On a long-anticipated international trip, we explored Mayan ruins in Guatemala, saw a Star Wars filming location, and watched the sunset on top of a temple.

It was seven years since our last international holiday. My mom’s illness and death, the pandemic, and then Indy’s failing health kept us close to home. After Indy passed, we were able to get out and explore the world again. We dug out the expired passports and renewed them.

We considered several options for a one-week trip and were leaning toward a return to Belize. I even selected a hotel in San Ignacio. While researching the Mayan ruins, I read about Tikal in Guatemala – a two-hour drive from Belize. The giant ancient city looked really cool. When we realized it was a filming location for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, we had our destination. But a four-hour round-trip drive would be a long day trip, so we wondered if it would be easier to stay in Guatemala. I did some more research and found a wonderful place in Flores, Guatemala – Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel.


The Journey Begins

Unfortunately, the trip got off to a bumpy start. There was frustration when we saw the strict luggage guidelines for the flight to Flores and had to buy small duffle bags (see the Travel Tips section). The taxi to the airport I reserved and confirmed was so late that we gave up calling and drove to LAX.

After a 5-hour overnight flight to Guatemala City, short layover, 1-hour flight to Flores, and 15-minute drive to the hotel, we started easing into relaxation mode. The hotel provided a great kick off: easy airport pickup, ice cold refreshing towel at check in, and delicious frozen welcome mocktail. Then we went to our bungalow and sprawled out on the big comfy bed overlooking the lagoon – ahhh.



Guatemala Itinerary

Due to flight availability and schedules, we only had three full and two partial days in Flores. There are many archeological and natural sites in the area, and it was hard to decide which to see. We booked two sunset tours with the hotel, Tikal and Yaxha, which included a driver, guide, lunch, and beverages. Between the tour days, we relaxed at the hotel and enjoyed the pool. We had to return to Guatemala City the day before our flight home due to the early departure time.


Yaxha, Flores, Petén, Guatemala Tikal, Flores, Petén, Guatemala Flores, Petén, Guatemala


Tikal National Park

Imagine it is the 8th century and you are in central Tikal – the economic and military heart of the Mayan civilization. You are amidst 3,000 buildings surrounded by dense jungle. There are tall temples, ceremonial areas, living quarters, stelae (large stone slabs with carved images and hieroglyphics), and ball courts. Spider and howler monkeys dance through the trees and colorful turkeys wander below. If you venture further, you see more of the great Mayan city throughout the 575 square kilometer area.

Fast forward to the late 9th century – you are in a silent city, abandoned for reasons unknown. As the years pass by, the jungle gradually engulfs the grand city of Tikal.

Today, as you walk through Tikal, you will see incredible excavated temples and ruins. You will also see tall mounds covered with vegetation that look like hills. But on a closer look, you realize they are unexcavated buildings. You wonder what secrets they hold inside.

Only 30% of the structures in Tikal are excavated.

Visiting Tikal

Tikal is approximately 40 minutes north of Flores by car. After entering the park, we drove 20 minutes on well-paved roads to reach the parking area. Before setting off to explore, we had a yummy lunch at the restaurant.

Over the next few hours, we walked a lot (a lot) in the shade of the jungle to view the plazas, temples, acropolis, and stelae.

Map of Tikal National Park

We were excited to reach Temple IV, the filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars – A New Hope, and the highest temple in Tikal. We took our time to climb the steep wood staircase to the top of the 213-foot-tall structure. The incredible view was well worth the effort. Michael pulled out a toy Millennium Falcon and took some silly photos.

Yavin 4 filming location for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope

Yavin 4 filming location for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Tikal Temple IV view

Wait, what’s that?

Part of the staircase to Temple VI


As we explored Tikal, our guide Sergio explained the urban planning, water systems, food storage, native flora, and more. He made sure to keep us on track to reach Temple I in time for sunset.

