Tikal-Must-See. The thick jungle canopy ate all light. Moments ago I sat atop Temple IV bathed in twilight. I was the only person left at the top of the limestone temple. My new Sony camera was perched on top of my tripod grabbing the last moments of light. A stubbly security guard graced with a shotgun appeared from the side of the temple. In Spanish, he enquired if I was alone or with my guide. I affirmed I was by myself and he scrunched up his eyes in surprise. He let out a friendly vamanos. I packed up my kit and sped down the extensive wooden staircase.
The view from Temple V at sunset
Two hundred thirty feet later and I was bathed in darkness. I switch on my head lamp and the light seemed to dissipate within feet. I realized at that moment that I was going to have a challenging walk back to my hotel. I was staying at the Tikal Inn which was near the entrance but this still meant I had a 50 minute walk through the Tikal National Park.
Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city lost in the rainforest of north east Guatemala. Tikal dates back to the 4th century and the Mayan society reached its apogee from 200-900 AD. It is estimated that 90,000 Mayans called Tikal their home. The Mayan society abandoned Tikal in the 10th century and the jungle encroached over this city over the centuries. Ambrosio Tut, a gum-sapper, rediscovered the ruins and a local newspaper reported his account. This spurred explorers to investigate this lost society further.
I began my walk home, and I heard the security guard yelp out something in Spanish. I spied his faint flashlight and walked back to him. After some gesticulations and instructions in Spanish, I deduced this compact guard was going to be escorting me back to my hotel. I was thankful. We began our mostly silent walk. I was still surprised when there was a break in the canopy I caught the last glimpses of light. And then a moment later, I was caught in coal-colored darkness. After forty minutes, my new friend, Samvel, the guard deposited me at the gate. I peered up at the star filled skies. There was no sky pollution here. Ten minutes later and I was back at my hotel.
The next day I was up at 3:30 am to witness the sunrise from Temple IV. This was the second day I had woke at this ungodly hour. After traipsing nearly an hour I was back on the rood of Tikal in deep darkness waiting for light.
Prior to arriving to the top of Temple IV, I stopped at the Grand Plaza. I set up my camera on the Acropolis Norte overlooking two magnificent temples, Templo De Las Mascaras (Temple II) and Templo Del Gran Jaguar (Temple I). The stars glimmered and dazzled, my neck was angled to the sky taking in the heavens. I was alone. The only one who had this view. I was fortunate to have this special experience. After some time, I proceeded once again for my third time to Temple IV.
Unfortunately, for my second sunrise I was met with poor luck. Being on the top of Temple IV was as if I had entered another environment. Minutes before I was in the plaza, admiring a halcyonian sky, able to count each individual star. At the summit of Temple IV mist dripped down from the skies and as light creeped in my visibility was limited several dozen yards of grey mist. Deep guttural growls echoed throughout the tree tops. This was the sound of the Howler monkeys considered to be the loudest land animal which can be heard from over three miles away.
Temple IV has also had its 15 minutes of fame as it was featured in Star Wars, Episode IV. Check out this clip, and you can imagine the Millennium Falcon speeding over the verdant jungle.
Where to stay: Tikal is located about an hour’s drive from Flores, which has an airport. Some people use Flores as a home base to do a day trip to Tikal. It is easy to hop in a day tour from Flores. Two hotels and a camp ground are located at the gate of Tikal National Park which is a ten minute walk to the gate.
Facilities: Outside of the park are several eating options. There are also a number of local vendors where you can buy drinks or snacks. The two hotels also have restaurants. Prices are a bit elevated outside of the park.
Hours: The park’s hours are from 6 am to 6 pm. When they say 6 pm, plan on being at the exit at 6 pm or you get lost in the Park. There is also the option to take a sunrise tour where you will enter the park around 4 am for a cost of $18 plus an additional 100 Quetzal. You will arrive on Temple IV in pitch darkness to await the sunrise. There of course is no guarantee that the weather will agree. I recommend you use Little Caesars Travels for tours of Tikal. Caesar speaks great English and knows his photography. Check him out.
Cost: For foreigners the cost of a ticket is 150 Quetzal. This allows you multi-entry into the park from 6 am to 6 pm. If you buy your ticket after 3:30 pm it will be effective for the following day.
Supplies: If you are planning on viewing sunrise or sunset it is imperative to bring a strong flashlight. Wear comfortable, supportive sneakers or boots. Don’t be surprised if you walk 20,000 paces. The park is expansive. Consider bringing snacks and water. There are sparse options within the park.
Map: Buy a map for the park at the visitor center for 20 Quetzal. The signage in the park is not good. Tikal-must-see