The jungle was deserted as I ran through it.
…deserted of humans, that is.
Howler monkeys screeched over my head and the songs of hundreds of colorful birds filled the darkness around me. The light from my headlamp ricocheted jaggedly off rocks and vines, periodically reflecting back at me in the golden eyes of whatever creatures happened to be hiding in the brush, watching me dash through the jungle as the sun slowly crept up towards the horizon. They probably thought I was a crazy person.
One of my bucket-list items for my time in Tikal National Park was to watch the sunrise from the top of Temple IV, one of the most iconic of the Mayan ruins. But. I did not — particularly since I’d spent a sleepless night on a bus the night before — want to get up at 3:30am and pay $75 to join a large, loud tour group, which is the only way to get into the park before 6am.
I’d met a friend on the bus to from Flores to Tikal who happened to be staying at the same place I was – the Jungle Lodge – so after talking to a guide who was eager to take us along with him the next morning, we discussed it for a bit, each trying to make the decision.
He decided to take the tour.
I decided not to take the tour.
I’d met a woman earlier who had been in the park for four days and, after observing the many tours around her as she wandered the park, was glad she hadn’t chosen to taken any of them.
I’d also met a man who had just taken a tour and was overflowing with excitement about how amazing it had been.
So really, there’s no wrong or right answer on whether to take a sunrise tour at Tikal.
There are sunset tours available, also (again at extra cost… to get in the park before 6am or after 6pm you have to buy an additional ticket… even though you’ve already just bought a $40 all-day ticket. I know, doesn’t really make sense. Their prices and policies change frequently so be sure to research before you go so you know what to expect!) Sunset in Tikal National Park, however, is not nearly as sublimely spectacular as sunrise in Tikal National Park.
I knew I wanted to see sunrise from Templo IV, but tours really aren’t my thing, so I decided to take a risk and try to make it happen another way.
The gate opens to non-tour folk at 6am daily. Sunrise was at 6:20am, and it’s a 40-minute walk from the gate to Templo IV…but, I’m fast, and I was counting on that factor to make my plan work. I was at the front gate right at 6am, bought a ticket at 6:05 when the gate guard showed up, and then booked it through the jungle.
I made it to the top of Templo IV at 6:22am, two minutes after the sun had slid above the horizon. My friend who had taken the tour said I hadn’t really missed anything other than the howler monkeys waking up, which I heard in all of its astonishingly loud glory during my 20-minute dash through the jungle.
So I got to watch sunrise from Templo IV without taking the tour and, the best part of all – right as I reached the top of the temple, the tour groups started the descent down to continue their tours, which meant I had it all to myself.
If you ask around, you’ll likely be warned not to wander Tikal alone at that time of day, but thanks to increased security there have been no armed attacks since 2012 and I felt completely safe in the jungle.
I sat on top of that Temple for two hours and watched the sun burn off the fog over the jungle, the blurry shapes in the dim light clearing to show tree tops as far as the eye could see, statuesque temples poking their heads out above that jungle ceiling, the music of the jungle gradually becoming punctuated with the noise of humans as the minutes passed.