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Ruins
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Central America

Tikal National Park

When I first planned our trip to Guatemala, I had no idea it contained the ruins of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms, Tikal National Park. It’s the kind of place that brings out the Indiana Jones in all of us.

Tall stone temples rise out of the jungle, you can almost smell the smoke of ancient sacrifices… Okay maybe not. But you get the picture.

Obviously, this is a hike in the jungle so you’ve got to be reasonably fit and dress appropriately. Light, comfortable layers are good. It’s pretty flat soan easy hike, but it’s fun to climb the pyramids which is a bit tougher. I climbed some but not all.

Read on for more details of our trip. And how not to leave your husband’s phone at the top of the tallest temple.

Tikal National Park Map

Luis the Guide

So you’d think we’d have this all planned out but actually all we knew was how to get there from our hotel. A collectivo (or shared bus) was going to stop by at some crazy early time and head to the site. We planned to hop on and find a guide when we got there.

Turned out there was a guide, Luis, who was on the collectivo with us! So we just asked him if we could pay to join his group. Which worked out awesome.

Little did we know, that Luis is actually a renowned and much-sought-after guide to Tikal! Man, did we luck out.

Pyramids at Tikal National Park

One of the major spots to shoot is the Plaza Central. This is where you can find the Temple of the Grand Jaguar or Templo de Gran Jaguar. It’s the tall temple in the middle of the panorama below.

If you climb up Templo II on the opposite side, it’s a great spot to capture this panorama.

Just remember, there might be a lot of people around. So patience is key when taking your shot. Wait until it’s a good moment and the other visitors are either out of view or are easily cloned out.

Panorama Templo Jaguar Tikal National Park

Exposure
1/1000s ƒ/2.4 @ ISO 50
Focal Length
4.28mm
Camera
iPhone 4S
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 8:49 am

Another great view from the same location is that of the Acropolis Norte, which will be on your left.  One can almost imagine a bustling city center here.

Actually, it was probably far from bustling. It’s a cemetery and a number of Mayan kings were buried there. Be careful not to wake the dead…

I kid, of course, but do remember, it’s an ancient, sacred place and it’s good idea to be conscious of the history as you experience it.

Acropolis Norte Tikal

Exposure
1/1600s ƒ/2.4 @ ISO 50
Focal Length
4.28mm
Camera
iPhone 4S
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 8:49 am

Depending on where the sun is, try to use it in your shots. Especially if you can catch it streaming through the trees for some great atmosphere.

If you have fog, you win the jackpot. Beams of light can make amazing shots.

I wasn’t so lucky but flare can sometimes work too. Much harder to control though.

Tikal National Park

Exposure
1/320s ƒ/2.4 @ ISO 50
Focal Length
4.28mm
Camera
iPhone 4S
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 8:23 am

So remember the panorama above? Well, I took that with my husband’s iPhone. And guess what? I left it at the top of a very tall pyramid.

We noticed about 15 mins later, and he had to run back through the jungle and climb back up the pyramid to find it.

So yeah, pro-tip before you head down 120 steps on a pyramid, take a minute to gather your belongings!

Jungle Sights

As you wander, don’t miss the jungle for the pyramids – the many trees are beautiful, so don’t forget to look up and shoot these beautiful old giants that are a key part of Tikal National Park

This tree, I believe, is a ceiba and is featured in Mayan art. I love the beautiful black and white trunk against the green.

When shooting up like this, you’ll often find that your camera underexposes due to the light peeking between the branches. Set it to over expose by a stop or two to properly expose for the leaves and trunk.

Even better, to capture the greens of the jungle better, it can help to use a polarizer.

Magnificent Ceiba Tree at Tikal

Exposure
1/160s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
22mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 6:54 am

Along with the trees come creepy crawlies. Our guide put a twig into a nest and out crawled a small tarantula. I let him walk on my arm!

This one was much larger and just chilling at elbow level on a tree. So look before you lean on one! I used a wide aperture here to isolate Mr. T from the background.

Tarantula at Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Exposure
1/13s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
115mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 7:53 am

We also saw a number of howler monkeys, but I had a hard time capturing them as they flew from tree to tree high above us.

I did manage to get a shot of a toucan, mostly because our guide Luis was insanely good at finding them hidden in the trees.

Toucan at Tikal

Exposure
1/100s ƒ/6.3 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
135mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 11:41 am

Life in the Details

I also watched for little details, like this plant growing unbidden from the wall of a temple.

Photography guide to tikal national park

Exposure
1/200s ƒ/4.5 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
42mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 8:53 am

And the rich green layers of light filtered through the leaves.

Tikal National Park Ferns

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4.5 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
18mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
September 29, 2015, 9:12 am

Tikal was beautiful and one of the best parts was that we met two lovely travelers from England, Tom and Holly. And we ended up going on a second excursion to another Mayan site, Yaxha, with them and the guide Luis.

More on that. In the meanwhile – have you been to Tikal National Park – do share!

The Nitty Gritty

What to ExpectPyramids amidst the jungle, with wildlife abounding.

As mentioned this is a hike so you will need to be able to walk for a while. However it is pretty flat unless you climb the pyramids. You don't have to climb all of them but it's nice to see the higher viewpoint.

Popular times to go are sunrise and sunset.

What to WearI like to wear light clothing as it is humid and warm. It wasn't too hot since we went early.

It's good to wear something light and long-sleeved and wear bug spray to avoid mosquitoes. A hat and sunscreen will protect you from the sun. Finally, comfortable shoes with good grip so you can climb the pyramids.
Versatile Gear
If you just take one lens, take a versatile one that will let you shoot wide and zoom in to capture the wildlife.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
Buy Now
Specialty GearUltra-wide Angle Lens: Amazing views mean the wider your angle, the bigger the shot. I didn't have an ultra-wide at the time but bought this one after this trip.
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens

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Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 HSM Lens for Nikon
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Travel Tripod: If you go at sunset, you'll want a tripod to allow you to capture the richer colors as the sun goes down.
Dolica LX600B502DS Professional Lightweight Tripod (Black)
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Useful AccessoriesA polarizer will bring out the most detail and color out of the lush foliage and radiant sky.
Hoya HD circular polarizer
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The humidity will require a good wipe every so often. This packable wipe travels well.
Nikon 8072 Microfiber Cleaning Cloth
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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.
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