Hike Length: We took a guided hike that began about 3 hours before sunset and were able to see 5 of the temples. We watched the sunset from Temple IV and then returned to the entrance in the dark. Round trip, it was about 7 miles.
Difficulty: Easy, however if you want to scale to the top of any temples, the walk up the staircases can be challenging, depending on the person.
What We Packed:
- Lots of water
- Bug Spray
- Nuts & energy bars
What to Wear:
During our hike in January, it was a sunny and hot day. We each wore longer shorts, sneakers and short-sleeved shirts.
Where to Start:
The entrance to the park is your only place to start, and there are several paths to take. We recommend hiring a guide. It's worth it, especially if you want to do the sunset hike. You could easily get lost in the jungle in the dark on your way back. Beware of nocturnal snakes and spiders around on the trails at night.
Getting to Tikal from Flores
On day 2 of our visit to Flores, we booked a very reasonably priced tour to Tikal. The shuttle picked us up at our hotel and taxied us to the edge of the island where we boarded a larger shuttle.
The drive from Flores and Santa Elena to Tikal is gorgeous countryside. We passed through tiny villages with tin-roofed homes and fruit stands. Halfway to Tikal we seemed to have a tire that was low and the driver pulled over to fix it. It took no longer than 10 minutes to change the tire and we didn't even have to get off the shuttle. It was pretty impressive.
The Tree of Life at Tikal National Forest
One of the first amazing sites at the park is the Tree of Life. It is so tall that without our guide, we probably would have hiked right past it. It's called a Ceiba Tree, or Yaaxche tree in Mayan. It is a silky cotton tree, with it's cotton used mostly to fill fluffy pillows and cushions. These breathtaking trees can be up to 100 feet tall, and date back to when the Mayan civilizations cultivated them throughout their cities. The puffy areas you see on the tree are actually a vine that is living on the tree and using it's resources, sometimes suffocating them trees themselves.
Our Guide Through Tikal National Forest
Our guide, Lloyd was one of the best part of the trips for us. He was passionate about his job, teaching us everything he could in the limited time we had in the park. Here he is, looking to see if he can spot some Spider Monkeys for us to watch.
We highly recommend hiring a guide when you trek through Tikal. Ours happened to be included in the package we bought back in Flores, and he greeted us before we even stepped off the bus, directing us to a spot to purchase water if needed, use the restroom, and spray on bug spray and sunscreen before heading into the park. Lloyd had a great sense of humor and was not only a knowledgable guide, but his jokes put us at ease and made the hike even more fun. I'm so glad we had him with us, particularly on the returning hike when snakes and tarantulas can be on the trail.
Visiting the Temples at Tikal
Though you've probably seen photo after photo of the pyramids at Tikal National Forest, nothing will prepare you for seeing them in person. They tower above you, sometimes to hundreds of feet, and poke out of the top of the forest cover, towering over the jungle.
Temple I and the Acropolis
At just about the middle of our trek through Tikal, we stopped for a quick rest at Temple I and the Acropolis. This area was one of the sites of human sacrifices, and the areas where they took place still stand. Lloyd, our guide explained to us that people were given mushrooms to eat, which were psychedelic, and simple placed on these altars and had their hearts ripped from their chest.
Comforting, isn't it?
In this area you'll be able to see ancient tombs, as well as ancient drawings and markings from the people who lived here. It's an amazing spot.
Wildlife at Tikal National Park
One of the highlights of our hike was seeing a family of Spider Monkeys just above us. An adult monkey was coaxing a baby to jump from one vine to the next, a process that did not seem to be going very well. Suddenly there was a lot of action going on as another group of monkeys moved in on their territory. Unfortunately I didn't have a zoom lens with me, so I was only able to capture a moment or two of them being out in the open. And I admit, that being in such a magical place almost makes you forget about your camera altogether, as you'll want to experience what's happening instead of trying to get a great shot.
We saw a ton of birds, and even a Coati who tried to steal someone's backpack while we were resting in the middle of our hike. He didn't get the pack, but did manage to delight those of us who saw him trying.
There is no shortage of magical things to look at at Tikal National Park. Making your way through the forest alone is worth the trip, and you'll hear howler monkeys from afar, which literally sound like monsters roaring in the distance. Steven Spielberg used the sound of howler monkeys as the sounds of dinosaurs roaring in Jurassic Park. Remember the sound of the T-Rex in that movie? That's a howler monkey!
Approaching the planet Yavin
If you're as much of a nerd as my husband and myself, you don't want to miss climbing to the top of Temple IV where you can stand in the exact spot where a scene from Star Wars, Episode 4 was filmed. Over the top of the forest you'll see Temples I, II, and III poking their way through the forest canopy.
(Photo screenshot from Star Wars, Episode IV:)
You've never seen a sunset like this before
My photos, no matter how hard I tried, do not do this sunset justice. I wish I had taken a recording of the sound for you while we were there, as even the animals get quiet when the sun drops below the horizon. Again, a benefit to having our guide along was that just at the moment before the best part of the sunset, he called for everyone at the top of the temple to be quiet. Enjoying the sounds and silence of the jungle adds so much to the scenery itself. I've seen plenty of Maui sunsets, and none of them have compared to what we witnessed at Tikal. It is truly, truly magical.
Tips for your tour of Tikal
1. Don't wear flip flops.
Particularly if you're doing the sunset tour, as you'll be returning back to your shuttle through the jungle in the dark. According to our tour guide, Lloyd, that's when snakes and tarantulas tend to make their way onto the trail, so sturdy footwear is a must.
2. Bring water.
Trekking through the jungle is no joke, and even though the canopy of trees blocks you from direct sunlight for much of the time, it's still a very long hike and each pyramid has many flights of stairs that can wear you out. Staying hydrated will get you through the day.
3. Bring snacks.
We brought some protein bars and dried fruit and that got us through the day just fine, after having a good breakfast that morning.
4. Bring your camera!
Your phone's camera is better than nothing, but if you've got a high-quality digital SLR camera, this is one tour that deserves it. The views from the tops of the ancient pyramids are like no other, and if you're lucky, you'll see Spider Monkeys high in the trees. You'll regret not having your 'good' camera during those moments!
5. Hire a guide.
The prices are so reasonable, and our guide, Lloyd was so funny, passionate about his job, and really knowledgable about everything having to do with the history of the Mayan people and the goings on at the pyramids themselves. A guide will lead you safely through the jungle and point things out that you may miss otherwise, such as the Tree of Life and some of the ruins hidden beneath jungle vines.
Honestly, I could write forever about the experience of this hike. Before going, I imagined it to be the most "touristy" day of our trip, and didn't really look forward to it as much as the rest of the things we had planned during our stay in Guatemala. But to my surprise, and even with other tourists around, it one of the best moments of our entire 2-weeks stay in Guatemala. And if I'm lucky enough to return one day to this amazing country, I will without a doubt visit Tikal again.
Have You Visited Tikal? We Want To Hear From You!
Leave some comments (below) about your experiences in Tikal. We'd love to hear about your time at Tikal National Park!