Temple of the Jaguar

A Side Trip to Tikal

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We’d only spent a few days in Belize, not nearly enough to get a feel for the place, and already we were leaving. It wasn’t a problem – we’d be back again in 48 hours – but it felt strange to be swapping currencies and languages yet again. We were off to Tikal.

Arguably the most famous of the Mayan ruins, Tikal sits around 100km into the northern part of Guatemala. There are stupidly-priced day trips that leave from various points in Belize, but (a) they require spending all day on a bus for a few hours in the park, missing sunrise and all the good bits and (b) did I mention they were stupidly priced?

So we opted for a more interesting plan.

For $20 BZD the taxi from San Ignacio to the border was simple and straightforward, and came with complimentary cracked windscreen and an old moustachioed driver with plenty of stories to tell. Getting stamped out of Belize took no more than a couple of minutes (and, of course, a fee), and before we knew it we were across the river that divides the two countries and lining up in a tin shed in Guatemala.

Hailing from an island nation, I always find land borders interesting, especially when there’s a change of language. It had been the same going from Mexico to Belize a few days earlier, and I was almost looking forward to switching back to mangled Spanish. I’d heard rumours of various scams attempted by the immigration officials on the Guatemalan side, and I’m pleased to report that, at least in my case, it was the worst attempt at a border rip-off I’ve ever experienced.

Him: “You need to pay the entry fee. 20 quetzales.”

Me: “Oh, I didn’t think there was one. Can I have a receipt please?”

Him: “No need to pay. Welcome to Guatemala.”

Alrighty then.

I wasn’t quite sure how we’d be getting from the border to El Remate, our home for the next couple of nights, but as usual it wasn’t much of a problem. Swatting away the taxi drivers who descended like flies, we walked to the nearest intersection and looked for a white van. It’s all about the white vans in this part of the world.

Sure enough, a guy caught our eye and asked where we were going. After a brief discussion about the price, and changing some currency at the nearest convenience store/currency exchange/whatever you like shop, we were ready to go. Well, not quite ready to go – there was the obligatory ten minute wait for extra passengers and then, when none eventuated, a half hour trawl around town trying to find anybody else heading in the same direction.

But then, then, we were off.

Our colectivo trip took little over an hour, wending its way past trees, lakes, military checkpoints and several mildly-puzzled looks at the only two gringos in a van full of locals. Dropped off at the nearest intersection, we strolled fifteen minutes up the road to our accommodation in El Remate — which may or may not have had a deck overlooking the lake that offered drink service by zipline, an enormous tree and a sunset that could sell a million postcards.

El Ramate tree
Sunset over Lake Petén Itzá

Emerging into the darkness at some ungodly hour the following morning, we piled into (obviously) another white van and drove off into the gloom. Dawn started to slowly break as we drew closer to the park entrance, but with it came an increasingly thick blanket of fog. Apparently those glorious shots of ruins towering over the jungle canopy were going to have to wait a little longer… mainly because most of the time I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of my face.

Foggy Tikal
Foggy Tikal
Foggy Tikal

Still, the advantages of being there so early far outweighed minor concerns like, well, seeing anything. With such a large area to cover, the few other visitors in the park at that hour quickly disappeared into the mist. Even the most popular sections, like around the Temple of the Jaguar, were deserted except for us and a group of roving coatimundis (small, monkey-like animals) on the hunt for food.

They found plenty of fruit to keep them amused, but my own search for breakfast would have to wait a few more hours.


After wandering around the foggy ruins for a couple of hours, we found ourselves near Temple IV, the highest pyramid at Tikal. The climb to the top took several hot and sweaty minutes, but sitting on the ledge in near solitude and gazing out over the jungle made it all worthwhile.

Foggy View from Temple IV

And then, as if right on cue, the fog silently rolled away. A dozen temples emerged from the mist as the sun came out – we’d had no idea most of them were even there. Howler monkeys screamed in the distance, birds swooped above the trees and insects buzzed all around. The sky turned from grey to blue, and with it the colours of Tikal were finally revealed.

To say it was spectacular may be one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever made.

Sunny View from Temple IV

Eventually dragging ourselves away from the view, we returned to ground level and made for many of the sites we’d missed before. A few tour groups were starting to arrive by this point, but even then, the sheer size of Tikal made them easy to avoid.

Sunny Tikal
Sunny Tikal 2
Sunny Tikal

Even the coatimundis seemed excited that the sun was out, their antics distracting me for far longer than was strictly necessary. Because, well, vertical tails are funny.

