An epic sunrise at Tikal Mayan Ruins, Guatemala
If ever there was a perfect blog post for complete escapism during Coronavirus, it’s this one sharing my experiences at Tikal Guatemala. Watching the sunrise from Mayan ruins hidden deep in the Guatemalan jungle. I felt like I had stepped onto another planet. From the deep, guttural groans and cries of the howler monkeys (seriously, watch my Guatemala stories highlight on Insta to listen). To the panicked squawking of parrots and birds flying across the misty canopy high above the jungle. We emerged in darkness and swirling fog at the top of the 230ft Temple VI to await the sunrise. Only a small crowd make it to Tikal for sunrise. Sitting with the hushed audience behind me, it felt as though I were Queen of the Jungle.
Watching on as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and light started to creep across the trees. Honestly? I thought the sunrise was going to be a write-off. It looked like the sunlight would never pierce the thick fog to light up the gloomy jungle. But as the jungle started to wake up. Most of the crowd left thinking the best bit was over, just minutes before beams of glorious sunshine burst through the clouds. Lighting up the jungle, piercing through the mist until we could make out various other temples in the distance poking through the canopy. Just minutes before I had written off the sunrise in my mind. But it turned out to be one of the best sunrises of my entire life.
What is Tikal Mayan Ruins?
The ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala is one of the most spectacular, and the largest excavated Mayan site on the continent. Dating back to between 600BC and 900AD, the ruins of around two dozen huge pyramids and structures can be found in the rainforest of northern Guatemala. This ancient city is one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Colombian civilisation. Temple VI – the best spot for sunrise, was actually the largest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, population estimates are at around 90,000-100,000 inhabitants, with the most likely figure being at the top end of these numbers. The dynasty who ruled over the site potentially spanned 800 years and 33 rulers in that time. The grounds of the national park span around 575 square kms, with around 16 square kms making up Tikal itself. But interestingly, just 100 years after the site was built, the Maya civilisation collapsed and the structures were left to be reclaimed by the jungle. It wasn’t until 1848 that the lost city of Tikal, Guatemala was rediscovered.
How to get to Tikal, Guatemala?
Located in the Peten region of Guatemala, Tikal is a little out of the way unless you are visiting Flores or travelling overland from Belize. With most people flying into Guatemala City, further south, and the transport between places relying on slow minibus travel, your best option might be to take a domestic flight to Flores. This could also help save you a LOT of time as my bus rides from Flores–Semuc Champey–Guatemala City totalled nearly a whopping 30 hours split over different days. Luckily I had planned in some stops in other epic locations along the way. If you have unlimited time and are backpacking, this journey may not bother you so much. But if you just have a two week holiday, flying will save you a lot of time.
Because of its location, you can only really reach Tikal by shuttle bus or by car and the drive takes around 1 hr 30 from Flores. If you go by shuttle, expect to be on the road for around two hours with pick-ups. I recommend taking a tour if you plan to go for sunrise because it means you can nap on the bus and save your energy for walking around the park.
Why you should visit Tikal Guatemala:
Exploring Tikal is like being lost somewhere between Jurassic Park: The Lost World and an Indiana Jones movie. With structures such as the Temple of the Great Jaguar and The Two-Headed Serpent Temple. It’s easy to believe Harrison Ford will come running through the grounds, or a dinosaur will loom out of the mist. Growing up I was obsessed with these films and it was a real dream come true to get to explore such an epic location. By the time I visited, I had already visited several other Mayan ruins including Chichen Itza, Coba, Cancun and Tulum in Mexico, and Yaxha in Guatemala. Tikal blew me away and was by far my favourite of them all. Why?
Tikal was a breath of fresh air to visit. While it was a bit more expensive because of permits for early entry, it only cost around £50 total per person, this included the bus, tour and entry for both sunrise & day. This was definitely worth paying as it meant gaining access to one of the lesser known Mayan sites. After seeing how crazy busy Chichen Itza and Coba were, it was lovely to be able to walk around and explore without masses of people. It made the experience all the more spectacular and memorable.
Is the sunrise Tikal tour worth it?
