We planned to see Tikal today, and given our experience at Palenque (getting all hot, sweaty and overheated at the ruins and then absolutely drooping on the ride afterwards) we decided to establish a base of operations at nearby Flores and spend two nights, instead. That way we could leave the bikes at the hotel, ride up to Tikal in a bus and wear our walking around shoes and pants instead of our motorcycle pants. Afterwards, we could catch a ride back to Flores and shower and chill in the hotel, instead of trying to ride somewhere with the rest of the day.
This turned out to be absolutely the right call.
The only hotel in Flores with secure parking (or parking at all?) was the Gran Hotel De La Isla. It was more than our typical budget, but we’ve been staying in cheap hotels that always end up smelling like cesspools for a while. We decided to splurge on this place – partially because by paying with cash, we got a 10% discount and breakfast included. We rationalized that it helped to offset the cost somewhat and stayed here.
Breakfast was surprisingly important today. We were up late last night (going out to dinner after a full day of riding makes everything run late) so the earliest we could drag ourselves from bed today was 7AM. There’s a sunrise in Tikal thing that sounded vaguely neat but neither of us wanted to get up that early. So we got up at 7, grabbed breakfast at around 7:30 and took a tuk-tuk to a place where we could catch a 9AM bus to Tikal. Ran around for a few minutes looking for water to fill our Camelbaks, which we wisely brought with us, and got on the bus to Tikal.
Surprisingly, we really enjoyed the break of riding a bus somewhere. We both agree that we wouldn’t want to do it regularly, but it was nice to just sit back and look at the scenery and let someone else take care of the driving. The bus ride up to Tikal took around an hour (turns out it was 60km away not 30), and a surprising amount of that was through the Tikal National Park. Almost as soon as we entered the park, the jungle encroached right up to the road, and we were passing constant “Animal Crossing” signs for a wide range of animals. We saw animal crossing signs for a big cat (jaguar?), snake, turkey, and something we think might be a tapir but we’re not sure.
Bus dropped us off at Tikal shortly after 10AM, and we got our tickets (150 quetzals each! At the slightly different rate, that’s the equivalent of 450 pesos for the two of us, where the ruins we visited in Mexico were all 102 pesos for each of us… so Guatemala is over 4 times the price? It was expensive!) We started heading into the park, and saw a sign just after “ticket control” (where they check your ticket and punch a hole in it to validate it) saying that it was a 25 minute walk to the Great Plaza…
Yikes! We’d read that Tikal was large, but we had no idea the scale of the place. It was probably a 20 minute walk from the ticket booth to the central plaza, which had a lot of impressive stuff; two temples (but you could only climb one of them), an acropolis and some other impressive structures that apparently used to be residential in nature. This main collection of structures was quite impressive in and of itself.
Then we started wandering toward the outlying structures. Kay had gotten a “Central America on a Budget” book (Rough Guide, I think?) that happened to have a map of Tikal in it, and we needed it. Tikal is huge. Unfortunately, the scale on the map is a bit misleading… it makes structures look closer together than they actually are. Also, the jungle is quite dense, so you could be walking right past a structure at times and miss it. (We missed a few buildings, we later realized, when we went back to look at the map.)
Tikal is great, though. In spite of all of the walking around, we just found it really impressive. In fact, the walking around through the jungle on un-manicured paths full of tree roots, vines and rocks just waiting to trip the unwary… that’s half of Tikal’s charm. We really enjoyed walking through the jungle and not seeing another person, and then emerging at a structure and suddenly there are people. At one point, Kay said “How are all of these people *getting* to the structures? We’re not seeing them walking through the jungle. Do they just spontaneously appear wherever you find a structure?”
We also enjoyed the quiet of Tikal. Yes, tons of people visit it. But the site is spread out over such a large area that the people aren’t all concentrated in one place. And the jungle is so dense that as soon as you walk away from a collection of structures, you can’t hear the people anymore. It’s quite peaceful and awesome. At one point, later in the day, we’d walked to a group of outlying buildings and the path looked like people rarely came there. We were just commenting on that when I noticed a monkey in the canopy, and we started snapping shots. These guys were just hanging out, and they were the first monkeys we’d seen, in spite of the warning when we entered the park.
In all, we spent five and a half hours wandering around Tikal, and we missed stuff. There was more to see. We were getting really tired at that point, since it was around 3:30PM and we hadn’t eaten anything except Doritos since breakfast, and the last bus was at 5PM but we were hoping to catch the 4pm “just in case” – so we headed out. But we both agreed that we were still interested in Tikal at that point… it wasn’t like Monte Alban where we were just like “Yeah, yeah, let’s go see it so we can leave.” If we’d had the time and the energy we would have happily kept exploring.
I don’t think words or photos can do it justice, honestly. Tikal is amazing. It’s the entire experience – walking through the jungle, surrounded by wildlife, and stumbling unexpectedly across these really impressive ruins. We climbed 4 of the 5 temples (one isn’t climbable) and a number of smaller structures, and it wore us out. But I have no doubt that if there’d been more tall things to climb, we would have tried, because we were really enjoying it. I think it’s our favorite ruin so far, and I worry that nothing else is going to compare to it.
So yeah. If you’re going to be in Guatemala, see Tikal. Even though it is 150 quetzals and takes a while – make the time for it. It’s really impressive. Our early quote of the day was going to be “Tikal – It’s Pretty Kick-Ass.” But later we had to amend that to “awesome” or “impressive” – I don’t think we ever decided, but it’s a little bit of all of the above.
When the time came to catch the 4PM bus back to Flores, we were happy to be on the bus. We were physically tired and hadn’t eaten, and the idea of trying to ride a bike back at that point would have been daunting. Also, it was so late in the day that if we *had* planned to try to make forward progress after Tikal, we hardly would have gotten anywhere – maybe not even back to our starting point. So taking an extra day at the hotel and leaving the bikes here so we could explore on foot was absolutely the right call.
After we got back to Flores, we stopped at the first restaurant we saw to grab dinner and were surprised with a lovely “soup of the day” with our orders – chicken consomme. It was basically chicken and rice soup, and while neither of us had been particularly craving soup, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was delicious and wonderful. Unfortunately, the entrees that we ordered were basically gringo food, and we found it surprisingly disappointing. So far, the food in Mexico has trumped the food in Guatemala by a big margin.
It was luxurious to wander back to our hotel afterwards, and play on the internet. We’re planning to watch a little TV and otherwise unwind. Staying here in Flores for two nights was a splurge, but we’ve really enjoyed it.