Kinkajous everywhere

Climbing back up the Temple of the Masks for the second time that morning, we were greeted with a view that may, just may, have been a little better than the first time around.

View from Temple of the Masks

I’d largely ignored the North Acropolis in our earlier visit to this area, as it didn’t look like much when shrouded in fog. Oddly enough, clambering all over it – and looking back towards the main plaza – in the bright sunshine ended up being one of my favourite parts of the entire complex. As always, a sunny day makes all the difference.

Looking back from North Acropolis

Just ask this lizard.

Lizard at Tikal

We continued to explore Tikal for a couple more hours, taking in the rest of the less-visited sites. Saving these areas until last was a good choice – we saw less than ten other people after heading off the main trail, despite the rows of vans in the car park when we finally re-emerged.

All in all, we’d spent close to eight hours inside Tikal, and still felt that there was more to see. Spending a full day in the park – and two nights nearby – definitely felt like the right option, especially when travelling without our own transport. While it might have been possible to return to Belize in the late afternoon, it would have made for a very long day for absolutely no benefit.

Instead, we spent the rest of the day making liberal use of that zipline-based drinks service back at the hotel. If that doesn’t beat hours in bumpy vans and taxis, I don’t know what does.

Back at the border the next day, I looked longingly back down the dusty road into Guatemala. I’d loved the little part of the country I’d seen – if we hadn’t left our main backpacks behind in San Ignacio, we’d almost certainly have extended our trip.

Tucking my last remaining 100 quetzale note into the back of my wallet, I was already looking forward to the chance to come back and use it. The next trip to Guatemala will, without a doubt, last a lot longer than 48 hours.

Where I Stayed

We spent two nights at the lovely Le Casa Don David, on the shores of Lake Petén Itza in El Remate. While the ‘premium’ room wasn’t fancy, it was clean and had a comfortable bed, a/c, hot water and a couple of rocking chairs on the porch that were put to good use.

At a little over $50/night for two people with breakfast or dinner, it’s relatively expensive by Guatemalan standards — but being so close to Tikal justified the extra cost.

Plus, did I mention that zipline?

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  1. Loved reading this Dave, and seeing the photos – was the sky really that blue?! Increible! I should be visiting there before the end of the year so this makes me pretty excited to go!!

    Btw – about to book our flights – have you been to Mexico City? If so, worth it? Thinking of flying in there and then travelling overland down to the yucatan over land via Oaxaca. Otherwise will fly into Cancun.

    1. Yeah, the sky was crazy over the course of the day — from grey and foggy to beautiful blue sky later on. Totally worth the trip, it’s just an amazing site.

      I actually didn’t get to ‘the DF’ as everyone calls it — our flights into Mexico went straight to Puerto Vallarta, and our intentions of heading overland from Guanajuato to Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca didn’t pan out (basically because it was surprisingly cold in Guanajuato over Christmas and we just wanted to get back to the beach, so flew to Cancun and went down the coast instead!)

      1. Cheers, and we are going to do that trip sometime but we just made a decision to fly to Buenos Aires first and work our way north, rather than south… When my girlfriend and I compared our lists of what we really wanted to do – Argentina and Chile seemed to cover them all so we figured we’d start there – in case we never made it that far south 🙂 Tough decisions… 😉

  2. Sunset pictures are gorgeous, like all the others!! And love that attempt at a rip-off… I’ve been subject to a couple of experiences like that in the subcontinent too – it cracks me up. It’s like “I couldn’t even be bothered trying to convince you!”

    1. You know, I think you’re right. I got my info from a site about the animals of Tikal, which oddly didn’t mention coatimundis at all, but they do look a lot like them. Apparently the two animals are related, but definitely different. I’ve updated the post – thanks! 🙂

  3. That mist gave the Tikal ruins such an otherworldly feeling. I can’t wait to experience Tikal for myself in a couple of months!

  4. I loved Tikal, mainly due to visiting on the 12/12/2012 which meant there were a lot of ceremonies and rituals being performed around the grounds. About 10 minutes after watching a rain ceremony being performed the blue skies were replaced with thick black clouds and we were pelted by some of the heaviest rain I have everexperienced. We ran along the flooded paths and up to the top of the Jaguar temple. There was no one else braving the rain and we had the rain pelted view over the temples and forest to ourselves. It was a very magical experience.