The sunrise Tikal tour leaves at 3am from Flores and takes you by minibus to the park. There a guide will take you to Temple VI for sunrise. After sunrise, you will be given a tour of the park by the expert guide who will talk about the history and traditions. Plus the fascinating growth and disappearance of the Mayans. They’ll also talk through the wildlife, the temples and much more as you explore the grounds. You have the option for how long you stay at Tikal, with staggered return times. I stayed from sunrise until around 11am. By this time we had seen all of the temples and it was getting pretty hot to walk around. (Remember: It is in the rainforest so expect high humidity and heat)
I really recommend the sunrise tour. I know some people were a bit less keen on it because of the early wake-up call. But it’s really not a big deal to get up early for one day. Especially if it means a once-in-a-lifetime experience like seeing the sunrise over the Mayan ruins in the rainforest. A very small number of people make it to Tikal for this time. So it means you get a really special experience accessing the park this early. You can escape the crowds and enjoy the park before the real heat of the day hits, and trust me, it gets hot. If a 3am start really isn’t for you. There are also pick-up times at 4am and 6am to reach the park, but you won’t make it for sunrise with these tours.
Booking the sunrise Tikal tour
I actually booked the Tikal Sunrise Tour through my hostel – I was staying at Tikal Backpackers Hostel in Flores and they offered a tour with a guide and travel included. I paid around £50 total – this included transport, a guide, plus my entrance tickets for sunrise and the day. If you book like I did, you will also need to pay a visit to the Banrural which is an office at the nearby shopping centre in Flores. You will need to purchase the entrance ticket for sunrise and the day ticket the day before you plan to visit Tikal. This is because the ticket office at the park will not be open at sunrise. If you book through a travel agent – you may pay a slightly higher rate from my research, but you will get all your tickets included.
Planning a trip to Tikal Mayan Ruins
Okay so you’ve booked your trip, but now what? What do you need to pack and prepare to take with you? It’s important to pack your bag well and to be smart when choosing what to wear – this can have a big impact on how much you enjoy the trip. As I mentioned, the Mayan ruins are in the jungle and are very hot and humid, particularly if you visit on the edge of rainy season like I did. It’s still epic and worthwhile visiting, but you will want to put a touch more thought into what you take with you. Here’s my packing list for the day:
- Snacks – cereal bars, fruit, sandwiches
- Plenty of water! I took over 2 litres and drank it all
- Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, mosquito repellant
- Good walking boots or trainers – make sure these are comfortable because there’s a lot of walking!
- Daypack with camera/tripod
- Wear either shorts or light, breathable trousers
- If you’re there for sunrise, you might want a warm layer (I took a hoodie)
- Waterproof layer – it can get stormy or rainy sometimes
Please note that in the park there is nowhere to buy water/snacks, only a restaurant at the entrance. If you arrive for sunrise, nothing is open other than sometimes a coffee stand at the gate. Be prepared and shop the day before.
Other amazing tours to do while visiting Flores:
Flores is one of my favourite places in the whole of Central America. I loved the beautiful town set on the lake. There was so much to do there – when I visited it was actually their annual festival that happens every January. The streets were filled with music, dance, food and fireworks! This is a great time to visit, but even if you visit another month, there is plenty to keep you entertained. Check out these epic tours to other Mayan ruins nearby:
- El Mirador – 4/5 day hike through jungle to
- Yaxhá – Sunset Tour at Yaxhá National Park & temples you can climb
- Aguateca and Ceibal Archaeological sites
- Helicopter tours – Tikal or El Mirador
How to travel Guatemala without doing it solo:
If travelling solo or backpacking independently isn’t for you, there are plenty of other options. Don’t let it put you off travel if your friends can’t come with you, instead why not book a group trip? It’s a great way to meet new people and not sacrifice adventures. Check out these epic Intrepid Travel tours for some ideas:
- Maya Encounter – 17 day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala trip (Playa del Carmen to Antigua)
- Guatemala & Beyond – 9 day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua
- Central American Adventure – 33 day trip across 7 countries from Mexico to Costa Rica
- Maya Adventure – 22 day trip across Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, starting in Antigua
Have you visited Guatemala? Would you like to explore Mayan ruins in the jungle, or kayak across a lake? Do you prefer group travel or solo travel?