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48 Hours in Tikal, Guatemala: The most magical sunrise

48 Hours in Tikal, Guatemala: The most magical sunrise

It was a moment I’ll never forget: A foggy sunrise, steam rising from the rain forest canopy with a red-and-pink streaked sky before me. Howler monkeys living up to their name, bellowing good morning from the branches. 

The scene feels like walking in a lost kingdom.

This is how the day begins in Tikal. 

For those unfamiliar, Tikal is the historical site of one of the largest Mayan ruins, and was considered to be a city of sorts in the pre-Columbian (aka pre-European-invasion) era.

[Images: Temples and views of Tikal's 'downtown'// A Coatimundi says hello as we wander through the site//Sacrificial stones are thought to have been used to behead prisoners of war.]

Crumbling stone palaces, temples and houses that stretch towards the sky, the scene feels beautiful and otherworldly, like walking in a lost kingdom. Which explains why, perhaps, it’s been featured in 1977’s Star Wars.

We had arrived the morning before, driving across the Belize border with a tour company. About 10 tourists squeezed into the company’s small van, elbow to elbow in the heavy humidity. 

We lurched along unfurling highways from the town of San Ignacio, Belize, to Guatemala’s interior. If you ever find yourself in central Belize, the morning's drive is worth it to reach Tikal’s jaw-dropping, historically-significant sights.

There are tourism companies up and down San Ignacio’s hilly streets will take you—or you could even make the drive yourself. We chose a company that allowed an overnight visit to the site. The extra time is worth it to really understand what you’re seeing.

Yet, while having everything planned for us was nice (especially after a month of backpacking and planning everything ourselves), being with a bunch of fanny-pack-wearing tourists drove me crazy. 

[Images: Another view of central Tikal/ Rain forest humidity isn't always kind to your hair (but temple-top views are worth it!)]

When we stopped for gas (and some of the best coffee of my life!), a douchy American guy (sorry to all my US friends!) kept laughing that he’d ripped off the store attendant by paying 2 USD rather than 14 Guatemalan quetzales. He bragged about it to the entire van. I stared at him blankly and said “yeah, that’s called an exchange rate,” remembering why I NEVER go on tours: They’re magnets for skin-chapped gringos checking sites off a bucket list.

But, tours are also convenient, and made our trip possible: A trip that offered us the chance to climb into a Mayan temple devoted to The God of Chocolate (a religion I could get behind, honestly). 

I traced the now-softened axe grooves of sacrificial stones. I stood in temple’s shadows.

While walking on our loosely-guided tour, I traced the now-softened axe grooves of sacrificial stones. I stood in temple’s shadows, wondering if this ancient people were really as blood-thirsty as they’re remembered. 

And, eventually, I was able to walk out of hearing range of the rest of my group, wondering how anyone could ever get over the awe of such ruins. 

After walking half the sprawling site (which took all afternoon), the rest of our little gringo troupe returned to Belize. Only Boyfriend and I had opted for the overnight stay, our guide told us. I was ecstatic.

We were taken to our accommodations: Tikal has an onsite resort-style hotel with private luxury cabins. After a month of backpacker’s digs, the suite felt absolutely majestic. I loved the cool stone floors on my hot, tired feet, while having a small front porch looking into Tikal’s surrounding rainforest felt like having a front door view of a steamy, humid paradise.

We ate dinner in the resort’s swank, white linen restaurant. The walls were covered in artists’ recreations of historical Mayan masks and the plates were heavy with heaps of steaming rice and crispy plantain.

We fell asleep early, as the sun began dipping below the treetops. The thick, still air carried sounds of the rainforest through our cabin windows as we slept steps away from wildness. 

Soon, it was 5am and our wake-up call knocked on the cabin door. I laced my hiking boots in the pitch black. Our guide handed us paper cups of amazing, aromatic coffee and we walked, guided by flashlight, to Tikal’s highest temple. 

Raccoons scurried through the pool of yellow light from our flashlights, birds wailed that daylight was returning. The darkness faded as we trudged. 

My coffee cup drained, I began the rickety wooden staircase toward the temple’s peak. Other overnighters from other groups , probably 10 in total, filed in front and behind. We were all silent, listening to the humming electricity in the air. 

[Images: Tikal's jaw-dropping sunrise, feat. a cameo of Boyfriend]

As we climbed and climbed, an inescapable feeling of being on the edge of something rippled through the crowd. 

And, really, we were on the edge of something: We were on the edge of a temple face as light fully broke. As the howler monkeys woke. As the sun began it’s rickety climb into the sky. As a pink glow washed over the temples poking through the canopy. We stood on the edge. We watched. Wordlessly.

This is how the day begins in Tikal. 

Must-See Tikal:

How I became a better traveller

How I became a better traveller

Woman Wanderer:  Sylvia Earle, ocean explorer

Woman Wanderer: Sylvia Earle, ocean explorer