The Magic of Tikal – part 1

Jan. 29, 2020

Imagine you are on an expedition, machete in-hand, slashing through the rainforest. All around you, Howler Monkeys scream like demons of the dark, and birds squawk and screech with unfamiliar songs calling you deeper into the forest. You’re drawn ever further into the forest almost by some gravitational force. Your breath quickens and your heart jumps from an adrenaline boost. With one more swing of the machete, a window opens and you see something that brings you to your knees. Gnarled and weathered, a magnificent temple taller than all the trees stands immovable right before you. As your team catches up to you, the feeling of being watched creeps up your neck. Whoever once ruled from atop that great temple is surely gone, but their spirit still watches over the forest, and now it’s looking right at you.

At least, that’s how I imagined the rediscovery of Tikal.
Truth is, rumors of a lost Mayan city with white topped temples spread through the world after the European invasion of the Americas. It wasn’t until 1848 when the first documented expedition was led to Tikal. Of course, the native Mayan peoples have always known about it, never really forgetting about the “lost city” ever since its collapse in the 10th century AD.
But I’ll tell you, my daydream idea of the first (European) explorers re-finding Tikal is a only slightly different from how it actually felt to be there, the main difference was I didn’t need a machete. Howler Monkeys growled from the treetops and all kinds of birds called from the dense forest. Butterflies floated through patches of sunlight beaming through the canopy, and parrots streamed overhead to favored roosts. It is truly a magical and mystical place.

Tikal National Park lies within a huge area of lowland rainforest in northern Guatemala. Although it’s one of the most visited places in Guatemala, the birding is exceptional! For that reason, and because we wouldn’t visit any other lowland rainforest on our trip, I wanted to spend a few days in the area in order to really explore the ruins and find as many birds as possible. After all, how many times can you expect to see one of the greatest ancient ruins in one of the most biodiverse areas of North America?

To make that plan a reality, we chose to camp in the national park to cut costs and increase our time there.
The only issue was how to buy our tickets for the national park. Because I couldn’t find a straight answer online before we got to Guatemala, I’ll make it clear right here: There are two gates. You must buy your tickets or show your pre-purchased ones at the national park entrance (first gate) about 16 kilometers before the actual Mayan ruins (and hotels/camping/restaurants). The tickets you buy are for your entrance into the actual Mayan ruin site (second gate), which get punched as you enter the archeological site. So you don’t have to pay for each day you are in the national park, ONLY the days you want to enter the area with the Mayan ruins. We left Flores around noon, and arrive at the park entrance around 1pm. We paid for 2 days of tickets and 3 nights of camping. Since we got to the Tikal tourist village around 2pm, we kept our entrance tickets for the next 2 mornings so that we could spend all day in the ruins and really get our money’s worth.

To get there, you can take a tour and get the shuttle transport included or you can grab a colectivo or bus, like we did. Right outside our hostel, we hopped in a tuktuk (Q5 / $0.75 usd each) and asked for a bus to Tikal. He took us down to a bus terminal, and just like every bus terminal in Latin America, as soon as we showed up, obvious travelers with backpacks, everyone ran to ask where we were headed. Luckily, everyone was pretty friendly and even if one driver isn’t going your direction, they usually know the guy who is. We were directed to the man driving a direct route to Tikal and we paid Q50 ($6.50 usd) each. At the park entrance (first gate) it was a little surprising when he told us that we would have to catch a new bus into the actual park, but like usual, he was super helpful and flagged the next bus for us. After we bought our tickets, we jumped on the next bus and we were soon in Tikal and unloading our backpacks!

the cement tent and hammock pads where you can camp for only 50Q a night!

We got our camping bracelets from the entrance gate (second gate) and walked back to the campground area to find our site for the next 3 nights. We picked one of the pads to the right, as it seemed to get more shade in the day than the others. After setting up camp, we couldn’t wait to explore the area!

The area around the village is one of the most bird-rich places I’ve ever been! A Gartered Trogon and a group of Ocellated Turkeys were the first lifers of the day. We found almost 50 species in the heat of the day as we walked around the village checking out the restaurants.

During the 1970’s, when the archeological site was undergoing most of its renovations and excavations, they built a small airstrip in order to fly supplies in and out. Today, that airstrip is a great walking path through dense second-growth forest!

the path down the old airstrip.

