There's a strong argument that Tikal is the most impressive of all the Mayan sites in Central America. At a whopping 65m, the site's tallest building – the inspiringly named Temple IV – is the second-tallest pre-Colombian structure in the western hemisphere, second only to the 70m-high La Danta in El Mirador (which is also in Guatemala but requires a difficult five-day jungle trek to reach, so it's for die-hard fans only). Temple IV at Tikal is half as tall again as the main pyramid at Caracol, and it's no surprise that the sunrise tour to Tikal, where you climb to the top of Temple IV to watch the sun rise over the Gran Plaza, is a popular jaunt.
But to get to the sunrise from Flores you have to leave at 3am, and frankly we're too old and morning-averse for that sort of nonsense, so instead we decided to go for the sunset tour that leaves Flores at a much more civilised 1pm. We made the right decision, because this morning the skies were moody and looking for a fight, but the sun soon chased the clouds away and by lunchtime the sky was a beautiful blue with nothing but an innocent-looking collection of small, white puffy clouds.
This was a good thing, because in the end the tour part of our tour was fairly forgettable, especially compared to the high quality of the guidance we got from Diego in Caracol. I guess all tours of Mayan sites have to start with the same basic information about the development of the Mayan empire, the succession of kings, the way new pyramids were built on top of the old ones and so on, but that was pretty much all we got in Tikal, whereas Diego went into things a lot more deeply and a lot more enthusiastically. There was nothing wrong with the Tikal tour, but it paled into insignificance compared to the architecture, whereas Diego's tour managed to bring the architecture to life. There's quite a difference, but without taking the Tikal tour we wouldn't have had such a long day in the park, and we also wouldn't have enjoyed such a brilliant end to the day, so in the end it was worth it.
Like Caracol but unlike, say, Chichén Itzá, Tikal is still smothered in rainforest, and although the major plazas have been cleared and there are wide roads connecting the main temple complexes, these pass through rainforest that's lain relatively untouched since the Mayans abandoned the site around 900 AD. Tikal, then, hides its beauty under a bushel. Even when you get to climb a pyramid or a temple – the difference being that pyramids have four staircases and flat tops while temples have one staircase and a temple building on top – you don't get to see much beyond the top of the rainforest canopy and a few of the taller structures poking above the trees. The large panoramic model of the site in the visitor centre shows how the ancient city fitted together, but when you wander round the site today, it's like walking between a series of disconnected buildings that only fit together when you get above the trees.
This manages to be both atmospheric and slightly disappointing at the same time. While Caracol's remoteness makes the jungle-clad nature of the site really magical, with Tikal it's somehow less satisfying, though that's hardly Tikal's fault; it's a much more popular and accessible site, after all, so it's hard to feel adventurous. But where Caracol's ruins are fairly untouched and you can stomp all over them with free rein, Tikal's ruins are smothered in signs telling you not to sit here, not to climb up there, not to write on the walls and generally to stay back and admire them from a distance. And when you come to climb those that you are allowed to climb, most of them have their main stone steps closed, and instead you ascend via safe and sturdy wooden staircases tacked onto the side of the building, which is certainly more efficient than schlepping up blocky stone steps to the top, but it's also a lot less fun.
Also, the largest temple of the lot is completely hidden behind the rainforest; you just can't see it. They are currently working to restore the stone steps on the front, but you can only really see the summit poking through the treetops. Much more interesting is the Gran Plaza, where the 44m-high Temple I and 38m-high Temple II face off across a wide grassy expanse, with an impressive hill of buildings called the Acrópolis del Norte (North Acropolis) along the third side of the plaza. You are allowed to climb up the acropolis, where more than 12 temples sit crumbling in the sunlight, and the views down over the Gran Plaza are wonderful. You can't climb Temple I any more, and Temple II's wooden stairs were closed when we visited, but for me, wandering around the acropolis was the highlight of exploring Tikal.
As the sun sank slowly towards the horizon, we visited the twin pyramids of Complejo Q (Complex Q), which we climbed for tantalising views of the top of Temple I to the southwest; the Acrópolis Central (Central Acropolis), on the south side of the Gran Plaza, which has lots of small rooms and was probably a residential palace for Tikal's nobles; El Mundo Perdido (the Lost World), where a number of large pyramids sit crumbling among the forest; and Temple III, which is still smothered in rainforest and shows what the buildings looked like when modern archaeologists first started analysing the site in 1848. But for the big event, the sunrise, we headed for the biggest of the lot, Temple IV.
As I mentioned, you can't see a lot of Temple IV from the ground, and the climb up the staircase is shrouded in forest canopy, but when you burst out onto the summit of the temple, the view is astounding. Forest covers the land as far as you can see, and there in the distance, from left to right, you can see the tops of Temples I and II poking out into the sunlight, followed by the impressive summit of Temple III, then the tip of Temple V just visible behind a hill, and finally the flat top of the main pyramid in El Mundo Perdido. It's impressive, to say the least, and as the view from the summit is due east, you can understand why the sunrise tour is so popular; watching rosy-fingered dawn throw its beams over this lot would be something else, if mornings are your thing.
Of course, facing east isn't much use if you're here to see the sunset, but unfortunately the western face of Temple IV is currently closed for maintenance, as unlike the solid steps of the eastern face, the west-facing side consists of little other than a walkway around a summit that's made of of slippery, moss-covered rocks whose steps have long since been worn away. A man with a large gun guards the wooden fence to stop visitors jumping over and risking certain death to see the sunset, but this is Guatemala, and it only takes a bribe of Q10 (about 80p) per person to sidestep the bureaucracy and get a chance to climb up the scaffolding for a wonderful view west over the treetops.
So, of course, we snuck round the side of the summit and climbed up into the scaffolding – well, I did, while Peta stuck to the walkway, from where you can still see the sunset – and it was superb. The sun slowly sank to the horizon, appearing from behind the clouds to give us a beautiful show while spider and howler monkeys swung through the treetops beneath us. True, there are no large Mayan ruins to the west of Temple IV, so the scenery was all about landscape rather than mankind, but that doesn't matter. I'd trade a 3am start from Flores for the luscious reds of a Temple IV sunset any day.
The only drawback of watching the sunset from the top of Tikal is that you have to walk back to the entrance in the pitch black, picking your way through all the tree roots and holes in the snake-infested road with the incredible cacophony of the forest at night ringing in your ears. It's made considerably more enjoyable by the fireflies who dance under the trees like magical fairy lanterns, and despite us not bringing a torch, this was Peta's favourite part of the trip; the rainforest at night is really something to behold, even if you can't see it. Luckily we were able to follow in the footsteps of a kindly American who'd come equipped with a smartphone, and we eventually got back to the van a good 45 minutes after those who'd taken the transport-only option. For that extra 45 minutes among the fireflies, and the know-how to bribe the guard at the top of the temple, the extra fee for the tour was worth every penny.
But I have to say that, if I had to choose between Tikal and Caracol, I'd choose Caracol. Its main pyramid might not be as big as Tikal's temples, and you might not be allowed to stay for the sunrise or sunset, but it's more atmospheric. Tikal's a very close second, though, and it's still not to be missed; it's just that in the world of Mayan ruins, size isn't everything.