We made our way through the narrow jungle passes between the dense jungle vegetation. It was 6am, pitch black, and our path was only lit by the thin beams emanating from our low powered head torches or iPhone screens.
The atmosphere was oppressive. Even at this time of the morning the air was humid and thick enough that you could feel the weight of every breath and sweat was already soaking through my T-shirt, dripping over my eyebrows. The early hour didn’t mean it was peaceful – a cacophony of jungle sounds was ringing out all around us; the scratching of crickets, frogs croaking and crashing over the top of this soundscape was the deep, guttural calls of howler monkeys.
John Lloyd Stephens described the howler monkeys he found at Pre-colombian sites as “grave and solemn, almost emotionally wounded, as if officiating as the guardians of consecrated ground” but to the Mayans they were often seen as gods, worshipped for their role in the creation myth and often depicted in carvings on temples. I found them to be anything but solemn as they rustled the tree tops above us and shrieked with their calls that can be heard up to 2 miles away.
I had to reluctantly set my alarm for 4am to come to Tikal to see the sun rise from the top of the famous Temple IV. After spending the previous day travelling, it was the last thing I needed but it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I slept through the majority of our hour long ride to the site to be woken up with a strong coffee at the entrance gates and begin our trek through the dark jungle.
As the trees around us began to thin out, the shadows of giant stone structures formed in from of us. We were suddenly stood in the centre of The Great Plaza, flanked by ancient pyramids on all sides. Through the darkness it was just about possible to make out their colossal silhouettes rising up in to the starry sky. Our guide stopped us, gestured for us to be quiet and then suddenly, with one powerful swing of his arms, clapped loudly. The sound reverberated off the temples around us and echoed for what felt like an age in a pitch that no longer sounded like a clap but of a bird squawking. Our guide explained that this was an intentional design by the Mayans and that the sound of his clap was supposed to mirror the call of the Guatemalan national bird, the Quetzal (which it does) although I’m sceptical about how intentional this was. I can only imagine how those planning meetings went; “I’m sorry ruler, but you want the temples to do what when you clap your hands?” It must have been a frustrating life if you were a Mayan architect.
Tikal is thought to have existed since the 4th century BC and reached it’s peak as the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms in 200 to 900 AD. Eventually the Mayan collapse took it’s toll on the city. It was conquered by Teotihuacan in the 7th century and gradually declined as it’s population left, forced out by the Mayan’s infighting and the sites environmental decline. The city wasn’t rediscovered by the Guatemalan government until 1848 when a team was sent to begin archaeological digs and restore the ancient structures.
Nowadays only 10% of the 57,600 hectare site has been uncovered. Hidden beneath those jungle canopies are countless other buildings waiting to be discovered. It adds to the sense of adventure to know that there could be hidden ruins at every turn. However, what has been discovered is impressive enough – The site is scattered with huge temples (the 5 most impressive are the imaginatively named Temples I – V), houses, altars and plazas.
Of those 5 temples it is Temple IV that is the most well known. It is the tallest of the structures and it is from it’s peak that you are able to watch the sunrise over the dense jungle with the ruins of the other structures protruding through the canopy. If you have seen Star Wars you will recognise the view as that of Yavin 4 in A New Hope.
We clambered up the steps of Temple IV in darkness, sweating due to both the strenuous climb and the humidity but eventually we were at the top with the jungle stretching out below us for miles. The lack of light still masked the temples and famous view so we sat in silence waiting for the light to come and listening to the howls of the monkeys reverberating around the site. Have you ever sat in complete silence with a large group of people for an hour, just waiting? I found it a little excruciating. I can’t have been the only person that wanted to talk or yell out to break the peace but it seems that making noise of any kind is frowned upon during sunrises as if it the sun is petrified of any sudden commotion and will refuse to appear if it so much as hears a pin drop.
As the light began to appear it became clear that we weren’t going to get the spectacular sunrise that we had hoped for. A shroud of mist was clinging to the jungle canopy and clouds masked the actual sun rise. The tops of temples I and II slowly appeared from the mist, continously appearing and then vanishing again, and although it wasn’t bathed in the orange hues of day break, the view was spectacular nonetheless.
I was fretful that my waking up early had been for nothing but walking around the site it became clear that arriving before Tikal actually opens was worth it just for the fact hardly any other people were around. We had the site to ourselves. My experience of Teotihuacan was marred by the crowds and constant hassle from souvenir vendors but the relative emptiness of Tikal made it feel like we were in a lost world, the only intrepid adventurers willing to wander the jungle and discover this Mayan marvel.
We wandered with our guide around the remainder of the uncovered areas starting in the stunning central plaza and making our way through the smaller pyramids that, although small in comparison to the 4 main temples, would be impressive and imposing when placed anywhere else. We learnt about how the Mayans would play an ancient variation of football with the winning team being rewarded by having themselves sacrificed (i’m not sure how that is an incentive to win) and of how the pyramids are all carefully mapped out to be in set positions relating to the lunar calendar and constellations. Maybe the Mayan architects were on to something after all.
It is possible to scale some of the pyramids, although on one we were only allowed to venture as far as the 5th step after one unfortunate tourist fell from higher up and died. How the 5th step is safer than the 6th or 7th I will never know.
After surviving my ascent to the 5th step I spent hours just ambling around, in awe of these structures that were built in a time without even the simple technology of wheels. It is hard not to admire the sheer scale of this ancient city and the ambition of it’s rulers.
I don’t seem to have the best of luck when it comes to trying to catch spectacular sunrises. More often than not, although the sun in guaranteed to show itself, It doesn’t usually result in the beautiful, golden vista I’m hoping for. However, even without this I am glad that I chose to wrestle myself from my bed to arrive early at Tikal. The lack of crowds added to the experience and the site itself is by far the most impressive I visited in Central America. Even it’s smallest limestone structure or carving is awe inspiring making Tikal a must for any visitor to Guatemala.
The site officially opens at 6am and closes at 5pm with entry tickets costing Q150. If you purchase a ticket after 4pm, it is valid for the next day too.
If you want to arrive before opening or stay after the site closes, you will have to buy an additional ticket for Q100 and be accompanied by a guide.
The majority of visitors to Tikal base themselves in the nearby town of Flores (see my guide here) and there are myriad agencies and hostels there that will help you book a tour – Generally expect to pay an additional Q100 per person for a guide and transport from Flores.
Tips & Advice
Do not book the first tour you come across in Flores – It is always best to shop around and haggle for the best price.
Someone known locally in Flores as Scarface due to the prominent scar across, you guessed it, his face, has been known to sell fake or overpriced tickets to unsuspecting tourists. He often hops aboard in coming tour busses to try and peddle his tours. Avoid at all costs.
Take plenty or water with you as temperatures can get high and there is a lot of walking involved. There are some places on site to buy refreshments but these are few and far between.
Wear sensible shoes as there is a lot of walking and climbing up steps involved.
Ensure you bring plenty of sunscreen and mosquito spray. Although you spend a lot of time in the shade of trees, there is also some open spaces and the sun is pretty strong.
Have you been to Tikal? Did you see the amazing sunrise or sunset? What is the best place you have ever watched a sunrise? Let me know in the comments below.
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