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Exploring Mayan Supercities – Tikal

Tikal

Tikal is a name that springs to everybodies lips when you ask what’s on their agenda in Guatemala. Along with Semuc Champey, Antigua, and Lake Atitlan, it forms part of the Gringo Trail, and its easy to see why.

Pretty big temples

Tikal National Park covers one of the largest Mayan cities to ever exist. Protected since 1990, it also includes a lot of the surrounding jungle, which in some areas has enclosed the temples. At one point it had a population of up to 90000, massive at that time. Some evidence suggests it may have been responsible for founding Copan in Honduras. Likewise it may even have had dealings with Teotihuacan near Mexico City, a long way away. Depending on how much you want to see, it could take days to see all of it. Don’t believe me? The park covers 575 square kilometers of jungle – that’s a lot of walking. For example, we spent a couple of hours exploring, saw plenty of temples, and were pretty happy with it. That walk, which covers what most tourists see as a group tour, is a maximum of 16 square kilometers.

How To Get There

If you’ve been to Tikal, or Flores, or even only passed through Guatemala, you’ve likely heard people mention Los Amigos Hostel. Its pretty much THE place to stay in Flores, and it deserves the reputation. Its got comfy beds, a super nice chillout area, restaurant, and bar. The bar is actually soundproofed away by itself, so if you aren’t in the mood to party sleeping is still easy.

The other bonus? They have their own travel agent desk located in the hostel, and are super helpful with organising any of the tours that interest you. For Tikal, you had the option of Sunrise Tour, Day Tour, or Sunset Tour.

Watching the sunset from Mayan temples across the jungle? Sign us up!

This post has some great ideas for things to do in Flores.

Exploring Tikal

After about an hour in the minibus, we arrived at the National Park. The guide informed us we had to get out and pay for our tickets (one for normal entrance, one for staying for sunset) then it was back on the bus for another half an hour.

Tip: Don’t forget to bring your passport, its required to register at the entrance when buying tickets. Luckily we had a photo of ours, so it worked out. The cashier accepts cards, but signal in the jungle is spotty at best. Like most places in Central America, cash is king.

Once we arrived at the visitors center, it was time to go exploring.

Tikal Centre Map

Right from the start, our animal sightings had us awestruck. Ocellated turkeys, white-nosed coati  … and wait a second are those howler monkeys? Hanging out in the trees over our heads, the guides attempted to get them to howl with some, ahem, approximate imitations.

Howler Monkey

We started our temple visiting with Templo VI and the Palacio de los Acanalduras (Palace of the Vertical Columns). With no-one else in sight, it was pretty spectacular. After pointing out toucans, spiders, flying grasshoppers, and the sacred ceiba trees, it was on to the next few stops.

Templo V and el Mundo Perdido were up next, complete with the Great Pyramid in the middle. It was awesome following the guide along little jungle paths to find our way there. He knew where we were going, but we soon lost any idea of direction. As a result, finding ourselves walking into the central plaza came as a nice surprise. With the huge Templo de Gran Jaguar and Templo de los Inscripciones looming over it, it’s very impressive. Coupled with the Acropolis Norte and Acropolis Central on each side, you’re pretty overwhelmed with exploring options.

Sunset

After what felt like an hour exploring (but probably much shorter), we reunited with the guide as the sunlight started to turn a little bit golden as the evening went on. We made a quick trip to the top of Templo III, where we saw some spider monkeys chilling out, then it was on to the final stop.

Ascending to the top of the Grand Pyramid, we chilled out on the platform, everyone wanting to get a good spot. We were a bit hasty though, and the actual sunset was a bit of a non-event. We actually got nicer pictures in the opposite direction with the temples poking out of the jungle. It’s the downside of visiting Guatemala in the off season I guess!

Are We Lost?

With the sun disappeared, the jungle soon took on an ominous spooky look. It wasn’t long before we needed to switch on our torches to make our way along the path. In the dark, all the other forms of wildlife came out, and we saw loads of frogs, toads, and spiders. Lucky we had the torches to avoid bumping in to anything in the dark.

On the way out, we stopped at Completo R, which consists of three small pyramids, Like others in the park, they had previously been covered over with earth during the passage of time, but have now been uncovered and restored. Climbing to the top, we switched off our torches …. and all the stars came into view. Talk about a beautiful sight. Unfortunately our amateur photography didn’t manage to do the view justice, so we’ll have to let your imaginations run away with this one.

Other Options

While we went for the sunset option as it suited us better, there are some other options to keep in mind when visiting Tikal.

Sunrise: A pretty popular option with a lot of people. Apparently watching Mayan pyramids appear out of the mist is super cool – who would have thought. So the only downside is the early wake up call. Sometimes its hit and miss, with the mist being too heavy in the jungle, so we chose the sunset instead.

DIY: Another popular option is to organise the whole thing yourself. Public transport there, find your own way around the park, and even stay at one of the nearby hotels if you want. Due to the uncertainty finding our way there, and not wanting to end up lost in the park, the organised tour was better fit for us.

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