Sunrise Tour At One of the Most Imporant Maya Cities or How I Got Punked at Tikal

Most of you probably remember the MTV show where Ashton Kutcher and his hidden cameras subjected celebrities to his elaborate pranks.  It was the modern day “Candid Camera” – and just a few days ago, at the gorgeous and HUGE Maya site of Tikal in the Guatemalan state of Peten, I felt like I might have been at the center of one of Ashton’s ruses.

I got punked at Tikal.

Tikal is a major site in the lowlands of Guatemala.  With only about 20% currently excavated, they have unearthed huge pyramids, beautiful carved stela, ball courts and some astronomical wonders in the jungle.  It is often the first stop in Guatemala for those headed from Belize.  Hundreds of thousands visit each year, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Even George Lucas  included the view of the pyramids over the jungle canopy in Star Wars.

The Rebel Base.

Temples jutting above the jungle canopy at Tikal, Guatamala, film location used in the Starwars films.
Photo available at www.freeimagine.co.uk

With all of that in mind, I wanted to take THE BEST tour with the very best views.  I had been to Tikal before, about 10 years ago, this time I wanted to see it EVEN more beautiful.

My hotel suggested a sunrise tour.  Ahhhh…the warm orange glow as the sun appears over the jungle.  The birds and monkeys awakening.  yes, Yes, YES!  Sign me up!

Sure there was the shuttle that would pick me up at 3am but, hey, you need to work for the best photos.  And it would help me avoid the crowds.   There was even an extra 100Q charge for being at the park before 6am.  That must mean it’s EXTRA special!

My alarm went off at 2:30am.  And I swore like a sailor.  I groggily got ready…sturdy shoes…that should be good.  I went down to the lobby and as I waited, 3 or 4 more guests in a similar zombie state came down the stairs.  They were picked up by two different shuttles (both mostly full) and mine arrived at 3:30am.

We drove along quietly, picked up our guide in a nearby town and he suggested we sleep for the next hour or so.  NOT A PROBLEM.

I woke up feeling like I was underwater as the bus stopped.  It was PITCH BLACK.  We had picked up 2 other couples – one from Sweden and one from Ecuador.  We all walked to the entrance where there was a crowd?  Perhaps 100 people?!  Many buying the $3US cups of coffee flavored water.

We were off.  VAMOS CHICOS.  That was our guide’s battle cry as those with headlamps lead up on a BRISK 40 minute hike…in the darkness…on land that was not at all smooth.  And just when you were out of breath…VAMOS CHICOS!…we hit the stairs to the top of the temple.  About 200 I’d guess…and there was no stopping.

Legs burning, we arrived on the top…we sat down and about 100 people joined us (most huffing and puffing as they tried to find a seat).  It was now about 5:45…and I was ready for the magic.

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We had been told to be silent…but there was always someone opening a back pack or eating Doritos or something.  Sounds that seemed to echo through the entire site.

As 6:15am neared my somewhat militant guide told everyone TO BE COMPLETELY silent.  I was getting giddy…this is going to be life changing.  The howler monkeys were barked at each other…the birds were calling.

But as it brightened…there just seemed to be fog.  No problem, the hot rising sun will burn it off.  This is what we’ve all been waiting for!

We sat in silence for another half hour until finally one of the guides stood up and said “The sun rose 15 minutes ago…everyone who wants to leave in my group follow me.”

WHAT?!??!?  Here is what I was looking at.

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I asked my guide if this was just a bad morning and he said no, it is usually like this.  There are few great days in the summer when it is not so cold.  THEN he got out his cellphone and showed me his picture of the last good time – about October.  It was a fine picture but THIS IS WHY I GOT UP AT 3AM????

TO SEE THE SUNRISE AT TIKAL ON A CELLPHONE?  Silly me!  I thought the sunrise tour was to see the sunrise.

So SO ridiculous…I was so so tricked, I had to laugh (a few hours later when I snapped out of my semi-conscious state of shock).  Good one Tikal!

VAMOS CHICOS!  We marched back down the stairs and hiked around the gloomy ruins.  Our guide was one for details and while information was interesting, my ability to pay attention at this point was at a new low.

Interesting fact:  Tikal was abandoned in the 900s AD.  It exists in an area with no natural water supply other than rain.  When started, it existed in a dense rain forest and the water was all collected.  But over time, all the trees were cleared and turned into lime for construction and the land farmed.  The climate became much more arid and…no water.

Here are some pictures.

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The pyramid called “The Lost World” – our guide explained that hieroglyphics and art had been found here…homo-erotic scenes.  tikal2-2

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Our guide was a birder and pointed out many.  There were lots of beautiful toucans flitting about…coatimundis begging for food on the main plaza…and wild turkeys.

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And then…about being awake for 6.5 hours, the sun came out.  The fog lifted and everything looked FINALLY gorgeous.

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The Tikal I’ve been waiting for!
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We weren’t leaving until 11am so I walked back to the entrance to find someplace to eat and relax.

I hiked for about 30 minutes getting a good look at what we’d walked over in the pitch black.  Yikes.

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I passed the gorgeous national tree of Guatemala, the ceiba, that is just inside the entrance.

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And this small pond…

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…just in time to see about 10 packed tour buses arrive.

I ate some breakfast with a full house at the restaurant and boarded my shuttle back to Flores.  Back at about 12:30 – I immediately took a nap.

So…that was my trip to Tikal National Park.  Should I have done it differently?

Heck yeah.

My tour cost $70USD.  There is a 150Q (or $20Us) and the extra 100Q ($13US) for being there early.  It was all inclusive (breakfast included).  You can try to find it cheaper but I just went along with my hotel.  They are not cheap tours but without a guide?  It would be very easy to get lost in this giant city.

Is it worth it?  Yes!  It’s breathtakingly beautiful – especially in the sun.  The entire park has huge trees, beautiful flowers and all sort of birds and animals.

There are other tours.  Day tours that leave at about 8am and get you back around 3pm.  That would be great but expect the park to be HOT and CROWDED.

My suggestion?  Go with the Sunset Tour.  Enjoy a leisurely morning in Flores.  The tour leaves at noon or 1pm and gets you back in the early evening.   Less crowded, a bit cooler and I bet the buildings are pretty amazing in the pink, fog free setting sun.

You got me Tikal…I now have my eyes on you.

Just in case you forget…you can PIN IT.

Tikal Guatemala, the HUGE Mayan site is amazing but just don't take the same tour I did.





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  • Jim

    Well I guess I’ve had similar things happen while on vacation, just part of the experience and with you passing on the knowledge, maybe I’ll miss getting “punked” at Tikal. 🙂

    Good Story

    • I just thought Sunrise Tour meant seeing the sunrise. Not one a cell phone 🙂

  • Lori

    Thanks for the tip!