Howler monkeys roaring through the trees echoing like spirits lost in the jungle. Mist swirling through the lost city as the light grows and illuminates the tops of distant pyramids OR Golden light illuminating the main plaza, the sky turning dusty shades of pink and orange. Watching the first stars coming out over an ancient city as sounds of wild animals coming home for the night boom in the distance. Being at Tikal for sunrise or sunset is a unique experience that the tour companies charge a premium for, so which one is better?
We’d already seen sooooo many ruins throughout south and central America and were almost at our limit, so we needed to find a way to mix it up. The city of Tikal in Guatemala dates back to before the 4th century BC and during the classic period 200-700AD was one of the most powerful cities in the Mayan world. It features the tallest of all the Mayan pyramids and is surrounded by deep jungle. It sounded so breathtaking I wasn’t prepared to miss it, so when I heard you could camp near the ruins to be there for dusk and dawn I knew we had our hook! The tour companies in Tikal charge an extra fee for their sunset tour and even more for the sunrise tour so here is how we managed to see both without paying anything other than our entrance for one day.
Tickets: How did we get away with only paying for one day? If you enter the national park after 3pm they will give you a ticket that is valid for the next day as well, so you only have to pay one ticket price of 150Q.
Getting to Tikal: If you are coming from Flores and you would like to stay at the park to see sunset and sunrise you need to understand that the last shuttle for the day leaves Flores at 12pm, we couldn’t find any option for local transport so this was it. The shuttle cost 70Q pp return but because it arrives at the gate at 1pm they made us wait there until 3pm to get the two day ticket, then hitch a ride with the workers bus to the archeological park entrance for another 20Q pp. Luckily there is a restaurant and a little shop at the first gate, so the time passed pretty quick.
Camping in the park: While you can’t actually camp past that second ticket booth which is on the grounds of the archeological site itself, there are a couple of hotels near this entrance as well a campsite. At the campsite they have hammocks they will put up for you with mosquito nets which seemed pretty good. Unfortunately during our visit they had no water in their bathrooms which was a deal breaker for me, so we went to the Jaguar Inn hotel to ask about their tents. The tent we ended up in was $15usd pp, had a mattress and blankets and we had access to good facilities and WIFI just in case (?!). We felt this was pretty steep for a tent but after we snuggled in for the night and drifted off to sleep we were soon awoken by the roaring of the howler monkeys and felt like we were in the middle of the jungle and were quickly reminded that this was a priceless experience! The next day we spoke to a guy who stayed in the hammock and he ended up paying almost $30usd for one person so we felt like the price was fair considering the location.
Park hours: The site is open from 6am to 6pm and technically you are supposed to pay extra for visiting outside these hours, but we found no one noticed we weren’t with a group after the sunset. We were also very happy going into the park right on 6am because the morning was really misty and cool so we wouldn’t have been able to see a dramatic sunrise at all. If the morning was clear I can imagine the views over the jungle from Temple IV would be stunning but from everyone we spoke to those conditions only come around maybe four times per year.
Navigation inside the park: The thing that makes Tikal so special is its setting. It’s deep in the lush Guatemalan jungle, home to hundreds of monkeys birds and some other, more wild animals. A lot of the structures are still largely un-excavated and some of the paths are very narrow and confusing. To get from the entrance to Temple IV takes about 30 minutes walking providing you don’t get lost and then there is everything in between. We used the phone with Maps.me but still ended up lost as the paths twist and turn around the ruins. We ended up spending about 7 hours in total during our two days exploring and still didn’t feel like we saw everything!
Where to view sunset: Sunset is just a magical time to be in the park. The light is doing it’s thang and everything is turning warm shades of golden orange. We made a beeline for Temple IV because we thought it was the place to go, but the sun actually sets on the non accessible side of this structure, meaning there are no stunning views over the pyramids. Also, the guy at the top kicked us off at 5.45pm so my recommendation would be to hang out in the main plaza. This is the only area that has been fully restored and has wide open spaces to appreciate the stars coming out. If someone tries to kick you out, just wander towards a tour group or look lost. Steve preferred this time of day much more than sunrise, the sounds of dusk were a definite highlight for us and finding our way out in the pitch black was a whole different adventure!
Where to view sunrise: I feel like this is a really crappy gimmick on the part of the Tikal people because normally the place will just be shrouded in low cloud so there is no spectacular sunrise. If you only have one day to visit Tikal the sunrise tour would be a good option to take the guided tour in cooler weather, but don’t expect stunning views over the park. Personally I just loved being there at this time. It’s when the howler monkeys are most active so the other worldly roaring instantly transports you to another time and place and the mist makes everything feel eery and prehistoric. I guess it also helps that I had more energy in the cooler weather but there was a special quiet about the jungle that we didn’t get during the evening. We entered just as the park opened at 6am when the sky was just getting light and rushed to Temple IV just incase…
Eating: OK eating is pretty important! We had the idea of buying supplies in Flores until we realised at the last minute that the only supermarket on the island is worse than an airport souvenir shop. In hindsight we would’ve gone across the causeway to the bigger supermarket with plenty of time, but alas we didn’t. So once inside we made the second mistake of eating our dinner a the Tikal Inn. It was rubbish and very over priced. The next day we finally got it right and ate at the little local place “Tikal Comedor”. It’s near the information stand and it was pretty good!
Summary: We were very happy with the way we did it. If you wanted to sleep in the park and take a sunrise tour you could also organise that option with the tour company when you organise your transport to the park. Just make sure you shop around, and if you need to book onward bus travel use that when negotiating your tour of Tikal. I spoke to one guy who got his bus for free!