My alarm clock went off at 2:30am. I quietly grabbed my day pack (packed the night before because I didn’t want to wake up my fellow dormies – so proud of myself) but somehow managed to kick my water bottle under the bed (which meant I had to re-arrange furniture, AT 2 IN THE MORNING! Sorry dormies!) After failing to slip out of my hostel dorm quietly, I found myself on the empty streets of Flores to wait for my shuttle. It was a 1.5 hour ride to Tikal National Forest and my attempt to get some sleep was foiled by lack of headrest and the bumpy road.
At the entrance to Tikal National Park we exchanged our tickets for bracelets. Our guide explained that it’d be a 35 minutes walk to get to Temple IV. From there we’d climb a platform to watch the sun rises over the jungle canopy, beneath of which, lies one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Central America. My night vision hasn’t fully recovered from Lasik surgery so I stumbled over exposed roots and rocks, trying to keep up with the group on the brisk 35 minute hike.
When our group of 8 finally got to the platform, there was only about 8 other people. A relatively small group of sunrise worshippers. After some hushed “Hello, how are you”s we settled in quietly to watch, and more importantly, listen to, the spectacle. One of the things that drew me to watching sunrise at Tikal, the thing that made me willing to wake up at some ungodly hour, is to experience the jungle waking up.
Tikal Sunrise Over the Jungle
As the sun slowly creeps over the horizon, the jungle was getting more and more raucous. Black howler monkeys’ other-worldly roars dominated the canopy (fun fact: their ‘howls’ are used to create the T-Rex sound-effect in Jurassic Park). There were also other unidentifiable screeches, titters, and squawks. Who knew that a jungle sunrise can cause such a commotion? It was eerie and beautiful, and it gave me goosebumps.
Guys, it was simply magical (and I don’t use this world lightly)
Later on people said how lucky I was. The morning weather in Tikal is unpredictable. It can be misty, or cloudy, or both and apparently most groups before us in the past week didn’t even get to see the sunrise over Tikal at all.
As for Tikal itself
How much I enjoy visiting ruins, however impressive they are, depends a lot on my guide’s ability to bring them to life. Unfortunately the guide assigned to our group wasn’t the best guide I’ve ever had. Thankfully I’d done my homework.
My appreciation of Tikal came from reading books such as:
Maya Civilization: A Captivating Guide to Maya History and Maya Mythology – short (85 pages) and easily digestible, this is a good intro to the Mayans and their way of life.
Daily Life in Maya Civilization – a thorough description of how religion, politics, and science played a role in Mayan society’s daily life, accompanied with lots of pictures (yay!)
The Lost City of the Monkey God – this book is single handedly responsible for getting my ass to Tikal (I almost skipped it to visit Semuc Champey instead). An eye-witness account of real-life expedition to find a lost ruin in the jungle of Honduras that has everything: poisonous snake, dangerous jungles, mysterious ruins, and a strange disease that members of the expedition had to deal with. Even though the expedition was in Honduras, one can easily imagine the same environment that Tikal occupants had to deal with.
Should you see sunset or sunrise at Tikal?
Many visitors agonize over whether to see sunrise or sunset at Tikal. In theory, you can see both but that requires staying the night in one of the few lodging options in Tikal. In retrospect, I’m glad I stayed in Flores. There’s quite literally nothing to do in Tikal besides seeing the ruins.
Anyway, seeing either Tikal sunrise or sunset will cost 100Q on top of 150Q entrance fee. To see sunrise, you’ll have to take a 3am shuttle. For sunset, 12pm shuttle.
I decided to go for the sunrise experience in Tikal for these reasons:
1. More than just seeing the sunrise, I wanted to experience the jungle as well. The jungle wakes up louder than it goes to sleep and hearing the cacophony of wildlife in Tikal National Park became the highlight of the visit, more so than seeing the ruins itself.
2. You get to explore the Tikal ruins in the morning when it’s cooler and there’s less crowds. Tikal gets really hot and humid very quickly. To see sunset (from Flores), you’ll need to get on the 12pm shuttle which will get you to the park at 1:30pm – the hottest time of the day.
The cons of seeing sunrise at Tikal:
1. The lighting isn’t the most ideal. Since the platform of Temple IV faces east, you’ll be facing the sun as it rises. I think afternoon light would look better for photography.
2. The morning weather is often not ideal and you might not see the sun at all. Plus it can be misty.
3. Did I mention that 2:30am wake up call?
Tikal sunrise tips:
1. Bring headlamp or light source (they will not provide any).
2. Bring layers (it’s cool when you start out, and it gets hot and humid fast after the sun rises).
3. Be quiet at the platform. Nothing is so important to talk about that it can’t wait 30 minutes.
4. Good footwear and sunscreen.
5. Bring water and food. The options at the park are dismal and limited. Los Amigos hostel provides lunch pack that you can order the day before.
6. Travel agencies will charge 100Q for transport and guide. A guide is required to enter the park before its opening hours (which what you’ll do to see sunrise).
7. IMPORTANT! Bring a strong bug spray (for the love of god, don’t forget the bug spray!). I used this DEET-Free repellant.
7. IMPORTANT! Since nothing will be open when you get there You need to buy your entrance ticket + sunrise ticket at least the day before. You can buy entrance ticket to Tikal at ANY Banrural in Guatemala. I bought mine in San Pedro Atitlan. There’s a Banrural in a shopping mall Santa Elena just across the bridge from Flores. You will get 2 receipts which will then be exchanged for entrance bracelets.
I visited Tikal on a 10-day trip to Guatemala, a country that I ended up enjoying so much I’m already planning a return visit.
Visiting Tikal from Flores
Tikal as a day trip from Guatemala City? If you arrive on an overnight bus from GC, you can visit Tikal on the same day by going on a regular or a sunset tour.
7am: Arrival in Flores
12pm: Leave for Tikal
7pm: Back in Flores
9pm: Flores to Guatemala City (your travel agency can then arrange a connecting shuttle to Antigua)
So in theory, it’s possible.
Visiting Tikal from Flores. Flores is full of travel agencies having similar offers and any one of them can arrange a visit to Tikal. Transport to Tikal costs abaout 70Q-80Q without a guide, and 100Q with guide. I arrange my tour from Los Amigos Hostel in Flores.
Total costs of Sunrise at Tikal: 150Q (entrance fee) + 100Q (sunrise fee) + 100Q (transport + guide) = 350Q.
Accommodation in Flores I highly recommend Los Amigos, one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in Guatemala. It might look like a party hostel, and it is, but they move the party over at 9:30pm to their sound-proof lounge away from the sleeping quarters.