Tikal is open from six in the morning until six at night all year long. Twelve hours to explore the ancient kingdom
I wondered those same things and searched for as much information as possible before booking my family’s tour.
We finally decided to book a private tour guide for the Tikal sunrise tour and then go back into the park in the afternoon without a guide.
Did we make the right choice? Yes and no.
Our Tikal Sunrise Tour Experience
After reading so many wonderful reviews of the Tikal sunrise tour, I was convinced it was something that shouldn’t be missed.
Walking the worn path past ancient pyramids in complete darkness; climbing to the top of an east-facing pyramid and settling on cool stone steps; listening to the chorus of creatures slowly amplify as the jungle wakes; seeing the first beams of sun come up through the jungle.
I was sold.
Maybe it’s because no one in my family is a morning person, maybe it’s because there was so much fog, or possibly a combination of both. But, if I could visit Tikal again (and I hope to one day) I would skip the Sunrise Tour and instead start the tour at six when the park opens.
We booked a private guide for a sunrise tour through Gem Travel https://www.gemtrips.com/en. It cost 250 USD for our group of five (the three of us and my parents). We didn’t think it would be a good idea to book a big group tour with Eli because it was an early morning and a long walk for a five-year-old. A private guide provided us with more flexibility.
Eli was a good sport when we woke him up at 4:15 in the morning. He was excited to see the pyramids we’d read and talked about. We met our guide in the lobby of our hotel at 4:30 and walked to the park entrance to get in line for wrist bands. Staying in the park allowed us to “sleep in” compared to tourists staying in Flores who generally meet for the sunrise tour at 3:15 am.
The hotel restaurant wasn’t open that early but we were able to buy a cup of coffee at a stand near the park entrance.
The walk into the park with only the light of our headlamps was an eerie experience. Our guide stopped in the Great Plaza and we could just make out the outline of Temple II next to us.
It was still pitch black when we got to the base of the east-facing Temple IV. Our guide instructed us to climb the wooden stairs, find a seat on the Temple steps, and meet him back at the bottom in about an hour and a half when the sun was up.
We were the last people to arrive at the top of Temple IV and were surprised to see that there were about 50 people already there. Everyone was sitting in complete silence and we felt like we were interrupting them walking across the front of the temple to find an open step to sit on.
There were no jungle sounds and it was completely silent and dark for another half hour. At that point, I wasn’t sure why we all rushed to get to the top of the temple so early. The wind was blowing and it was a little chilly sitting on the cold stone.
Listening to the jungle wake up was underwhelming. With the wind blowing, we could hear birds and the occasional truck but that was about it. It started to get a little lighter but everything was socked in with fog. It was impossible to tell when the sun actually crested the horizon.
Our guide said that it’s foggy 90% of the time so seeing an actual sunrise is rare.
In hindsight, we should have postponed our tour until six when the park opened. We would have been able to sleep in a few more hours and save the extra 100
Tikal After the Sun Came Up
After the sun came up we truly experienced the wonders of Tikal.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and spoke perfect English. My dad described him spot-on by saying “he gave us all the important information but didn’t ever talk just to talk”.
We made our way around Temple IV learning how the temples were originally built and how they were being meticulously uncovered and restored.
The fog started to lift when we arrived at Temple III around 8:30 in the morning. Steep wooden stairs have been built to the platform at the top of the temple. Our guide told us that access to the top of Temple III was only recently re-opened. The fog was almost completely gone when we got to the top and we had an amazing 360 degree view of Tikal.
Plaza of the lost world and Plaza of the 7 Temples was our next stop. We saw the smaller of the two ball courts and learned about the winning team captain being sacrificed (
Temple V was our last stop before the Great Plaza. We were lucky to have it all to ourselves for the ten minutes we were there.
Right around the corner was the Great Plaza. The Great Plaza was nothing short of spectacular.
Eli was a trooper all morning but by the time we got to the Great Plaza, he was exhausted.
We bought ice cold cokes at a stand just outside the Great Plaza. As we were about to leave an old truck with bench seats in the back pulled up to unload a group of tourists. Our guide said, “hey, do you want a ride back to the entrance?” My Dad and Eli’s eyes instantly lit up at the mention of getting a ride. We all jumped into the back of the truck for a bumpy ride out of the park. There was no charge for the ride, just a tip for the driver.
I would suggest avoiding Tikal during the middle of the day if at all possible.
On our drive out at 11:00 we passed hordes of people heading in.
Our guide told us that Tikal generally gets crowded around ten o’clock. That’s when the tourists arrive from Belize. He also said there are quite a few tourists who fly from Guatemala City to Flores in the morning and they usually arrive around ten also.
Mid-day in Tikal isn’t ideal because it gets so hot. It was just starting to get hot as we left the park.
Tikal in the Late Afternoon
My mom and I were ready to go back into Tikal after a late breakfast, a long nap, and a refreshing swim in the pool.
We walked back in at about 3:30 and were surprised to discover that all of the crowds were gone. When we arrived at the Great Plaza we had a few minutes when we were the only people there! It was surreal.
The evening was hands down my favorite time to experience Tikal. We had two hours to explore the Great Plaza with only a few other people.
We hiked up the stairs to the top of Temple I and watched the shadows grow long across the Great Plaza and Temple II.
The jungle came to life after the heat of the day. Coatimundis scurried around looking for scraps of food left behind by the tourists.
Tikal was the highlight of our trip to Guatemala. Although we spent most of the day there, it was still hard to leave that evening.
The ideal time to visit Tikal would be at six am, right when the national park opens. I would recommend skipping the Tikal sunrise tour, it isn’t worth the extra entrance fee and waking up so early. Around ten-thirty or eleven, take a break when the park starts to get crowded. Then, make sure to return in the evening.