Builders of monuments, creators of calendars and discoverers of chocolate, the Maya easily hold their own as one of the most fascinating civilizations to have left their mark on the world. Mayan sites are some of the primary attractions which bring travelers to the American isthmus.   Today we’ll begin a tour of the some of the more famous Mayan sites with a visit to the towering monuments protruding from the jungle in Guatemala – Tikal. But first a little context…

Pedro Szekely's photo of Tikal

Great Plaza at Tikal. Photo by Pedro Szekely.

Mayan Basics

The Maya developed city-states starting from around 1800 BCE, in the area which is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Mayan history is generally divided into three periods: Pre-classic 1800 BCE – 250 CE, Classic from 250-900 CE and Post-classic from 900 CE until the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors.

Corn (maíz) was the basis of their subsistence, as it remains for the people living in this area today. The landscape was also characterized by large deposits of limestone, which the Maya used to carve monuments and decorate their temples. They had a pantheon of gods for whom they would sacrifice humans and make other (often bloody) offerings. Their hieroglyphic writing allowed them to record their history. They are also notable for their scientific advancements, such as the first known use of “zero” and the development of a strikingly accurate calendar systems.

For reasons that remain unknown, Mayan civilization began to decline around 900 and most sites were eventually abandoned. This does not mean that people died out. There are plenty of Mayan peoples populating their traditional lands today. But most of their great cities had been abandoned before the Spanish arrived. Experts debate about the cause of this decline, but that’s a subject for another post. Let’s get to Tikal.

kangotraveler's photo of ruins at Tikal.

Mayan ruins at Tikal. Photo by kangotraveler.

Visiting the Park

Located in the northern, El Petén, region of Guatemala, Tikal is easily accessed from either Flores or Santa Elena.

I found Tikal to be a fabulously well-managed park. Guides were knowledgeable, there were no flocks of vendors and wooden staircases have been constructed which allow you to climb the temples without actually climbing on the temples.

Katrina's photo of stairs going up a temple,

You’ll get plenty of exercise the day you visit Tikal! Photo by Katrina.

The entrance fee is upwards (charged in Quetzals which varies in value) of $20 USD, but totally worth it.

If you’re staying in nearby El Remate, Santa Elena or Flores, get your hiney out of bed early to be at the park when it opens at 6 AM. When I visited, the only lodging available in the park was camping or a spendy lodge. If I had it to do over, I would cough up the cash and stay in the park. There’s a lot to see here. Tikal claims to be the biggest excavated site on the continent. And the local wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn.


Travelers are often advised to make their way immediately to the top of Temple IV, on the far side of the park in order to sit atop the temple and watch the pyramids emerge as the morning mist clears. This is, no doubt, a spectacular way to start the day, but I got distracted on the way there by all the exciting sounds of the jungle. That’s the thing about Tikal, the ruins are spectacular, but even if there were no ruins here, it would be worth the price of admission just to see the jungle. By the end of the day, I had seen so many monkeys, I wasn’t even bothering to look anymore. And birdwatchers will surely check more than one species of toucan off of their list.

Mike Murga's photo of temples protruding above the canopy

Only in Tikal…Photo by Mike Murga.

More than any other Mayan site I’ve visited, the builders of Tikal seemed obsessed with size, specifically height. The temples soar, reaching above the forest canopy towards the heavens. As the guide explained, their quickly-narrowing design gives the optical illusion of even more height. Climbing the stair-ladders (steeper than your average set of stairs) up one temple after another, I understood the guides comment. “Going up is physically challenging, coming down psychologically.”

Tikal is believed to have been home to around 100,000 people at its peak in the mid sixth century. It had conquered neighboring cities and was the dominant power in the region. The relics left behind, plazas, temples and artifacts filling two museums, make a fascinating introduction to the Mayan world for any traveler.

4Neus' photo of Tikal

A view that’s hard to beat. Photo by 4Neus.

I had done all the tasks I could think of, been to the internet café, caught up on my journal, lingered over dinner and chatted with other travelers while enjoying my two beers.  Exhausted from the day’s sight-seeing, I was ready to relax.  I crossed my fingers and prepared to look at my watch, hoping it would be a semi-respectable hour to go to bed.  Crap! Only seven-thirty!

