Visiting Tikal at Sunset

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Kate at Tikal at Sunset

In the jungles of northeast Guatemala, not far from the Belizean border, you’ll find Tikal National Park — one of the largest Mayan complexes in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the beginning, everyone I know who had been to Tikal had gone to see the sunrise. Watching the Mayan pyramids emerge in the mist is one of the quintessential experiences of Guatemala.

If you have perfect weather, that is. Which you very well may not, especially if you travel outside of high season (December-March, with January and February having the best weather).

If you get poor weather, like some of my friends did, there’s no point to waking up that early. And when you need to wake up at 2:30 AM to leave on the tour at 3:00 AM (!), well, it better be for good reason!

But there was another option, I learned. A sunset tour. Our group would leave at 12:30 PM and return at 7:00 PM. All the beauty of Tikal, all of the sunset colors, and no early wakeup. PERFECT!

Tikal at Sunset

Visiting Tikal

Tikal was one of the largest Mayan cities ever to exist, and at its peak had a population of roughly 90,000. The city declined around 900 AD and today Tikal is one of the most important Mayan sites to archaeologists today.

Tikal at SunsetKate at Tikal at SunsetTikal at Sunset

The centerpiece of Tikal is the Grand Plaza, flanked by Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar) and Temple II (Temple of the Masks). Temple II can be climbed, and it gives you excellent views over the whole plaza.

Next up was a walk through the jungle…

Tikal at Sunset

And an ascent to the top of Temple IV, will give you a view with the temples poking through the trees.

Tikal at Sunset

Oh, and that’s not all. There are howler monkeys, and they sound like velociraptors.

Tikal’s Colors at Sunset

As soon as the golden light filled the temple complex, I got excited. Now, THIS is what I came to see.

Tikal at Sunset

Coming at sunset is your only chance to see Temple I illuminated in gold. And that’s more than enough reason to go!

After the sun went down, I got some dusky indigo shots.

Tikal at Sunset

Watching The Actual Sunset

When the sun goes down, you’ll be climbing to the highest point, but don’t go expecting the perfect view. I expected something along the lines of what I saw at Angkor in 2010, but the view wasn’t nearly as good.

Instead, we had this:

Tikal Sunset

Not so great. I edited that shot to hell and back and that was the best I could come up with.

Your best photos will be when you zoom in and focus on the trees.

Tikal at Sunset

Like so.

Altogether, I’m glad I did this tour. We had a wonderful guide, it was a good price, and though we got to see much of the site, it wasn’t an endless slog.

Personally, I’m not that into ruins, but if you are, you might get more out of the trip if you hire a private guide.

Tikal at Sunset

Should you visit Tikal at sunrise or sunset?

Hey, the choice is yours. If it’s a priority for you to see the sunrise, go for it! And if you’re visiting in January or February, you’ll have the best chance of getting a clear view.

But if you’re less enthused for the early wakeup or concerned about the weather, go for sunset instead. Sunset is no consolation prize. It’s still incredibly beautiful and yes, you will get good photos. I’m very glad I went.

View from Los Amigos, Flores

On Flores

If you’re visiting Tikal, your base will likely be either Flores or Santa Elena, an hourlong drive from the national park. Santa Elena is the main town, but I recommend you stay in Flores — it’s an island in the lake filled with candy-colored houses. I couldn’t believe how different Flores was from the rest of Guatemala; it felt like the Caribbean!

One of my favorite things we did was take a boat out to the rope swing. There is a family living on the lake who have a big open house with a rope swing, a platform for jumping, an area to lounge, and plenty of beers. Erisa and I met a group of young, newly minted British doctors, which was a lot of fun, to say the least.

Many people come to Guatemala and visit only Flores and Tikal along with Antigua. Some only see Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Some come over from Belize and only see Flores and Tikal. Guatemala is such a diverse country and I recommend seeing as much of it as you can, and Flores and Tikal are so different from everywhere else I saw.

Essential Info: I booked my sunset Tikal tour through my accommodation, Los Amigos Hostel. We had a group of around 20. The tour cost is 85q ($11 USD), plus 150q ($20) for park entry, plus an additional 20q ($3 USD) for being there after the park closes. Total: 255q, or $33 USD.

Los Amigos was probably the best hostel I experienced in Central America and I highly recommend it. Erisa and I had a private room with two double beds, AC, good wifi (by crappy Guatemalan standards), our own bathroom (plus a communal bathroom right outside), and a rooftop terrace with a beautiful view for just 300q ($39 USD) per night.

Los Amigos also has a good restaurant and a soundproofed bar area, which keeps the hostel quiet for people staying there. They also had FIVE KITTENS at the time I visited, and it took all of my willpower not to pile them into my backpack and run!

To visit the rope swing, Los Amigos will arrange a round-trip boat transfer. I believe we paid about 50q ($6.50); beers cost 10q ($1).

We ate most of our meals at San Telmo, a fun and funky restaurant with gorgeous lake views.

You can find other accommodation options in Flores here.

Be sure to buy travel insurance before heading to Guatemala. It will protect you financially if anything goes wrong and can save you thousands if you get injured. I always use and recommend World Nomads.


Where is your favorite place to view the sunset?

