It’s no secret that I love my World Heritage Sites, so when my friend Kari said she would come for a visit, I knew we needed to take a trip up to Tikal to see the Mayan Ruins. A trip from Antigua to Flores (where most people stay before heading to Tikal National Park) is no joke, and involves hours on a bumpy shuttle so we figured we would go see Semuc Champey on the way.
Unfortunately, we ended up skipping the shuttle and flying to Flores (also skipping Semuc Champey), as the shuttle that tried to pick us up was in such poor condition we ended up getting off and immediately booking flights for the next day. If you only have limited time in Guatemala, I would 100% recommend flying to Flores from Guatemala City, compared to spending a whole day each way on a packed, bumpy shuttle.
Flores is a weird little town. It’s actually located on an island about an hour from Tikal, and easily walkable in around 20 minutes. Our biggest problem was the heat, and the humidity means that you generally only want to go for a walk around dusk, otherwise you’ll quickly run out of steam. Be sure to pack appropriately, take a sunhat and stock up on plenty of water and Gatorade since you’ll spend so much time sweating.
There’s no doubt that it’s beautiful, though, with some of the best sunsets I’ve seen, cute, walkable streets packed with restaurants and bars, and a more relaxed way of life than bustling Antigua.
There are a bunch of different tour companies that can organise your trip to Tikal, and we found one on the same street as our hotel and decided that we would be picked up at the crack of dawn the next morning. Some people leave at 3.30am so they can have sunrise out in the park, but that just didn’t sound appealing to us, and we still got to the park well before 8am. This meant that we could explore without being photobombed by tourists and we had seen many of the best ruins before it got too hot.
Tikal National Park is huge, and full of wildlife. Monkeys chased each other through the trees, bright birds took off as soon as they heard us, and it felt like something out of Tomb Raider as we found temples (many still half-buried) in the forest.
It’s definitely a good idea to go as early as you can stand, as it gets super hot and the park fills up (especially in the high season). There are tour guides within the park, although taking a guide book is a cheaper option and will allow you to take your time.
While Tikal is well worth a visit if you’re traveling throughout Guatemala, I couldn’t help but compare it to Angkor Wat. For some reason I feel a much greater connection to the Khmer ruins, and could see myself visiting another few times, while Tikal felt more like something I was “ticking off a list”. Maybe this is because it’s much harder to get to Tikal, there isn’t as much information about the temples within the park, or I just didn’t learn enough about the Mayans to be invested in the temples.
Travel can be a tricky balance between what you think you should see, vs what you’re really interested in and really want to see. One of my goals for next year is to check into “must-visit” tourist sites and ask myself if I really want to visit, or if I’m only interested in going because it’s expected, or worse, because everyone else does.
As a freelancer, this is something that has become more relevant. When you’ve taken time off work and are just traveling, those two days on a bus or shuttle are just part of the package, and you’ll listen to some podcasts and count the bus as “part of the experience.”
But when you’re trying to keep a business going, respond to clients and meet deadlines, those two days are two days of missed work, which can mean time spent at your destination trying to catch up, and constantly feeling stressed.
I had a great time, and got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen for 9 years. For me, the trip was well worth it, however if I had spent a day each way on a shuttle, I may have felt differently. These days, I’m all about asking myself if the cake is worth the bake.