Ah, Tikal. It is far and away the most famous and popular vacation site in Guatemala — and for good reason. A well-preserved ancient Mayan city rising out of the dense Central American rainforest, spanning more than 20 square miles and dripping in exotic plants, spider monkeys, and toucans? Sign me up!
In fact, Tikal is probably the most recognizable Mayan ruin in the world. Does this view above looking out from one of the stone towers look familiar? With the rainforest in the foreground and additional towers in the distance, hundreds of meters away, peeking above the canopy?
That’s right, that scene from Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope was filmed here. BOOM.
Getting to Tikal: Why Flores Kinda Sucks
Most backpackers traveling north through Guatemala get to Tikal via Flores. Flores is a quaint, pastel town on an island in the middle of Lake Peten. It is the largest Guatemalan city near Tikal and an easy home base for exploring the ruins, sporting dozens of tour agencies and transportation options made exclusively for the purpose. Many travelers I have spoken to absolutely loved their stay on the island.
To be brutally honest, though, I didn’t really like Flores. I felt the city had a bizarrely stripped and whitewashed feel, despite being overtly touristy. The streets echoed the colonial charm of Antigua but lacked the throb of activity and life that makes Antigua appealing.
Perhaps I was simply fed up with touristy locations after a very touristy week of visiting Chichicastenango, Antigua, Acatenango, and Semuc Champey. Whatever the cause, I just really wasn’t feeling Flores. To each his own, I suppose.
Our Approach to Tikal
We consulted many friends and spent quite some time deciding how we wanted to approach our visit to the ruins. We considered the popular sunrise tours, which place you in the park on a tower as the sun breaks over the horizon. However, we knew that the sunrise was often clouded over and crowded with tour groups, which was unappealing. After our mediocre Semuc Champey tour, we knew we wanted to go it alone.
After this was decided, we needed to figure out when and how to get there. We had been told by many travelers to enter Tikal first thing in the morning, before the tour bus crowds and the midday heat arrives. The park is located deep in the rainforest, nearly 20 miles from the closest civilization. This makes getting there early a bit of a challenge.
Eventually, we decided on a very exciting but somewhat complicated plan recommended to us by an old friend. We were going to spend the night before our visit at the Tikal campground, sleeping in covered hammocks in the middle of the rainforest.
The problem? It is surprisingly difficult to find information about camping at Tikal. The vast majority of Tikal tourism is conducted through day tours from Flores or San Ignacio, Belize. Of the small remainder who decide to stay the night on site, there are three (expensive) hotels available at the entrance to the park. What kind of maniacs would search out the even less popular option of paying pennies to the campground guard to sleep in his cloth hammocks?
Well, us, of course.
The Power of Keens to Make Unexpected Friends
Our harebrained planning turned out better than we could have ever expected. As we were riding a bus from Flores into the park, an older U.S. woman sitting behind us leaned over and complimented me on my shoes. I was wearing my well-loved and well-worn travel Keens. In my time wearing them, I have learned that the Keens lovers of the world are a borderline cult. This woman was no different; in her eyes, my love of Keens made me a kindred spirit and immediate friend. We started talking with her and her travel partner, explaining our plans to camp onsite.
By the time the bus arrived, they were insisting that we join them in their onsite hotel for dinner. We quickly checked into the campground, threw down our stuff, and walked over. They were staying in one of the fancy resort-like options at the entrance of the park. We hung out for a bit by the side of the pool, looking out into the rainforest, and then joined them for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Afterwards we shared a few drinks and played cards. In an evening where we otherwise had no plans, we ended up laughing and hanging out with some fellow Keens lovers in the warm light of a hotel, surrounded by the sounds of the forest. It was truly wonderful, one of the most genuinely sweet interactions I had with other travelers in Guatemala.
In a Hammock Under the Stars
When we finally parted ways with our new friends it was pitch dark. We worked our way back to the campground carefully, enormous rainforest beetles flooding the beams of our flashlights.
After a few drinks in a comfy, warmly lit hotel, these cloth hammocks were suddenly intimidating. There were no other campers in the campground; in fact, there were no other signs of humanity between us and the hotel, a few hundred yards away. Our thick cloth covered hammocks hung fifteen feet from the edge of the rainforest. The darkness loomed large behind those trees, throbbing with the sounds of animals and insects unseen.