There’s a lot to be said for being early to bed and early to rise. But if you’re too early to bed, then your body might want to rise at four in the morning, when there’s not a lot to do, nor light to do it in.  A single person, who doesn’t want to drink themselves into oblivion, is often at a loss for nighttime travel activities.  Here are a few strategies for filling the evening hours:

1)    First the obvious nighttime travel activities- reading, writing and ready-ing.  Reading is of course the obvious answer to the question of how to fill the evenings.  Where as in normal life, the problem is so many books so little time, traveling one often finds themselves with an abundance of time and shortage of books.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  In desperation I sometimes read books I wouldn’t typically choose, and discover that I like them.  My criteria goes from “nonfiction or historical fiction” to “written in English.” Lately, I’ve even learned to let that criteria go, realizing that if I bring a book written in Spanish (a language I will spend the rest of my life trying to master) it will last me twice as long.

Evenings provide an excellent opportunity to prepare, repair and share.  Drag out that mini-sewing kit and fix the hole in your shirt.  Get your day-pack ready for the following day. Write some postcards. Catch up on your journal.  Start sorting through those thousands of digital photos.

2)    There are a lot of challenges to maintaining a healthy level of exercise while traveling.  Sometimes you’re on a ten-day trek and you feel like a marathon runner.  But then there are those 30-hour bus rides from which it can be hard to come un-scrunched.  I carry a yoga matt strapped to the side of my pack (can also come in handy for emergency sleep situations).  If my lodging is roomy enough, private enough and the floor not too disgusting, I spread out my mat and go for it.  There is scientific research which indicates that the best time to change your habits is when you’re away from home.  So load that kick-boxing routine onto your i-pod and have at it.

3)    I like to shower in the evening.  It makes more sense. You go to bed clean, and unless you’re doing something exciting in bed (in which case you clearly do not need to be reading this article!), you wake up clean.  It feels good to remove the gunk- sunscreen, bug repellent, dust- that has piled up on my skin throughout the day.  If you’re staying in a hostel you’ll have less competition for the shower and may even increase you’re chances of having hot water.  If you’re in the hot, muggy tropics, a shower can help you cool off so you can sleep.

4)    Need some socializing, but don’t want to drink and dance all night? A simple deck of cards is a great prop.  They are cheap, easy to carry, and there are a million ways to use them.  If you sit at a café and play solitaire on an electronic device, you’ll probably remain on your own.  But if your playing with real cards other bored travelers are bound to join you for a game.

5)    Early in my traveling career a friend advised me that it was a good idea to go to movies.  Luckily for me, many movies are in English. When you get sucked into a movie, it’s like a two-hour vacation from your life.  This can be a good thing sometimes, even if you’re living the fabulous life of international travel. In Latin America, I am often able to find “Cine Clubs”, small, sometimes improvised theaters showing art films.  Once I was watching a movie in one of these theaters when a rooster wandered in!

6)     Take up a portable hobby.  I met a man in a hotel in Honduras who carried a small set of oil paints with him.  Everywhere he would go, he would scrounge a piece of wood and paint a picture on it.  Then he would take a photo of it and leave the painting as a gift to the hotel.  A friend of mine does embroidery on her travels.  When she looks at her work later it brings back the memories of all the places she was when she worked on it.

Shilin Night Market. Photo by LWY.

7)    I’ve been delighted to find that there actually are some nighttime travel activities that interest me as a tourist.  Wandering through night markets in Southeast Asia, is an absolute pleasure.  Visiting archeological sites in Central America, I learned that some will allow you to buy a ticket for the following day after 6:00 PM and enjoy the last few hours the site is open.  This allowed me to enjoy the sound and light show at Chichen Itza and the animals that came to life at twilight at Tikal.  Occasionally, if I can do so in a respectful manner and know that my presences is not displacing someone else- I will attend a local religious ceremony.  This can be quite interesting, and at very least I’ve found going to mass in Latin America to be an excellent opportunity to practice my Spanish comprehension.

Chichen Itza – Sound and Light Show. Photo by ruffin_ready.

All that being said, I still think finding nighttime travel activities can be a challenge and would love to hear other people’s suggestions…