The longer I travel, the more laid-back I become.
After spending many years wandering head-first into disaster and surviving it all (usually) in one piece has taught me that everything works out okay in the end.
And that has made me lazy when it comes to planning.
I no longer feel the urge to sit down and figure out the logistics of every single activity and travel day. Instead, I think to myself, ah, I’m sure there’s a way to do it.
There usually is.
After successfully dodging the worst attempt at a bribe in history at the Belize-Guatemala border, Dave and I now had to figure out how to get to El Remate — the small village where we’d be basing ourselves as we explored Tikal. My travel experiences up until now had shown me that if I needed to get somewhere, it’d be easy to find someone who was willing to take me. Especially when I stood out so clearly as a tourist.
Sure enough, a guy wandered up to us just minutes after we’d entered Guatemala and asked where we were going. He agreed to take us the hour-long journey in his minivan and we negotiated the price down to a reasonable 7 USD. After stopping at a small store to change our Belizean dollars into Guatemalan quetzales, we piled into the back of his colectivo.
I sat transfixed as we made our way past trees, lakes, and military checkpoints, then were dropped off at the nearest intersection to El Remate. From there, it was just a fifteen minute walk to our accommodation.
We were staying at La Casa de Don David, a gorgeous guesthouse with an enormous tree, a lakeside location, and a secluded bar where the drinks were served via a zipline from the main restaurant. I still think of this guesthouse as one of my favourite places I’ve ever stayed.
We’d arrived late in the afternoon, which gave us not very long to figure out a plan of attack for Tikal. The majority of visitors opt to see it as part of a tour, but you’ve probably realised by now that I try to do things independently if at all possible. Organised tours aren’t really my thing.
Fortunately, it was easy to do this with Tikal. The guesthouse ran a shuttle to the park at 3:30 a.m. (gulp) to get us in at the 4 a.m. opening time. Eight hours later, they’d pick us up and bring us back to the guesthouse.
That sounded pretty perfect to me!
Well, aside from the whole waking up at 3 a.m. thing.
We stayed awake just long enough to catch the sunset over Lake Petén Itzá, then turned in for the night.
We emerged into the early morning darkness several hours later and shivered our way into the minivan. I alternated between dozing in my seat and gazing out at the break of dawn, wondering if it was always quite so foggy at this time in the morning.
I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of me.
We paid the entrance fee and shuffled inside. If anything, the clouds of fog seemed to be thickening as we made our way towards the Temple of the Jaguar, chosen to be our first spot for no other reason than it was the only structure we’d heard of.
We hurried our way down a small path, then entered a large clearing. And there it was, standing in front of us: the reason why people visit Tikal.
It was, um, magnificent?
So, honestly, guys? At this point, I was starting to wonder why on earth we’d woken up at 3 in the morning when we couldn’t even really see anything. Was this normal?
But we’re positive people, and the one great positive to the bad weather was that everyone else who was there at this time quickly disappeared into the mist and were free to explore the ruins alone.
I mean, sure, we could barely see them. But how often do you get to be somewhere like this and have it all to yourself?
We clambered over the hazy ruins for a couple of hours until we came across Temple IV, which is the highest pyramid in the park. We made our way to the top of the 230 ft structure for something to do, having no idea that it was best place to be for sunrise.
At the top, we squeezed our way out onto a ledge, with only a few other couples around for company.
It wasn’t the best view, of course — we could still only see about ten metres in front of our faces, but the sounds more than made up for it. We sat breathlessly and listened to the jungle come alive, howler monkeys and spider monkeys and toucans all singing out as the sun fought an ongoing battle with the clouds.
It felt like the most magical moment of my life, and I had no idea that the best was yet to come.
As if someone had pushed a button, the fog started to lift. Gradually it turned from dense clouds to thin wisps, then raised up from the canopy and burned off within minutes. As Dave and I sat and watched with our jaws agape, gradually our visibility increased.
Suddenly, we could see a temple poking up through the treeline! And then another. And another. We’d had no idea that any of them were there. It was like putting on glasses and suddenly seeing the world in a different light.
The sky turned from a light grey to a vibrant blue in the space of 15 minutes, and it felt as though all of Tikal had been revealed to us.
It was a privilege to have been in the right place at the right time.
I convinced Dave to remain sitting up there with me for half an hour more, because I wanted to commit this magical sight to memory.
Which I’m glad I did, as I would later lose all of my photos and videos of this experience.
By the time we descended, there were hundreds more people exploring the park, and I realised we’d made the right decision to visit the most popular spots early. Now, we could head for the less popular temples and experience them just the two of us.
