Dawn over Tikal

Up at 3.45am, with just enough time to run a brush through my hair and throw on my jungle boots before heading over to the lobby of the Tikal Inn for some strong coffee – black, no sugar – I don’t mess around that early in the morning. There I met with Nixon who was doing double-duty, sunset the previous night, and sunrise this morning. We were not alone this time; we were accompanied by a gorgeous looking Swedish couple who had thrown in their dayjobs and travelled around South and Central America for the past 5 months – this was the last leg of their journey before flying north to Florida and then back to Sweden to pick up where they left off.

There wasn’t even a glimmer of daylight when we left the lodge and started walking along the trails towards Temple 4, but we didn’t need the assistance of flashlights because the full moon was so bright and our eyes acclimatised to the dimly lit pathways pretty quickly. It was only when we were under cover of the soaring trees that we needed to resort to our flashlights. We covered the distance to Temple 4 pretty quickly, swapping travel stories along the way, and ascended the steep stairs with plenty of time before the sun dared to show its face. Sitting on the uppermost steps of the temple, listening to the clamour of the nighttime animals from the jungle floor, we saw the first chink of light appear through the darkness, outlining the temples ahead.

Then, just as dawn was about to break, a thick swirling fog swept across the landscape and blanketed everything in sight. It was quite spectacular to behold, glowing an almost unearthly lavender in the early morning light.

From a barely visible tree top, a pair of toucans settled in to greet the new light with a melodic refrain. It was just magical.

Toucans singing their little hearts out in the foggy morning light

Nixon taking in the view and enjoying the birdsong from the temple's uppermost steps

As it got lighter, I climbed to the very top step of the temple to take a photo of my jungle boots because, hey, that’s how I roll. Wild and crazy chick, me! You can’t get any higher than this in Tikal without the aid of pharmaceuticals which could get you gaol time. Temple 4, also known as the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent and constructed around 741 AD, soars to a dizzying height of 70 meters.

At the top of the world in Tikal

And one more, with my boots over the jungle below:

My jungle boots, with jungle on them, over the jungle!

I’ll stop now, before this turns into one of those terrible slide shows your neighbours force you to watch of their holidays in Benidorm. It was time to descend the stairs again, and on the way down, we met a praying mantis on its way up. It looked surprised to see us.

Hey toots, do you come here often?

Now it was off to explore the ruins. We had a couple of hours – our “Amanecer” ticket to the park was good until 8am. We saw all kinds of stunning structures amidst the thickly forested surroundings, and looking back as we made our way along the trail, we realised exactly how imposing Temple 4 was.

Temple 4 rising up out of the mist

Nixon was in full tour guide mode now, regaling us with tales of the early Mayans and their proficiency in the sciences and the arts. We followed him as he led the way deftly along the trails, blindsiding us with the most stunning views of this ancient Mayan city that had been reclaimed by the jungle.

Then we popped out into the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Nixon had brought us here because he knew this was a spot where we’d have a very good chance of spotting wildlife. There were parrots squawking, woodpeckers rat-tat-tapping out noisy rhythms on nearby trees, brightly coloured toucans flitting amongst the treetops and a feeding tree where spider monkeys congregated. I was in heaven.

Who's a pretty bird?

You're pretty too!

Fuzzy little baby spider monkey all alone in the crook of a branch

To get on eye level with the monkeys, who were high up in the tree tops, we clambered up a grassy hill, which was actually an unrestored temple – there are many more like this in the area. From the top you can see the temple peeping out, but from ground level you wouldn’t even know there was a building there at all.

Now we headed towards Grand Plaza, home of the impressive Temple 1, otherwise known as The Temple of the Grand Jaguar. At about 45 meters in height, it towers proudly over the Grand Plaza. Standing in the very centre of the plaza, Nixon told us that while most people today assume the best vantage point is from the top of one of the surrounding structures, in reality, the best place to be is right in the centre of the plaza, as it is acoustically perfect, and symbolically represents the point where all directions converge.

Nixon left us to explore Temples 1 and 2 (The Temple of the Masks, a trifling 38 meters high), and the North and Central Acropolises (I want to use acropoli but acropolises is correct) surrounding the Grand Plaza as he went in search of transport, because by now we’d overshot our 8am exit time by well over an hour. When he returned, we hopped in the back of a park ranger’s truck and got driven back towards the exit, with Nixon pointing out further temples and wildlife along the way.

And we did all that before breakfast, which we shared with Nixon back at the Tikal Inn. Not bad, really, considering I don’t usually achieve that much in a week anywhere else. The romance of this ancient Mayan city of Tikal has crept into my heart and enchanted my soul so completely I don’t want to leave.


About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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10 Responses to Dawn over Tikal

  1. What an amazing adventure! Thats definitely going on my list. 🙂


  2. nice story, i did palenque and tikal, nothing like that, in the 90s have no photos so haven’t written about it, but i should do a trip down memory lane, from my memory, at pikal in mexico, there was lots of mush room going down, i never took any …. but palenque, in south mexico, in my opinion, was amazing, maybe i’ll write it, nice story, love the shoes!

    • ailsapm says:

      I’d love to visit Palenque, Far Side Travel, everyone I know who has visited has raved about it. Glad you like my jungle boots, I am very attached to them. 🙂

  3. I’m unbelievably jealous of you right now. We only did the area around Antigua when I was in Guatemala, and while Copan was brilliant, it’s Tikal that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first heard of the Maya. Guess I’ll just have to go back to central america. How ever will I cope.

    Is the dawn trip easy to book? I’d hate to miss out by not booking early.

    • ailsapm says:

      Oops, a little late responding, obsessedramblings. Tikal is amazing, you must go back and visit. I felt the same way as you, and even though it was at the opposite end of the country, I just couldn’t leave without visiting. I looked at maybe taking a bus as it was cheaper, but ended up flying instead because I was travelling alone and it was safer. It was really easy to book the dawn trip. I booked the flight from Antigua last minute, and it included an afternoon tour, but when I got there I changed it for the sunset tour and for a few dollars more added on the dawn tour too. Absolutely worth every penny. xxx

  4. hazelweiser says:

    I spent the first six months of 1972 in Guatemala, hitchhiking through the countryside, and made it up to Tikal. It was a magical place, full of magical stories, told to us by a Guatemalan archeologist who took us inside the park late at night so that we could watch the monkeys arrive at Temple Seven.

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