Misadventures in the Mayan city of Tikal

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal conjures up otherworldly images of mystical pyramids rising above the dense, steamy jungles of Guatemala.  I was drawn to the area in order to explore the ruins of of one of the most powerful Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas and I left with some of my most surreal travel experiences to date. Our journey started in the border town of San Ignacio, Belize; popular for its proximity to a multitude of Mayan sites. Joining our guide Max we crossed the border on foot, a first for me and I do admit to being slightly nervous walking by the guards with AK-47s.Once we safely passed Max ushered us to the dusty jeep he had arranged for the 2 hour journey. After a brief stop at a roadside stand for homemade tamales (the best in Guatemala we were assured and yes, they were indeed tasty), we arrived at the gates of Tikal National Park.  It was here that Max informed us that he would not be able to personally guide us as he picked up one of the many locals standing at the gates offering guide services. Raul introduced himself, flashing a partially toothless grin and began telling us about his 10 children from his 3 ex-wives. Raul accompanied us on the “sunset” tour which lasted from about 3:00 – 5:30 pm as all visitors needed to be out of the park by dusk. He was a jovial fellow but being a tour guide just wasn’t his calling. In between telling us stories of his childhood antics he would make a reference to King Chocolate, look at us quizzically asking “Riiigght???”, expecting an answer. Steve and I would glance at each other not quite knowing what to say before assuring Raul that he was indeed right. (Note: King Chocolate did indeed exist, his name was Au Cacao and he ruled Tikal around 700 A.D.He also favored a drink featuring his namesake pod, honey and vanilla presumably sparking the our worldwide obsession with chocolate). Raul did show us around the major sites at Tikal ( an UNESCO World Heritage Site) which were impressive. Our first stop the Great Plaza which is home to Temple I, Temple II and both the Northern and Central Acropolises; this plaza was the center of public life and was home to ritualistic ceremonies, theatrical performances and sporting events. Raul let us  explore  on our own and being that most of the day trippers had left we largely had the plaza to ourselves. While Temples I and II are not considered safe to climb you are allowed to scale the Northern Acropolis which affords some fantastic photo opportunities.

Temple I Tikal, Guatemala

Temple I

Northern Acropolis Tikal, Guatemala

Steps of the Northern Acropolis

Temple I Tikal, Guatemala

View of Temple I from the Northern Acropolis

Temple II Tikal, Guatemala

Temple II

Satisfied with our time at the Great Plaza Raul led us through the jungle path pointing out wildlife as we passed Temple III(coatis, howler monkeys, turkeys and variety of birds are common.A lucky few may catch a glimpse of an ocelot or the rare jaguar). We made our way to Temple IV and began climbing the wooden stairway built alongside the Temple. Close to the top we stopped at a landing to glimpse the view made famous George Lucas, the view of Temples I, II and III rising above the jungle was featured as the planet Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. We made a brief stop at the top of Temple IV and hurried back down to our hotel as the park was soon closing for the evening.

Coati Tikal, Guatemala

Coati scampering amongst the ruins

Temple III Tikal, Guatemala

Temple III

View from Temple IV Tikal, Guatemala

View of Temples I, II and III as see in Star Wars


We parted ways with Raul and met our original guide Max at the Tikal Inn, one of two hotels located within the park. Max arranged for dinner, showed us to our room and left us with some pastries and snacks for the next morning. Climbing ancient ruins in the Guatemalan jungle can be a sweaty ordeal and a shower was in tall order. While I was preparing to shower Steve noticed I had a gift from my day at Tikal- a nice dose of some weird jungle rash (Luckily it didn’t itch and it was gone by the time I woke the next morning). The rooms at Tikal Inn are basic and electricity is turned off after 10 pm. No electricity=no fan, which coupled with the fact that the room had only one window and no cross breeze made for quite an uncomfortable night of sleep.

Weird jungle funk


Morning came very early with a frantic knock at the door at 4 am telling us to hurry or we would be late. We were caught a little off guard as we were told the night before to be ready to go at 4:30 in order to watch the sunrise from the top of Temple IV. The knocker never told us his name but we grabbed our flashlights and followed this stranger through the jungle(which in hindsight kind of sounds like a bad idea). This guy was going at break neck pace and I had some trouble trying to keep up without tripping over any errant tree branches or stopping to wonder what the glowing pairs of eyes staring at me through the dark jungle night belonged to. We reached the top of  Temple IV to discover that we were the first ones there. Well, almost the first ones. A lone Japanese girl, without shoes, was curled up sleeping at the top of Temple IV. She apparently hid in the park and spent the night on top of an Mayan Temple. From time to time I often wonder about her story. Where did she come from? Why was she sleeping on top of a Mayan Temple in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle? And lastly, where were her shoes? These contemplations would have to wait as we took a seat waiting for the sun rise. We were joined by an Australian family who had met up with their backpacking son on his gap year and a wealthy South African man. Chatting with our new friends,  we munched on the cinnamon rolls provided to us by Max the night before(thinking just how surreal it was to be eating cinnamon rolls on top of a Mayan temple), and watched the jungle wake up as the day began.