Well, almost the two of us.
We also got to share the ruins with an ocellated turkey, alternatively known as a jungle turkey and found only in the Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala. Its vibrant colours immediately made it my new favourite animal.
But then I discovered coatimundis, which knocked the ocellated turkeys off the top spot. When viewed from far away, they kind of looked like mini brontosauruses, if you pretended their upright tails were actually their necks.
Which I did, and then giggled about for a solid hour.
And there were a whole host of other animals to hang out with, too. Like this little guy.
One thing I don’t regret doing is returning to the Jaguar Temple once the fog had cleared.
Our visit had been disappointing before, but now that I got to see it in all of its glory, with bright blue skies behind it, it ended up being the highlight of my visit.
We continued to explore Tikal for a few more hours, ticking off most of the lesser-visited sites. It turned out we’d planned our visit well by hitting up the more popular spots first and then saving the less popular ones for when the crowds had descended. We probably ran into less than a dozen people after heading off the main trail.
Which is pretty remarkable, considering we didn’t plan at all.
When it came time to leave, we’d spent eight hours inside the park and I knew we hadn’t managed to cram in everything. But I was satisfied with what we did see.
It was time to head back to La Casa de Don David and spend the rest of the afternoon lazing in hammocks and ordering our drinks via zipline.
Back at the border the next day, I gazed longingly back towards Guatemala. I’d loved our time in the country and had immediately connected with it in a way I’d yet to do so in Belize. Dave and I even spoke about how, if we hadn’t left our backpacks behind at our guesthouse in San Ignacio, we’d have most likely continued on through Guatemala rather than returning.
Still, we had ten days to see the best Belize has to offer and then we’d be back. I was already plotting out adventures for when we’d return.
Rather than exchanging my wad of quetzales at the border, I folded them up and placed them carefully in the pocket of my jeans. I was looking forward to using them again soon.
Little did I know, just days later, we’d be cancelling our return to Guatemala, as well as the rest of our trip through Latin America.
Note: All of the photos in this post were taken by Dave. That’s because I dropped my laptop while my SD card was still in it and I lost most of my photos from Belize and Guatemala. Thanks for letting me steal yours, Dave!
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The same thing happened to me at Machu Picchu – when we first got to the site we could barely see more than a few metres in front of us through the fog, then it slowly lifted, revealing the incredible mountains surrounding the site – making it all the more magical.
That sounds amazing!
Hahaha the image of brontosauruses can’t leave my mind now! I would love to see these little guys in real life and laugh some more! Tikal looks lovely, but it pales a bit in comparison to the brontosauruses ;)
Right?! They were so awesome.
That is crazy, I just came back from Yucatan! We had a lot of coatimundis at our hotels. They are so cute, we used to feed them x) I went to Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, it was beautiful, but your photo look so mystical. I’d love to go there.
Ah, jealous! They’re definitely in my top 10 favourite animals :-)
I really like the fact that you have travelled to a place with so much rich history. I enjoy traveling places that brings me learning outcomes about the country’s culture. But sometimes it is just hard to know which historical destination to visit next. Working for events promotion company in London, where travel are a popular category, I try to attend events to gain more inspiration about where to go. I have come to the conclusion that I want to backpacking and maybe Guatemala is a good place for that?
Guatemala would be great for that, and all of Central America, too. I wish I’d seen more of it when I’d had the opportunity.
Tikal looks amazing! I’m super jealous-didn’t have time to get there or anywhere else in Guatemala at all when I went to Belize. Your pics on this post are goregous.
Ah, I loved Guatemala so much. One of my biggest travel disappointments is not getting to see more of it than I did.
Nice post, pictures are amazing. When is the best time to visit Tikal?
As in best time of year? Best time of day?
Best time of the year :)
I just came back home from Santa Elena and luckily got to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal by some rides from the locals. Thanks for your photos, Love the wildlife here
great share lauren i really enjoyed it thank you very much for this lovey post
Ah, jelous =). You have great days Lauren. Your pics are so amazing, they are really lovely
Thanks so much, Kevin! :-)
I was just flipping through some of my old photos of Tikal (March 2006) when the memories flooded back. As you say, it’s pretty magical!
Now I’m thinking about visiting it again.
I wonder if the crowd had increased in the past decade. When I visited in ’06 it was relatively quiet and we never encountered huge groups.
It’s heartening to see that they still allow scaling of the temple for Sun rise.
It was still really quiet at sunrise, but by about midday, there were tour groups everywhere! As long as you get there early and do all of your sightseeing in the morning, you’ll still feel as if you have the complex all to yourself.
Amazing in 70’s when fewer people