way to the waypoint called Amaru, and then will be switched over to Cenemar (that’s short for Central America) to bring you the short distance towards Tikal before you’re switched to the Tikal tower.

Tikal approach plate

Tikal approach plate

There is no surveillance radar in Tikal, and the prevailing-wind runway is 10. The runway has an ILS but it’s an arc DME approach. You can expect to fly the arc DME, which is seven nautical miles from the VOR.

It’s important to know that the name of the airport changed a couple of years back. It used to be called Tikal (MGTK), but was changed to Mundo Maya (MGMM). Make sure your navigation database has the correct information.

Arched entrance to ancient Flores

Arched entrance to ancient Flores

Over the years of flying to Tikal I’ve been asking to avoid having to do the arc DME and go straight into the final ILS approach, but that has always been denied. I guess that, coming from waypoint Ameru, you are too close to the airport. If you are coming from another waypoint they might give you a slightly easier way to enter the approach.

Tikal airport is nice. Keep in mind that there is no taxiway and the FBO, or at least the handler and the terminal, are located at the approach end of Runway 10.

If you have time during the approach and things are not too busy, take a look at Lago Petén Itzá below. You’ll be following to the south the shoreline of the lake, and in the middle of the lake is the town called Flores. It was built by the Mayans many years ago. When the Spaniards came they built a church on top of the Mayan temple. The Guatemalans resemble the Mayans before the Spaniards arrived, as you’ll see if you visit Flores.

The reason we go to Flores is to visit the Tikal site. Tikal is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the airport. Close by the airport there are a couple of very decent resorts, one of them called La Lancha and belonging to Francis Ford Coppola family (866-356-5881; https://www.thefamilycoppolaresorts.com/en/la-lancha) and the second one the brand-new Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel (502-7790-0300;
http://www.laslagunashotel.com). At either you can enjoy very good cuisine and excellent accommodations, and visit the surrounding area.

Why did the tarantula cross the road...

Why did the tarantula cross the road…

It’s nice to organize an early morning visit to the Tikal ruins. The drive before the sunrise is pretty amazing. There are numerous local guides who will make this experience unbelievable.

On our last journey there in the month of December, we were complaining that our driver was going after every pothole in the road. At one point he stopped. We were the only one on the road and had not seen anybody. He backed up and opened his door and with a flashlight showed us a large tarantula that had ventured in the road. He had good eyesight for spotting spiders, but not so good for the potholes.

The parking lot at the Tikal ruins is on a former runway. With the number of tourists increasing, the airport was decommissioned and the one in Flores was reactivated. The Flores airport has always been a military base that shares with commercial traffic.

When we stepped out of the car, it was amazing to hear the howling monkeys in the pitch dark. Our guide confirmed that this sound and noise were recorded by Stephen Spielberg for his movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Next you’re going to go for a walk of about 45 minutes in pitch dark in the jungle with a rather uneven slope going up and down and through the Jaguar Temple to one of the other surrounding pyramids, where wood stairs have been installed. You climb up all the way to the top of the pyramid and settle down and slowly see the change of the sky with the sun rising, and also listen to all the noises of the jungle awakening with the monkeys, the birds, and all kinds of animals. It’s pretty intense, pretty unique, and I highly recommend it.

Modern houses still use Mayan-style thatched roofs

Modern houses still use Mayan-style thatched roofs

After the sun has risen and you’re ready to walk back down the pyramid, it’s time for your guide to take you on a tour and explain why these pyramids were built, what they represent, how the people were living at the time, etc. It’s amazing when you see the construction and how big these things are, that they were totally deserted for unknown reasons. A larger Mayan ruins site like Tikal has been uncovered to the north, and very soon we’ll be able to visit it.

Besides the ruins of Tikal, there are excursions on the lake, cycling, biking, mountain biking, four-wheel-drive adventures, and a must-visit to the town of Flores. Expect to spend about three or four days onsite—two nights and three full days. Enjoy the destination!

Thierry Pouille is the founder of Air Journey (www.airjourney.com), which offers aircraft owners and pilots escorted and concierge tours of destinations around the world.