Warning: this is a long one 🙂
My alarm went off at 5am, but as I’d been so exhausted the night before I had fallen asleep shortly after 8pm and so had had over 8 hours sleep. I felt pretty rested and excited as I got out of bed and got dressed – I was off to see the sunrise over some temples!
I had asked about the time for sunrise the night before and had been told that a tour left the hotel at 4am. 4am! The whole reason I had stayed at Tikal rather than in Flores, an hour and a half away, was so I wouldn’t have to get up at 4am. I laughed and told the guy in charge that I was unlikely to get up that early, and what time was the actual sunrise? He told me it was about 6.15 so I figured my 5am alarm would be fine, fitting me in with the people coming from Flores.
I left my hotel room into the absolute pitch black, not a sound nor a light to be seen anywhere. My head torch was woefully inadequate so I resigned myself to using my iPhone torch light and picked my way in what I thought was the direction of the entrance – although I really had no clue. I was half excited and half scared at this point. It really was so dark and I had expected there to be some lights somewhere, others also walking towards the sunrise.
I soon saw a flickering light and approached it gladly to discover it was coming from the hut of the park security guards. I said hi, showed them my ticket, and they were about to let me on my solitary way back into the darkness when I noticed a sign saying “sunrise tour only with guide.” Hmmm. I turned around and asked, saying that I didn’t have a guide, did I need one? And then one of the security guards gestured to me to come with him into his truck, and he drove me through the jungle.
It turned out that when you buy your ticket for the early morning entrance to the park, you should get a guide at that point. But as I had stayed in a hotel, I bought my ticket the night before and didn’t realise that. I was so, so pleased the guard drove me, as I would not have found it by myself. There were no lights at all, the sunrise temple – temple IV (also the tallest) – is the furthest away from the entrance, accessible on twisting paths through the jungle with very few signs and certainly none I would have picked out with my head torch and iPhone!
Eventually we came to a halt and I could see the vague flickering of lights up above my head. The guard pointed to a wooden staircase, I thanked him profusely, and started to climb!
It was a long way up to the top of the temple, where a number of people were sitting on stone steps, looking out to the east. It was 5.30am and it was still pitch black, the stars still splendid in the sky. We all sat in silence, the occasional rustle as someone dug into a bag, a beep of a camera. It was very still, very peaceful, almost meditative. The last thing that happened before the sky began to lighten was that the howler monkeys started to howl. If you didnt know that howler monkeys were in the area, or had never heard them before, you would be terrified. They sound like huge, huge dangerous animals – so loud. Their howls filled the air. Then the sound died out, and the sky began, imperceptibly, to lighten. It was still dark, some stars were still visible in the sky, but I could make out the contours of the horizon. Then I could make out the shapes of the people sat watching the sunrise with me. I set up my go pro and was amused by the number of wifi networks available on that remote temple as people tried to get the perfect shot from their wifi-enabled camera or video camera.
Then it was light – but still no sun. People yawned and stretched, broke into packets of crisps, moved around a little. My bum was numb from being sat on the hard stone, and it was much colder than it had been under cover of darkness. You could almost sense a collective question – “was this it?” Perhaps the mist had meant we wouldn’t see a sunrise. Some people appeared to get up and leave.
As more people started to stir, an accented voice boomed from the top of the steps “don’t go anywhere! The sun is coming in five minutes, I promise!“. It was one of the guides, so if course we all sat and continued to stare out at the sky. And then we saw it, not rising up from the horizon, as the opposite of a sunset, but in the sky above the tree-level, the first sliver of a red sun. Gradually, gradually, more of the sun came into view until it was all there and sunrise had most definately happened. It was after 7am by this point and some people had been on top of that temple since probably 4.30am (if they had met at Jaguar at 4!)
The same guide that had told us to wait started to comment on the position of the sun, slightly to one side of the main temple we could see rising out of the jungle to the distance. He showed those interested a picture on his phone, taken from the same spot, sat in the middle of Temple IV, on the winter solstice, where the rising sun was visible directly above that other temple in front of us.
By this point, people started leaving with their guides. The guide with the loud voice and the phone organised his tourists into a Spanish-speaking group, to go with a different guide, and his, English speaking group, to stay on the top of the temple. I eavesdropped on the group, interested in what he was saying, such as that the big hill we could see in front of us and to the right of the temples was in fact another compound of mayan buildings that had yet to be excavated, and that it was estimated that there was over 22 buildings within just that mound, covered over by jungle. He then went to lead his group around the side of the temple. I thought about just tagging along, I was interested in hearing what he had to say and knew I would learn a lot.
But in the end I stayed put, despite an awkward moment when he saw me and asked why I was still sat still at the top of the temple. I said “I’m not with your group!” And he shrugged his shoulders, looked at me strangely, and left with his group, all of whom looked at my before walking down the stairs.
Then, silence. A huge grin spread over my face. I was on top of a temple! By myself! At sunrise! I was so happy. Dragon flies were buzzing around, birds were singing, and I was just enjoying the view and messing around on top of the temple by myself. It was awesome.
