Are the Ruins of Tikal Really Worth Visiting?
My time in Guatemala was quickly coming to an end, but I had one more stop to make before crossing the border to Belize. For most of the travelers I had crossed who were moving down through Central America, the Tikal Ruins were always mentioned as a must see destination. Considering it is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in the world I had assumed the same. The journey from Semuc Champey consisted of an 11 hour shuttle to Flores (booked from Greengo’s Hotel), a small island town with a touristy vibe.
Keep an eye out for tour vendors who jump on the shuttle to Flores and try to sell you tours. While the guy who entered our mini bus was very friendly and seemed helpful, a few of us had read about scammers who front as tour operators and sell you fake tours. DO NOT hand over any money on the bus, no matter how friendly they are or how good the deal is. Your safest best is to book through your hostel!
Accommodation in Flores seems to be pretty limited, I stayed at Los Amigos Hostel which had a super cool vibe. It was half hostel, half bar and half restaurant (fractions aren’t my thing) and they had good Belgian beer for a smidge over $2 – how could you go wrong? I booked the Tikal tour for 100Q through the hostel the night before which didn’t include the park entry of 150Q. We opted for the day tour, however there is a sunrise tour which leaves extremely early in the morning (and costs an extra 150Q) but offers amazing sunrise views atop the tallest temple. After a minor delay which involved me losing the ticket and receipt in the morning (I know you’re not surprised Mum!), we were eventually on our hour and a half trip from Flores to Tikal.
I had my drone with me, ready to get some amazing shots of the ruins. Like the responsible drone pilot that I am, I asked our guide if drones were allowed in the park and the response was a very firm no (something I have come to accept when visiting archaeological parks). After a little more probing he said that two years back they had an incident involving someone flying their drone too close to a bird’s nest which was on top of the tallest temple. The bird decided to defend its babies from the drone and as you might guess the bird came off worse than the drone – it also didn’t help that the bird was an endangered falcon.
The tour started with a walk through the jungle – don’t worry it’s not a hike, I was in thongs (pick the Aussie, right?) and it was all good. Our guide stopped at a tree after only 30 seconds of walking, looked up, cupped his hands to his mouth and made a loud, rumbling roar. For a moment we thought he had a screw loose, until a group of howler monkeys roared back at him even louder. Remember to stay out of poop flinging range!
We learnt to count using Mayan numbers which makes use of dots, lines and shells in a combination of a base 5 and base 20 system, instead of our base 10 system. To my surprise this actually stuck with me all the way to Mexico some ten weeks later, where I could read some numbers and dates off the Mayan ruins in Palenque.
I was also treated to one of the delicacies of the park – juicy termites! I volunteered as first cab off the rank (I was pretty hungry to be honest) and I have to say they weren’t that bad at all. I can only describe them as a nutty, carrot flavor. Don’t forget to chew or you’ll feel them running around inside your mouth!
In Tikal there are seven temples, the biggest, Temple Four is 70m tall. The city was estimated to be home to around 70-90 thousand Mayans who practiced human sacrifices as a way to offer nourishment to the gods. Blood was seen as the most substantial source of nourishment by the Mayans, so offering a live person was seen as the ultimate sacrifice. Human sacrifices were usually wealthy, high status people as the gods deserved only the best. Naturally a city would not sacrifice their own people, but would kidnap the royals from neighbouring cities to sacrifice instead. The person to be sacrificed had their arms and legs tied up behind their back and placed on a circular altar, where they were often decapitated.
Temple Four offers a great view of the surrounding jungle, with a couple of the taller temples poking up above the canopy. If you have the willpower to get up early enough for the morning tour you would definitely be rewarded with an impressive sunrise – unfortunately after two 12 hour bus rides in three days I just wasn’t up to the task.
The ruins themselves are massive, easily some of the biggest that I had seen but I still didn’t really feel impressed by them for some reason. It may have been due to the huge crowds of tourists or the size of our own tour group, but whatever it was I just couldn’t connect with the vibe of the place nor could I really imagine what it would have been like to have lived here over a thousand years ago. It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend that you visit Tikal, it just didn’t live up to the hype in my opinion.
If there was anything to take from this post, I think it’s that shelling out the extra 150Q for the sunrise tour would make the Tikal Ruins so much more magical. To me the charm and mystery of the Tikal ruins was lost because of how big of a tourist attraction it is. The structures are hugely impressive, yet I think the experience would be improved by setting that alarm a few hours earlier, arriving before the park opens and watching the sunrise over the jungle before it’s taken over by the masses. So I guess the answer is yes, is worth visiting – but be prepared for the flocks of tourists!