Everyone has seen the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope, right? (Well, technically it’s the fourth movie but the first one ever filmed, but I won’t bore you with such nerdity so early in the post.)
Remember when the Millennium Falcon landed on the secret base of the Rebel Alliance at the end of the movie? Me either (at first) because I prefer Harry Potter or LOTR geekery over Star Wars, but maybe this photo will help jog your memory.
Now, when I first marveled at the movie as a kid, I never imagined that A) this was a real place, not a set, B) it was located in the jungles of Guatemala or C) that I’d be visiting it someday like the crazy adventurer that I guess I now am.
But guess what? Dreams do come true, even for geeks (I would dare argue especially for geeks) and a few weeks ago I found myself sitting on the rebel base like freakin’ Han Solo himself.
Let’s start here – Tikal isn’t exactly easy to get to. It’s located in the sparsely populated, dense jungle of Reserva de Biosfera Maya in northern Guatemala. From Flores, it is about a one and a half hour drive. I opted for the early morning tour that left at 4:30am and arrived just as the park was opening at 6am, and as we entered the gates we could hear the jungle waking up around us.
As we entered the park, it started drizzling, shrouding everything in creepy mist that continued to moisten our camera lenses for rest of the day. Despite the rain, our guide, whose name I sadly can’t remember, was fantastic. He walked us through the massive complex with such enthusiasm for his cultural history that his excitement was contagious.
And when I say the complex was massive, I mean massive. The temples, buildings and ruins are all spread out over several miles, with pathways through the jungle separating them. Only ten minutes in, our guide pointed out some spider monkeys high in the trees, but warned us not to linger under them too long. They are known to throw branches and even feces down at tourists when they get annoyed.
It was the wildlife that ended up setting these ruins apart from the others I’ve visited. Because Tikal is located in the middle of the largest protected natural area in Central America, there are loads of creatures that roam the ruins. No wookies, unfortunately, but in the national park you can see spider and howler monkeys, tarantulas, scorpions, wild turkeys, pumas, snakes, and even jaguars.
However, my favorite were the pizotes, small critters with striped tails that are related to the raccoon. These guys were adorable! But our guide warned us they could be vicious, so I kept my distance. But come on, check out these little fur balls!
Don’t they look like tiny brontosauruses walking backwards? No? Just me?
We hit the most popular part of the park just before the first rush of people. It contains the iconic Jaguar Temple, where the most famous Tikal king was buried. His name translates from Mayan to “Lord Chocolate” which makes me like the guy immediately. Who cares that he condoned human sacrifice?
Lord Chocolate’s tomb lies across a large plaza from Temple 2, dedicated to his wife. She was Mayan and he was from up north in Teotihuacan (remember those pyramids I climbed last month?) and their union bought peace and prosperity to Tikal. So I guess they each get their own pyramid. Cool.
After a visit to a few more pyramids and palace ruins, it was time for us to climb the Star Wars temple, or Temple 4. We girded our loins (apologies for how much I use this phrase, but I love it) and started our slow trot up the wooden stars that would take us above the tree line for a view of the surrounding jungle.
And what a view it was!
There is nothing like admiring the tops of the Jaguar temple and other ruins peeking out over the lush, green jungle. There wasn’t a drop of civilization in sight in any direction, just trees. I could almost feel my lungs sighing with pleasure with each oxygen-rich inhale.
Being at the top of the Rebel Alliance base was pretty sweet, but as a former TV producer, all I could think about was the logistical nightmare it would have been to film there. Back in the ‘70s camera equipment was a lot bulkier and expansive than it is today – how the hell did they get it here and up to the top of this freaking thing? I read on Wikipedia that the crew paid locals with six packs of beer to watch over their equipment for several days. I’m pretty sure that is some kind of union violation. And who was their production manager? He deserves a medal, or at least a stiff drink.
But you gotta hand it to George Lucas. This is a spectacular spot. Props, man. Props.
Where: Tikal National Park is located in northeastern Guatemala in the middle of Reserva de Biosfera Maya.
Getting There: You can get guided tours with transportation from Flores and Santa Elena for 80-100 quetzales. I booked mine with Los Amigos hostel, which has a fantastic travel agency located in it’s bar (it was obviously easy for me to find) and they offer several other tours that looked fun, if I’d had the time.
You can also take a minibus to the ruins on your own for $7 USD – more info here.
Getting Around: The Tikal ruins area was enormous! I didn’t expect all the temples to be so spread out amongst the heavy jungle. That being said, it is all still walkable, so bring comfortable shoes. I highly recommend going with a guide to help you navigate everything.
Cost: I paid 95 quetzales ($14 USD) for the guide and transportation to Tikal and 150 quetzales ($22 USD) for entrance into the park.
- I did see a bus taking tourists around the park, but it’s much better to walk. You will see more wildlife and feel more like a real temple explorer! I saw a woman walking with a guide through the park and overheard her tell him she was 82 years old – it really made me smile! If she can do it, so can you.
- There is a little restaurant near the entrance that sells coffee and sandwiches for the early risers that get there as the park opens. The coffee definitely helped wake me up after dozing in the van for over an hour.
- Some bloggers have recommended taking a sunrise tour, which allows you to arrive at the park before it opens and make your way to temple four to watch the sunrise from the top. I had planned on doing this, but was told from several other travelers and locals it wasn’t worth waking up for the 3am departure – it was almost always too foggy to see the sunrise. It also costs an extra 100 quetzales ($17 USD) for the privilege of getting to the park before it opens, so I decided to skip it. Make your own call!
- I was however encouraged to do the sunset tour by several others, so if I ever go back, I’ll definitely try that!
- Speaking of tours, I can’t stress enough that it pays to have a knowledgable guide! I believe getting the history and context of the buildings and ruins makes your experience of them so much richer. Plus, guides know how to avoid the crowds and are great at spotting and identifying the wildlife.
- Just, go. Tikal is just fantastic. I’ve now been to nearly all the major Mayan, Aztec, and other pre-Hispanic ruins in Central America and I think Tikal is my favorite, with maybe Palenque in Mexico running a close second. The experience of the jungle teeming with life around the ruins, the expansive reserve and countless intact buildings make it a spot not to be missed!