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46 thoughts on “Visiting Tikal at Sunset”

  1. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the sunrise tour.. Definitely worth it. We camped in a hammock on the campsite there, we were woken up by the animals on time hehehe. I love the howler monkeys <3 I don't think they sound so scary at all, I never heard before they were used for Jurassic Park until there hahaha

  2. Very cool! I spent some time in Mexico this year wandering around Maya ruins so it reminds me of some of the places I saw, although certain things are obviously different. It looks amazing and sunset/sunrise would be a great time to go! We were driving around and it isn’t advised to drive in the dark so we didn’t get to see anything at that time of day.

  3. I’ve always wanted to visit Tital–I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated with ancient ruins and Tikal has always seemed like a super special one to see in person. Also, loved that video with the howler monkeys. They really did sound terrifying!

  4. Los Amigos is one of my absolute favorite hostels and I have stayed at quite a few over the years. I loved Tikal. I was there last May with a friend. We spent on night in the park at Tikal Inn, which I recommend if you have the time and money. We were supposed to do the sunrise tour, but we woke up to rain and decided to sleep in a bit instead. I was extremely disappointed, but it just means I have to go back again. And those howler monkeys are crazy! I thought I was on the Lost island the polar bear was going to run out at me!

  5. Wow those ruins look incredible, ruins are definitely my thing and it seems more and more inevitable that I need to end up in central America! Absolutely stunning, and those howler monkeys sound crazy! If a little bit scary 🙂

  6. Places like Tikal look amazing under the balmy evening light, but I guess sometimes luck isn’t in your favor and you end up getting ‘not-so-great’ shots. It’s okay.

  7. Wow Kate, this looks absolutely gorgeous! Tikal seems like such a hidden gem. and what a great idea to go during sunset! and bahhaha the howler monkeys were hilarious in your snapchat. they were all over costa rica and they freaked me out too!!

  8. Great photos! My biggest regret of traveling Central America was only having a few hours in the afternoon to visit Tikal. I could have easily spent days wandering around!

  9. The Mayan ruins seem so well preserved. It’s really easy to imagine the ancient civilizations going about their daily lives there.

    I’m loving your hair at the moment Kate!

  10. I went with Los Amigos too, but I opted for the sunrise tour. It was great, and there weren’t many people, but I think the light in your photos is much better. Not getting up at 2:30 is a definite bonus! I’m sure however you do it, it’s pretty incredible! 🙂

  11. OR, you can do what I did with my Intrepid Travel group and stay overnight at the campground at Tikal so you can see both sunset AND sunrise! 😉

    But yeah… being woken up by howler monkeys in the morning when you’re sleeping in a tent is the most terrifying thing EVER!

  12. Looks like a great trip, sometimes even with good timing, it is not always as you imagine with any monuments and the romance of sunset. Still a great adventure!

  13. We also weren’t keen on the early wake up call for sunrise so we made our way there in the late morning. We ended up coincidently visiting on the 12th December 2012 – 12/12/12 – so there were a lot of ceremonies being performed including a rain chant. It worked and we ended up getting torrential rain for about an hour and a half before it cleared and the sun came out again. It was a pretty special experience seeing the temples poking out of the jungle during a massive downpour with no one else around (they were all taking shelter)

  14. Tikal is so high up on my list- one of the reasons I decided to factor Guatemala into my RTW. I’m a huge history buff and have been absolutely fascinated with Mayan culture- so for me ruins are a definite highlight.

    I love your look of horror in the video with the Howler Monkeys. It definitely did sound like something from a horror movie. Could you see them or was it just especially spooky only to be able to hear them?

  15. Wow those howler monkeys!! What a magical place. This part of the world doesnt get nearly enough attention… another one for the bucket list. Great photos btw!!

  16. Watching sunset is one of my favorite leisure, it’s the beauty of nature which I like very much. I was not able to explore Tikal but I’m very interested to see the people, their culture and their way of living. Your so lucky enough to be there . Great job.

  17. Well, I’m more of a night person and cannot really wake up that early. So I am all up for Tikal at sunset! Although one can definitely witness grander sunsets, but Tikal has an overall relaxing vibe, one associated with a refreshing wildlife and picturesque locations. It feels worth the effort. Thanks for the post!

  18. Hi Kate,

    Im thinking of traveling to Guatemala next month but only for 4 days. The places to visit on my list are Lake Atitlan, Tikal and Semuc Champey.
    Can you tell me if you think this is possible in such little time, and how to go from Antigua to Tikal?

    Any help is much appreciated.


    1. Dude, you can’t fit all that into four days. It’s an eight-hour bus journey to Semuc Champey from either Antigua or Flores. Your best bet is to arrive in Antigua or Flores and fly between the two, skipping Semuc Champey, but I think your time would be better spent in just one or the other.

  19. Haha yep, we were just there today too, but like you we decided not to bother with the 2:30am alarm call. Especially since it’s the middle of rainy season right now and the weather down here has been pretty sketchy. Still an awesome day though. The area is HUGE! So much bigger than I expected it to be, and the amount of wildlife we saw while walking around was almost as impressive as the ruins. Awesome day out, but it definitely looks like you got more of the sunshine than we did. Not jealous at all 😉

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