Petén: The Guatemalan North

As anyone coming to Guatemala is painfully aware of, if you miss the ruins at Tikal, you might as well not come at all. As the number one tourist attraction in the country, this jungle encrusted ancient city of the Maya is truly worth a visit. Just about everybody you meet on the road is either coming from or heading towards Tikal, and once you see for yourself, you’ll know why. The hype is for real. You must go.

What To Do

Obviously you’re here to see the ruins at Tikal. Anything else is gravy. The fee to enter the park is Q50 ($6) per day, payable at the guard’s gate just south of the main entrance. Your mini-van will automatically stop here on the way in to the drop-off point.

The guards will give you a map of the grounds, as well as some historical and archaeological reading material about Tikal. There are also numerous books and articles available to prepare you for the area before you get there. I won’t try to rival those materials here. I recommend doing a bit of reading beforehand. Spend more time climbing and exploring when you’re actually at the site.

While you’re here it is mandatory for you to experience either a sunrise or sunset from the top of one of the many pyramids. Try to do both.

The best place to watch the sunrise, even though you’ll see nothing of the sun, is from the top of Temple Four (Templo IV). The reason to wake yourself at an ungodly hour and freeze up there is not to watch the sky light up, but to experience the real jungle. The sunrise is almost always obscured by clouds that don’t burn off until around 9am or so, but the sound of the toucans and monkeys all around makes it an adventure. There is constant commotion and movement in the trees and in the skies, the animals not yet subdued by human presence. The white fluffy blanket over the canopy makes you feel as if you are on top of a floating palace, like Zeus over his kingdom.

The sunset is best viewed from the top of the area known as Mundo Perdido, or the “Lost World.” The howler monkeys swing and scream all around, and you’ll see hundreds of bats start to take flight and munch on mosquitoes. It’s an awesome time. Just remember to bring a flashlight for the return trip out of the ruins.

Make sure to check when the sun will rise and set so you can leave yourself enough time to make the 20 minute trip from the entrance to the top of your pyramid of choice. Bring a blanket and water, as the sun doesn’t really make an appearance to warm up the air until mid-morning. Although you may have a few other travelers up there with you, it will only be people as resourceful and interested in the experience as you. Generally though, the sun rise offers more solitude than the sun set. Enjoy!

Other than exploring the many different areas and clusters of excavated ruins, make sure not to miss the caves located between Temple One and Temple Two. I was surprised that many people missed this area, as it is a really crucial part of the Tikal experience. Easy to miss, the entrance can be found under a straw covering at the base of the North Acropolis area. The entrance is unguarded and unregulated, and there are no maps. You’ll need a flashlight because after the first turn, you’ll be plunged into pure darkness. It’s just creepy enough that you’ll probably want someone watching your back and not recommended for claustrophobics.