Tikal National Park is a gateway to another time. The ruins of an ancient city are located in the middle of the jungle, which grew up around the ruins since the city was abandoned in the 8th Century. Today only a small amount of the ancient city is visible – most of it is still covered with dirt and trees and rainforest. Visiting Tikal was amazing. It’s a long way away in the middle of nowhere, but once you step out into the jungle it’s all worth it.
It’s possible to stay overnight at Tikal National Park, but most visitors stay in Flores and catch a shuttle to the park – about an hour drive away. Flores is a great home base – the town is on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Peten, accessible by boat or a long narrow bridge connected to the mainland. We had a bit of a mishap with our hostel – don’t stay at Chalthuna Hostal in San Miguel! They jerked us around for hours without giving us our room and then were completely unwilling to help when we wanted to leave. But otherwise, Flores is fantastic. I would definitely recommend staying on the island. We eventually ended up at a great little hotel with a view of San Miguel and air conditioning!
We chose to do the sunrise tour so that we could watch the sunrise from the tallest pyramid at Tikal, which meant leaving at 3am from Flores. As you can see from the picture, our sunrise tour didn’t exactly turn out as planned – it was so foggy that there was not a lot to see. That said, it was absolutely worth the early morning. You arrive at the park in the middle of the night in a small group of about 30 – they don’t let any more people in before the park opens at 6am. With two guides we got to walk through the jungle in order to get to the biggest temple in time for the sunrise. It was absolutely pitch black but you could hear the sounds of the jungle waking up, from birds to frogs and rain drops. It was tough not to trip on branches or anything walking through the dark.
At one point we started hearing howler monkeys and if I hadn’t already heard them on Youtube I would have been totally freaked out – they sound like monsters! It’s pretty terrifying in the pitch black hearing monsters overhead, but very cool. We stopped once we got to the main temple complex, and in the moonlight you could see the massive temples all around you. Tikal has a few different monkeys. Obviously there’s the howler monkeys which you’ll hear but not necessarily see. The brown monkeys in the photo were all over the place and pretty easy to spot in the trees.
A lot of the smaller temples are grouped all together and they’re in tact enough that you can climb them. I’m used to visiting ruins in more established tourist destinations where everything is roped off, but in Tikal you can climb on almost anything as long as you’re careful. It’s very cool to get to explore the ruins so close up. That said, Tikal is a UNESCO heritage site, and there’s certain rules surrounding how they excavate the ruins that are still not uncovered. They’re not allowed to use any machinery; everything must be done by hand using traditional tools, which makes the whole process very slow and expensive.
Working through the ruins, we made it back to the temple complex where we had initially stopped in the dark earlier that morning. The main main temple complex is massive and impressive. You can climb either of the giant pyramids that face each other as well as the smaller ones off to the side. We were both exhausted and suffering from a bit of heat stroke so we appreciated the sights from the ground, but it was beautiful.
Tikal was a long way away but it was absolutely worth it. Walking through the jungle before the sun came up is an experience I’ll never forget. I’m also happy to have gone when I did – Guatemala is going to get more and more touristy and it was very special to see Tikal pretty much empty.