A slight digression: Tikal is one of the largest Maya sites and was the capital of one of the most important Mayan kingdoms. Architecture at the site date back to 400BC but it’s main period was, like Palenque, 200-900AD. The site covers about 60 square kilometres and the majority has not yet been excavated.
Eventually I decided to leave temple IV and go and explore the rest of Tikal. I wanted to see other temples and besides, it was actually quite cold on top after the sun had risen but before I could feel its heat. With hindsight, Temple IV was definitely the best and I wish I had stayed up there longer.
I climbed down and went for a little jog – I had come equipped with backpack so I could get a run in while exploring the temples! After five minutes or so I was warmed up and so returned to the Temple IV steps for a few 30 second steps repeats.
Then I set off to explore the rest of Tikal, running between temple compounds and then walking around temples and buildings once I reached them. Tikal is a large site and its quite spread out – I covered over 10km while exploring and I didn’t see everything – so doing it by running worked really well! Despite the very strange looks I got, especially when I bumped into that tour group from the top of the temple!
I was so very glad I hadn’t gone with them. While they stood in a group around their guide and had to move on when he said, I explored completely deserted temple compounds with not a single other person in sight, climbed up to the highest point in the main Plaza and watched the people below me, found a beautiful spot to sit, read my book and take in the atmosphere of the jungle. Of course they learnt more than me about it – the best thing would be if they were audioguides or someone made a podcast about Tikal that you could listen to as you walked / ran around. Then you would get all the information but still with the best jungle atmosphere!
Instead, I jogged over to the mundo perdido complex, where I happily wandered amongst temples completely by myself, accompanied only by the ridiculously loud birds and howler monkeys. Next I went to the Plaza of Seven Temples – which, as it sounds, is a square with numerous buildings including seven temples in a row.
I realised while I was exploring these temples that I had obliviously walked through the remnants of a ball court. Fun and games you might think until you learn that the players of the ball games were often captives and the losing team was ritually beheaded… A game of life and death indeed.
And then I made it into the Great Plaza. Here you have two huge temples (I and II) to the east and west. You can’t climb Temple I so I did another little stairs workout on Temple II and made my way to the top. It was all fenced off for safety though which I felt kind of took away from the “natural-ness” which is what I most loved about exploring the temples.
So from there I climbed up to the North Acropolis, an area where construction begun as early as 350BC (but Wikipedia says the first evidence of human activity in that area was 800BC… Wow!). It was a funeral area and they have excavated tombs of several of the great kings of the Mayan region. I found myself a little corner and sat for ages, the only person on top of a temple again (of course, I ran up all the steps on the way up!).
My peace was eventually disturbed when someone else ran up all the steps. We had a brief chat – despite his Chinese accent he lived in Brixton, in London, as I do, and even said “Honest Burger!” when we were talking about Brixton being great. It’s a huge world but it’s also a tiny one as well.
From there, I went back to Temple IV to see it in the full light of day and then ran back again to the Great Plaza. By this point I had been recognised and was referred to as “marathon girl” by an American man coming down the steps as I ran up!
Finally, there was just time to visit Temple VI – the temple of inscriptions, set out entirely by itself, meaning for a nice deserted run through shady jungle paths, before returning to my hotel to check out.
As I left the park, I was approached by a guy asking me if I needed transport to Flores. Of course, I did, so I asked him when and how much. He said 75 quetzals (about £7). However, I had read in my guidebook that it should only cost 30 quetzals so I queried this and was told it was because there were no public buses because it was a Sunday, and there were less buses than usual because it was very quiet. He was trying to tell me that the only way to get back to Flores would be on one of his buses.. But this just didn’t make sense to me as the buses were small and there were definately hundreds of people in the park by then. I told him all my money was in the hotel and I would get back to him… And then as I went into the hotel, one of the guys who worked there asked me if I needed transport back to Flores, and said it would cost 30 quetzals. I went with that bus, feeling very pleased with myself for not falling for the scam!!
I had time to shower, check out and have some lunch before getting the bus back to Flores. Once there, I wandered around to find somewhere with wifi where I could sit and have a drink and maybe dinner. I stumbled across San Telmo, a cool bar overlooking the lake with an upstairs balcony where I made myself comfortable on a sofa and enjoyed a few cocktails and an actual salad!!!! I was starting to feel that I hadn’t eaten any healthy food since before Christmas, over two weeks before.
From there, it was finally time to get a taxi to the tiny Flores airport, to fly to Antigua.
Need to know: I stayed at Jaguar Inn which was pretty expensive at 500 quetzals (about £50) and wasn’t really worth it. On the other hand, the staff were very friendly and there was a nice restaurant. In exploring Tikal I used the route set out in the Lonely Planet’s guide to Guatemala. Buses from Flores to Tikal and vice versa cost 30 quetzals and take just under an hour and a half. The buses to Tikal leave regularly from 3.30am (for the sunrise) to 1.30pm and return to Flores throughout the afternoon until about 6.30pm. Entry is 150 quetzals and the sunrise tour is definitely worth it (you have to pay double the normal entry ticket) as it is magical.