My tuk tuk pitched out into traffic and jolted to a stop at the first set of lights. As it turned green, the motorcycle beside us lurched into a cat wheel, shooting ahead of us, the scooter next to him bolted after him, and our tuk tuk picked up the rear, gears grinding, engine struggling as it coughed to life and chugged through the intersection. Each gear shift was a screeching protest from the stressed engine. We puttered across the bridge and made our way from Santa Elena into the beautiful and quaint Flores. Cobblestone streets in abysmal disrepair took over for the pavement and we bumped our way along to my hostel, Los Amigos.
Flores is a tiny island town that is unfortunately currently partly submerged due to rising lake levels. It’s a quiet respite from the buzzing Santa Elena. Its main function for tourists however is a base for those wanting to explore the Tikal Ruins. This was my intention; like all the rest, I too was on the gringo trail! I checked into Los Amigos, a labyrinthian hostel with much character. The details in the artwork and landscaping and décor are endless. There are multiple public areas that draw you in easily, a great restaurant with a huge and tasty menu, friendly staff and an on site tour operator to help you book any transport and tours you need.
I booked the Sunrise Tikal tour after much deliberation. I was forewarned that you won’t see much of the sunrise, but you will be there to hear the jungle wake up, and will miss all of the crowds and the heat. It was more expensive than all the other options but I wanted a quiet and cool tour- the heat in Flores was the most oppressive (except for that god forsaken hike up to San Ramon – you can read about here) I’d encountered yet.
Sunrise meant getting up at 2:30am, piling into a shuttle with a bunch of other half sleeping travellers, driving an hour and half into the jungle and then walking even further into said jungle. When our van pulled up, it was still pitch black outside. As soon as the van door opened I was greeted with an absolutely horrifying sound. I was half asleep and slightly confused as to what the sound could possibly be. I stepped out of the van warily, my ears alert and my eyes desperately trying to see past the yellow orb of the headlights into the blackness to decipher the terrifying sounds screaming down at us. Suddenly I realized it was a Tyrannosaurs Rex. Well at least that’s exactly what it sounded like. I kept waiting to feel the ground tremble with each monstrous step it took as it charged at us. I envisioned the beasts’ huge head crashing through the canopy, his grisly mouth gaping wide as he picked up one of the travellers in his mouth and shook him like a rag doll. I debated running back into the van.
My head cleared a little with the irrational fear- the kind a dark jungle and grotesque wailing will put into you head- and I realized it was the howler monkeys. The bastards had to be just above our heads. But I knew their sound was deceiving- next to the lion they were the loudest creature in the animal kingdom. I had heard them many times before throughout Central America, but never this loud. Surely they were disconcertingly close. Their ferocious sounding howling shrieks made your eyes bulge and your legs weak. How could such a small creature make such a chilling noise? Funny how the dark can collaborate with your imagination and take a small monkey and turn it into a ravenous, carnivorous t-rex.
Our guide led us off onto a dirt road, thankfully away from the howling and we followed close behind. The entire park was still closed (this was the reason for the high price) and only one man was there with a tiny table, some coffee, waters and cookies for sale at an exorbitant price. I bought one nonetheless- I needed a little caffeine jolt to calm my nerves. We set off after we drank our coffee onto a little trail straight into the heart of the jungle in the Mayan Ruins. It was still pitch black, but as we walked the predawn gloom crept into the sky and slowly but surely the ground became slightly visible. Your eyes played tricks on you and each tree root twisting across the path became a writhing snake, each rock a giant toad, hunched to leap at you. A headlamp may have been a smart thing to bring, as our guide was the only one with a light. However they hadn’t told us we needed to bring anything other than water, so we all showed up and had to stumble our way blindly through the distorting trail.
By the time we reached Temple IV (so sterilely named), it was light enough to see, though the sun still had not risen. We climbed the temple in silence and took a seat atop this ancient shrine to the Mayan Gods. I wrapped my scarf around me- the wind blew strong up here, and without the heat of the sun yet, it was cool. I stared out over the yawning stretch of jungle canopy, only broken by two other temple heads that stood sentinel in the distance where the sun would rise. A thick mist clung to the trees near the horizon, shrouding the suns entrance into the world. It was so peaceful up here; the only sounds those of the waking jungle- the hum, click and buzz of the insects, and the countless calls of the birds. In the distance I saw the unmistakable oversized buttery beak of a toucan- (my first toucan!) silently fly over the canopy.
I sat up there for an hour, in awe that I was atop a monument built for a mighty Ruler named Yik’in Chan Kawil. That I was walking through grounds, temples altars- a whole town that worshipped Gods they believed would bring the rains, or withhold them if displeased. I imagined a thriving city of nearly 100,000 people below me, going about their daily lives as the sun rose, just as it was doing today: The women already preparing food, their cooking fires wisping into the cool morning air; the children chasing each other around; and the men heading to a building site to work on a new monument, or out into the jungle to hunt, or preparing for a battle with a neighbouring village to acquire prisoners as sacrifices for their gods. And all this over a thousand years ago. It’s a strange feeling to sit atop something to old, so feel the history long passed in the stones beneath you- they, all that is left of an empire of people who once prospered.
After descending Temple IV we followed our guide through the park looking at many of the different monuments. He explained that we would be seeing most of the 20% of the monuments and buildings that had been thus far excavated. Most of them were still covered- once they are uncovered, they are susceptible to the elements and deteriorate much faster, so they leave much of it covered by the earth. The grounds are beautiful and the history rich. I’ll let the pictures below tell the rest of the story of my time wandering through Tikal. The sunrise tour gives you the unique opportunity to have the park almost entirely to yourselves. There may have been about 20 people in the park when we were there, which meant your pictures were of the temples and grounds, and not hoards of tourists. You could walk about it like the ghost town is has become instead of bumping shoulders with tourists. Enjoy!