When I first planned our trip to Guatemala, I had no idea we could see 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.
And when I figured out how to get to Tikal early, I felt I really lucked out. Most people stay in the park which is expensive and had sketchy reviews at that time. Instead we stayed close by at an affordable, fun place and got to be at the park quite early.
It’s a beautiful mysterious place, with tall stone temples rising out of the jungle. I love that much of it is still not excavated because it really still maintains an atmosphere of discovery.
You wander through trees and suddenly a temple looms out of nowhere. The howler monkeys roar in the background. Simply amazing.
How to Get to Tikal National Park
So how did we get there nice and early? We stayed in El Remate on Lake Peten Itza. Most people stay in Flores and try to head out early in the morning.
But staying in El Remate puts you closer to the park than all the tour buses in Flores, without having to go with the unnecessarily expensive places inside the park.
You can see here where these locations are on the map.
Getting there early is so important to get some photos without a lot of crowds. So this was a great way to do it.
Read on for more details of our trip. And how not to leave your husband’s phone at the top of the tallest temple.
Luis the Guide
So we stayed at a little place called Mon Ami and they had a little sign for a shuttle. 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.
One more quick tip – 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 and easy hike, but it’s fun to climb the pyramids which is a bit tougher. I climbed some but not all.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
To get shots of the birds, you really need a good zoom lens.
Life in the Details
I also watched for little details, like this plant growing unbidden from the wall of a temple.
And the rich green layers of light filtered through the leaves.
Tikal was beautiful and one of the best parts was that we met two lovely travelers from England, Tom and Holly.
They were also staying at the same place as us and we ended up going on a second excursion to another Mayan site, Yaxha, with them and the guide Luis.
Now that you know how to get to Tikal early for great photos, really hope you have a great trip and get some amazing shots.
The Nitty Gritty
|What to Expect||Pyramids 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 Wear||I 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.|
For micro four thirds, check out this article on the best micro four thirds lenses for travel.
For Fuji cameras, check out this article on the best fuji lenses for travel.
For Canon, the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6:
For Nikon, this Nikon 18-200mm makes a great walkaround:
|Specialty Gear||Ultra-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.|
For Canon, Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6:
For Nikon, the Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5:
|Useful Accessories||A polarizer will bring out the most detail and color out of the lush foliage and radiant sky.|