Tikal, Guatemala

Misty Mayan sunrise

Tikal, Guatemala

Top of Temple IV watching the sunrise

Tikal, Guatemala

Exploring Tikal

We left Tikal with awe of the mighty structures left behind by an ancient civilization as well as the surreal memories that had us wondering “Did that really happen?”. What are some of your strangest travel stories?

57 Comments on “Misadventures in the Mayan city of Tikal

    • I loved how uncrowded Tikal was as well as how closely we could explore the ruins.

  1. What a great adventure. It’s interesting what travel will make you do, like follow an unnamed stranger through a pre-dawn jungle. I thought almost all of Star Wars was CGI, so it’s interesting to know that Lucas took time to do some actual landscape filming. Now, I want to go and find that scene to match it up with your photo. Last of all, I wonder how bad was the rash on the Japanese girl after spending all night up there. At least, she probably had a breeze.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted…Family Trip Tips: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia with KidsMy Profile

    • Aside from seeing the amazing ruins I did come home with a good story. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. That’s so awesome!

    Okay, so it sounds a little funny when you say you followed strangers through the dark jungle with wildlife all around wanting to eat you. It also sounds strange when you talk about the Japanese girl who no shoes but hey, it was all part of the adventure…

    I wonder what did happen to her shoes… and why she decided to sleep there…
    Stacey recently posted…It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey … REALLY!?My Profile

  3. Brianna, thanks for sharing your beautiful Tikal photos. They are bringing back great memories as I visited the ruins almost 20 years ago. Unfortunately we only spent one day there and it wasn’t even as exciting as yours. We had no AK-47s, no strange guide in darkness, no jungle rash and no shoe-less Japanese girl, but the temples were still really stunning… 🙂
    Dennis Kopp recently posted…Exploring Bali’s Landscapes by ScooterMy Profile

    • I’m betting much hasn’t changed in 20 years. The temples are stunning and it was amazing to be able to explore them crowd free.

  4. Brianna, What a great story. I haven’t been to Tikal, but it calls to me for sure! I would do the same thing and blindly follow someone before realizing, hey, is this a good idea. It must be!
    Corinne recently posted…Early Spring in HallstattMy Profile

    • Well, I came out alright in the end and I now have a great story!

    • It was very cool being able to explore these ruins, and now I have some interesting stories to tell.

  5. What a great experience (maybe minus the jungle funk). It is interesting that you are basically handed over to a local for a guide. Loved your photos and story.

    • I really loved getting to explore the ruins. I hadn’t expected to get handed to another guide either but when traveling you just have to go with the flow.

    • Coati are very common throughout Central and South America, They are very cute!

    • The border crossing was just surreal, like I was in a movie.

    • I’m glad you like the photos, you’re bounds to get a few good shots somewhere like this. Hmm, a rash in Egypt? Maybe we’re allergic to pyramids!

  6. Beautiful…you tour guide sounds hilarious. I recently went on a trip with a tour guide gone wrong also we endured the enter tour with her while looking at other groups with perfect tour guides, sort of tour envy. So after we approached another tour guide and politely said we lost our tour guide can you give us a brief on what we missed…He was a gentleman and gave us a run down of the entire site…we just couldn’t bring ourselves it to report or complain blatantly about our half-ass tour guide as she did present lots of enthusiasm and seemed none the wiser. We did however make a general comment to the lead in hopes that in the future it would be improved.
    IntrovertlyBubbly recently posted…Lunch or something like it at Pestaurant 2014, Trinidad and TobagoMy Profile

    • The rash was so random! Tikal is definitely worth the effort and minor mishaps.

    • Tikal definitely takes a little effort to get to but was totally worth it.

    • Luckily for me it was too early in the morning to really think about all the eyes staring back at me from the dark. Watching the sunrise from the top of a Mayan pyramid was a once in a lifetime experience.

    • The sunrise and the temples were well worth all my other misadventures.

  7. Definitely a crazy adventure! Nice story telling, I felt like I was there with you guys. The pictures added to the story and I have to say my favorite was of the coati! We have had a few misadventures through out our travels as well. Thanks for sharing
    Simone recently posted…May Travel Expenses: China and ItalyMy Profile

  8. I absolutely loved Tikal. The history of the Mayan people was fascinating too. Our guide was really good and had heaps of knowledge about the area. I’m terrified of heights but made it up the temple to the top and the views did not disappoint. Your experience at sunset sounded fantastic. Did you ever find out any more about the Japanese girl?! Great photos and brilliant post
    Kate recently posted…Up Close: Lion in the SerengetiMy Profile

    • I was surprised how steep the pyramids were, could you imagine climbing them without the additional stairs?

    • Despite the misty sunrise it was still pretty cool watching the jungle wake up.

    • I’ve only recently started to explore Central America, its amazing what a different world it is so close to home!

  9. I think that any day that starts with a 4.30am jungle trek on the dark would be surreal! I have that same feeling when I do dawn bat surveys and then go back to bed after; I always wonder did I dream doing the survey…

    I’ll be it was worth the trek though 🙂
    Rachel recently posted…Ancient Oak Woods of TaynishMy Profile

  10. Tikal is one amazing place, and one place I would like to visit again. It’s pretty amazing they are still uncovering many ruins!

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