We got off the tourist bus from Belize City after pulling into what we were told was El Remate, the closest town to Tikal National Park. It wasn’t. It was neither close nor was it El Remate.
The bus hurriedly sped off, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake, blinding us temporarily. We stood there with our bags in hand, in the middle of rural Guatemala, wondering what the fuck we do now.
As if on cue, a rusty red Land Cruiser rumbled down the road and pulled up in front of us. The driver, who I can only describe as a Latino John Wayne, got out, adjusted his cowboy hat and re-tucked his flannelette shirt into his trousers. From behind his oversized aviators and Pablo Escobar moustache he smiled cunningly and pointed one finger at us. “Tikal?”
Before we knew it, we were pinning it along the worst excuse for a road you could get, windows down and listening to a Latino top 40. His name was Pedro, and we were convinced he was part-time county sheriff and part-time local drug don. I asked why we were driving so fast on some roads and slow on others, his reserved reply was simply “Bandits.” Our hearts were racing.
We engaged in some more superficial Spanish and as soon as he realised we hadn’t pre-planned a tour guide for Tikal, he was on his phone calling ahead to the next village. We pulled up to the park gate and a short, plump mid-30’s Guatemalan jumped in.
Enter José, an ‘accredited’ tour guide for Tikal and a proficient speaker of English. It was nice to get some clarification on exactly what was going on.
We were in northern Guatemala, Central America, not too far from Mexico’s south eastern border. Tikal National Park is where you’ll find thousand-year-old Mayan ruins, relatively unfamiliar to the rest of the world. In comparison to Machu Pichu and the Egyptian pyramids, Tikal doesn't receive a fraction of the number of visitors, yet its historical significance is of almost equal parity. Not having to share it with crowds of Americans in their socks and sandals combo was also a plus, and why we were happy to endure the somewhat inconvenient detour to get to this place. Boy, was it worth it.
We were there for the much-anticipated sunrise tour, which José assured us you couldn’t do without an (again) ‘accredited’ guide. So, we needed some digs to use as a base for the early start, as coming from Flores - the nearest city – so early in the morning was an unattractive option. Tikal’s Jungle Lodge is the most affordable out of those inside the park, with a two-bed room setting us back a little over 45 USD a night. It’s complete with a passably upmarket restaurant and beautifully refreshing pool to escape the equatorial humidity that backs up onto the jungle. One night is all you need in Tikal, short and sweet.
I’m a history nerd, but at the same time, ruins are ruins. In many cases, especially with Mayan ruins, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
At least that’s what I thought.
With time to kill on the eve of our sunrise tour, we went for a wander through the ruins ourselves. What we witnessed absolutely blew us away. For starters, we didn’t see anyone else for the first hour. It was as if we had just discovered this place, swallowed by the jungle, all by ourselves. We climbed and scrambled to the top of temples, explored every doorway and tunnel we could find. Golden hour in all its glory illuminated the temples in a rich bronze hue and I found myself sitting on the top of one, staring in amazement at another just opposite.
You can watch the sunset while in the park, but be wary that officially you can’t be in the ruins after 6pm. On the way out we slipped the shotgun-bearing guards a tenner for a few beers on us, a wise choice in comparison to the $1000 USD fine.
The next morning, we awoke at 3:30 am, doused ourselves in mosquito repellent and changed the batteries in our head torches. José, who had been at an amigo’s party the night before, was clearly still drunk but he made for some good banter. We began hiking through the jungle, our path lit only by our lamps and a half-moon peeking through the trees. Occasionally, José would stop walking and talking mid-sentence. I'd exchange a wide-eyed glance with my buddy Aaron. Neither of us would say anything as he'd scan his torch through the trees either side of us. “Jaguars,” he'd say.
We approached the first temple, absolutely awe-struck by what was towering before us. Not a single person was around. It was deafeningly quiet. The moon cast an ominous silhouette and for a moment we felt like we had travelled back in time.
As we continued, José enlightened us in his whispered voice with stories about what we had naïvely passed the previous evening. The infamous sacrificial altars and amazing architectural acoustics were the standouts. Sunrise neared and we climbed the steps of Temple IV. We found ourselves sitting at its peak jutting out beyond the canopy, 70 metres above the jungle floor.
It was misty, cloudy even. We were disappointed that we couldn’t see anything. Then, as the first sounds of the jungle began to stir, a piercing ray of sunlight broke through the horizon and the clouds lifted. The noises of the animals below us roared louder and louder. We couldn’t hear ourselves talk. A powerful and frightening shrieking noise drowned out all others, a sound which I can only describe as something pre-historic. We later found out it was a howler monkey, but I was still unconvinced.
Even as dawn had well and truly broken, I still found myself standing alone at the base of a temple, gazing in admiration of its majestic structure. There was no one around, I couldn’t get over this. This was the most well-preserved Mayan city in the world and it was ours. Explorers lost it for the most part of the last millennium and only re-discovered it in the mid-1800’s. Even that, however, hasn’t truly granted this place the public attention it deserves.
Although, its isolation and tranquil loneliness deep in the Guatemalan jungle was, in many ways, what made it so incredible. The comparatively harder expedition required to get to it magnified its mysteriousness.
A sunrise tour of the fascinating ruins of Tikal will exceed your every expectation, giving you a newfound perspective on history and an unparalleled appreciation for nature.
If you’re in the region, it's time to grab your man satchel and go full Indiana Jones on this one.