This is a must-visit secret spot when birding Tikal. For one, it is outside of the main area (second gate) so you don’t need to use up a ticket to walk out there. Secondly, the dense second-growth is great habitat for species that aren’t found in the mature primary rainforest. The dense thicket around the trail holds a different suite of birds, making it a great place for a morning or evening walk.

The other secret is there are owls that sometimes hunt along the edge of a small pond along the old airstrip. The pond has a small sign for “aguada de cocodrilo”, because there are Morelet’s Crocodiles in the pond!

On our first night camping, we went owling down the old airstrip. The temperature dropped a little at night, but it remained humid. With our headlamps and owling flashlight, we walked down the trail with high hopes of finding an owl. Almost right at the start, we saw a nightjar in the trail, but it flew into the thicket before we could confidently ID it. One minute later, we heard a Yucatán Poorwill start calling from the dense cover! Could that have been the bird we first saw? It might have been the Common Pauraque that we spotted a little later along the edge of the trail.

Common Pauraque – a cryptic nightjar common in most of Latin America

We crept slowly down the trail, listening for birds, and keeping an eye out for any other creature along the path. We ran across quite a few very large wolf spiders in the trail, but no Tarantulas.
Trying to be as quiet as we could, we walked up to the edge of the crocodile pond, and with our flashlight, we scanned the pond for the shine of eyes. The pond was full of small crocodiles! There must have been 12 to 16 of them! Then eyeshine from up in a tree caught our attention.
It was a Black-and-White Owl!

I could barely keep calm with how excited I was! After quietly celebrating our find, we tip-toed closer. We crept quietly along the edge of the pond, watching out for the crocodiles just 20 meters away in the water. We ended up standing just beneath the owl! Stephanie helped me out with the light, and I managed to get a few photos of that amazing bird!

adult Black-and-White Owl

It was one of the best owl experiences I’ve had yet. Remaining quiet seemed to allow us to hang out and watch the owl for 10 or more minutes before we left it alone.

Across the pond, we heard another owl. This one was a Middle American Screech-Owl! Although it sounded like it was singing from the edge of the pond, we failed to find it.
After turning back towards the trail, we both turned off our headlamps, took a deep breath and looked up to the stars. We just found a tropical owl next to a pond with wild crocodiles all inside a national park protecting ancient Mayan ruins deep in the rainforest of Guatemala…

It’s important to stop, breathe, and remember where you are. Take notice of the sky and appreciate the place you’re in. Moments like that are always my favorite.

In Part 2…

We explore the great Mayan ruins of Tikal and find some truly awesome animals!

eBird checklist for the campground area Day 1:

eBird checklist for the old airstrip trail-evening:

eBird checklist for the old airstrip trail-OWLING:

Cost and logistics

Tikal National Park

Tickets cost Q150 / $20.00 USD per day.
Entry tickets can be purchased at a BanRural bank or at the first entrance gate upon arrival.
Remember, you only need to get tickets for the days you will enter the archeological site behind the second gate!

Getting there/away
You can take a bus, taxi, or colectivo. Buses depart for Tikal from the terminal in Flores. Take a tuktuk and ask the driver to take you to a bus to Tikal. Your hostel can also help you find the right bus or colectivo.
Our bus cost us Q50 / $6.50 USD and included the return! There are scheduled returns from Tikal back to Flores. Ask once you are in the Tikal village for the times as they seem to change.

There are 4 places to stay at Tikal; 1 campground and 3 lodges.
Camping costs Q50 / $6.50 USD per person per night. You may rent a hammock with mosquito net for an additional Q85 / $11.00 USD.
Camping offers a real budget-traveler option, while the 3 different lodges offer varying degrees of comfort from cabins to full rooms to open-air bungalows. Prices range from Q360 / $47.00 USD a night for a single bed to Q850 / $110.00 USD for a triple bed room.

There are a couple comedores (eatery) on the right side of the entrance road right as you get to the tourist village. They offer inexpensive local food from 6:30am to sometime after sunset.
The restaurant at the visitor center has more options, but is also a little more expensive. We brought enough food to cook our own meals, but getting a cold fruit smoothie during the hottest part of the day was well worth it!
There is a small shack selling cold drinks at the base of Temple IV(4), so keep some cash on you as you walk the complex.

Here is a map showing some of the major features and birding spots of the village.

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