We climbed into our beds as quickly as possible, suddenly skiddish. As I laid there listening to the whir of insects, though, my heart rate began to slow. Safe in my cocoon, the sounds started to become relaxing. I drifted into sleep as the nocturnal forest dwellers burst into life around me.
Ah, the Sound of Howler Monkeys in the Morning
I awoke just before dawn to the low, guttural screeching of howler monkeys in the distance. I laid in silence for quite some time, listening to the forest awakening around me. The sky was light when I finally called out to Michael a few feet from me–he was awake and absorbing the sounds as well. We got ready in silence, both of us teeming with excitement for the day ahead of us.
We entered the park within half an hour of opening. Past the entrance we walked for several hundred yards down a dense forest path. For a while, it almost felt like hiking; there were few other people around, and we were surrounded by trees. And then, out of nowhere, the path opened up, and a gigantic stone structure rose above us.
Many Steps and Many, Many, Many More Pictures Later
It feels impossible to describe the experience of Tikal. The four hours we spent in the park seem like a dream, a confused, beautiful mess of hiking, climbing, and gaping in awe. We climbed a tower completely alone and looked out over the canopy together, the smooth sea of green interrupted only by the handful of other towers scattered around the park.
We watched from a dramatic stone stairway as spider monkeys leapt through the trees in front of us, swinging and playing together as if we weren’t standing there gaping at them from fifteen feet away.
We clambered through holes in ancient stone walls and stood in rooms that housed a completely separate human civilization thousands of years ago.
We emerged from forest trails into groomed grassy lawns and the skeletal structure of a city long past.
We occasionally met other travelers in a moment of confusion: what are you doing here, in the depth of this forest, amidst these wild ruins? Human beings seemed out of place in this wild landscape. It was altogether otherworldly.
Comparing Tikal to Other Ruins
I had been to plenty of ancient ruins before Tikal. There are some quieter or better preserved ruins in Belize; there are some more striking structures in Mexico; there are more accessible and relatable ruins dotting Europe. But the only site that I have visited that compares to Tikal in pure scale is Chichen Itza in Mexico.
Let me just say it bluntly: Tikal is so much better than Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is a tourist factory, a commercialized Mayan Disney World. In contrast, even when there are a ton of people in Tikal National Park, you feel alone. It is so remote, so forested, so quiet and impassive, that the existence of other people there is almost irrelevant. There is a true immensity of corners and nooks and structures and paths to get lost in in Tikal, and the experience of getting lost in an ancient city is one that is totally unparalleled.
Granted, I think we did it exactly the right way. The best thing about Tikal is the quiet aloneness of being there. I would not have traded my experience for a boxed, chattering tour group if you paid me.
Epilogue: A Lovely Night in El Remate
After our glorious morning amidst the ruins, we made a stop for our final night in Guatemala before heading onwards to Belize and Mexico. We stayed in the tiny lakeside village of El Remate, one of the closest towns to the entrance of the park.
I absolutely loved El Remate. If I ever visit Tikal again, I would definitely choose to stay in this town as a jumping off point as opposed to Flores. It was small and quaint and friendly, with tons of options for locally owned hotels and hostels. Each of these options bordered the lake and many had docks and boats for swimming or floating in the beautiful water.
After a long few days and a night spent in hammocks, we were looking for a comfortable night. We ended up choosing to stay in a sweet little French-owned eco-hotel. Though not as locally impactful as I normally like, it was exactly what we needed in that moment. The place was beautiful, made up of tiny little lodges in the forest. We swam off the dock, soaking our sun kissed skin in the water, and went to bed early. It was a lovely night in a lovely little town, the perfect end to our incredible time in Guatemala.
Tips & Tricks for Visiting Tikal
(The Furiosities Way)
1. Being alone in Tikal is everything — get there as early as possible to avoid the tour bus crowds.
2. Go on your own rather than with a tour (see tip number 1).
3. Bring more water, sunscreen, and snacks than you think you need.
4. If you can swing it, stay onsite. I absolutely loved camping, but if that’s not your scene there are hotels available. If you can’t stay onsite, skip Flores and stay in El Remate instead
5. GET LOST!