Tikal temple

Tikal temple

Tikal building

Tikal unexcavated temple

Tikal building

Tikal temple construction

We climbed the staircase to Temple I and settled in. Just before the sun began to set a guide asked everyone to be silent and enjoy the sounds of the jungle. After the sun set, it was time to make our way to the exit. The sky became pitch black (there are no lights in the park) and Sergio mentioned that the jaguars come out at night (eeek). I was grateful Michael brought his powerful scuba diving flashlight to illuminate the path.



Yaxha Nakum Naranjo National Park

Yaxha, which means green water, was a large city on the bank of Lake Peten with over 350 buildings. It was a little more effort to reach Yaxha. We drove northeast of Flores on paved roads for one hour and then turned on a very bumpy dirt road for the final 11 kilometers. First, we had a picnic box lunch from the hotel (hearty sandwiches and fresh apple pie) and then the exploration began.

Yaxha map

Yaxha jungle

We walked on the original Mayan roads through shaded jungle to see the excavated temples, gathering complexes, acropolis, palace ball game court, and stelae. Along the way we spotted monkeys, turkeys, and colorful butterflies. Our guide Erik told us about the architecture and history, including how the Mayans tracked the seasons. There were several opportunities to climb smaller buildings and temples.

Yaxha temple

Yaxha temple

Yaxha Mayan road

Yaxha ball court

Yaxha building

Yaxha building

Yaxha stela

Before sunset, we walked up a staircase to the Temple of the Red Hands and joined other visitors in silence to say goodbye to the sun. Then we walked the ancient Mayan road back to the car with Michael’s flashlight lighting the way.

Yaxha temple of the red hands

Yaxha temple of the red hands compass

Yaxha temple of the red hands

Yaxha sunset over Lake Peten


Where We Stayed

Flores: Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel
Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel was the perfect home base to visit the Mayan ruins in Guatemala. The overwater bungalow has the ideal mix of modern comforts and connection to nature. In the evening, graceful white herons flew over the lagoon to their nesting place. At night, the lagoon was pitch black and still. All we could hear was the rippling water, trees rustling in the breeze, and distant calls of howler monkeys. And, how cool was it to have a museum filled with incredible Mayan artifacts right there at the hotel!

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel bungalow 1

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel pool

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel museum

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel museum

Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel museum


Guatemala City: Westin Camino Real
We spent the final night at the Westin Camino Real near the airport. We had to get up super early for the flight home, so there wasn’t time to check out the hotel, which was a bummer. We ordered dinner in the room, and it was very tasty. If we plan a future trip to Guatemala, it will include at least one full day in Guatemala City to explore the city and enjoy the hotel.

Westin Camino Real

Westin Camino Real Guatemala


Tikal & Yaxha Travel Tips

If you are planning a trip to Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins, here are some tips based on our experiences.

Things to Bring

  • Comfortable walking shoes – you will do a lot of walking, especially in Tikal.
  • Mosquito repellent – the buggers started to bite the second we exited the car, but the repellent was very effective.
  • Lots of water to stay hydrated in the warm jungle.

If you plan to be at the park after dark, bring a flashlight. There are no lights outside nor in the restrooms.

We brought hats, but they weren’t necessary most of the time because there was a lot of natural shade in the jungle.

Flights to & From Flores
We booked tickets on Tag Airlines. There were three price options – we picked Plus, which included one carry on (ten pounds) and two checked bags per person. The Eticket and website outline very strict weight and size limits for carry on and checked baggage. The maximum size dimensions for checked bags are smaller than most standard carry-on roller bags.

We didn’t want to take a risk with the checked luggage, so we bought four small duffle bags, which were a pain to lug around. For the carry-ons, we took a chance and brought soft bags that were a few inches larger than the guideline. Michael also brought a second carry on with his Cpap machine. So, what happened…?

Tag Airlines plane

Tag airlines plane interior

On both flights, they weighed the checked bags but did not look at the dimensions of any bags, nor weigh the carry on bags, nor say anything about Michael’s second carry on. Our carry on bags fit in the overhead and under seat with room to spare. We saw many checked suitcases that far exceeded the maximum size dimensions – sigh.