Sunrise at Tikal at the end of the Mayan Calendar

It was 2.40am when our alarms went off. Quietly and in a sleepy haze we lifted our sighing rucksacks onto our backs and trekked down the stairs to the hotel lobby where we filed, silently into the awaiting private bus.  It was an hour’s drive to Tikal we were told, and they expected the roads to be very very busy. It was the 21st December 2012 after all. The end of the Mayan calendar.

We tried to catch an hours sleep, bouncing as the bus hit the many holes in the road it could not see in the pitch dark. As we rolled in to the National Park, we could sense that something was happening. On a normal day the park would be empty at 3am but today, or this morning, cars lined the sides of the road and the car park was full.

Not put off, we loaded up our day bags, grabbed our torches and camera and met our guide. Groups surrounded us, as eager to watch the sunrise and we hurried on, eagerly overtaking as many people as possible so that we could find that perfect spot.

Ahead of us were a large group, all carrying candles adding to the nervous excitement. The dark hung around every corner and without the torches it would have been impossible to see where we were going. As we walked through the jungle, we had no idea what we were passing, time flew by. We had no idea of how long we were walking for. We could feel our hearts beating but it wasn’t until later when the sun had risen did we realise how far we had walked.

Tikal at Sunrise

We rounded a corner, spilling out of the dark trees. Ahead of us were rows and rows of vans and cars, some with satellite dishes on top. A temple stood ahead, bathed in a red glow, lit up by floodlights beneath it and tribal Mayan music was being played from somewhere, though where we couldn’t identify. The media were here. This only added to our excitement and desperation to see the sunrise.

By the time we reached Temple 4, the best place to see the sunrise, the viewing deck was full and the sunrise was creeping in. Suddenly there was a sense of urgency from the local guide, that we had to move and move fast to catch it. Already panting and feeling the humid heat we headed off to location number two, The Lost Temple.

Tikal at Sunrise

Standing against the massive pyramid we were told to climb. The steps were huge, some uneven and narrow under our feet. In the pitch darkness, the only way up was to feel our way, step by step, ledge by ledge with no view of the top. As I climbed it felt like a race against time, knowing there was only minutes until the first moments of light leaked over the horizon. Hauling myself onto the top step of the pyramid, what I saw surprised me but only increased the excitement for what I was about to experience. Dozens of people sat, facing the sunrise, in relative silence, staring at the horizon and the temples, peeking out from the treetops. We took our seats, settling down on the hard stone and behind us a guide announced that musicians had also made the climb to play traditional Mayan music.

Tikal at Sunrise

The silence was filled by the beautiful music, setting the tone for one of the most memorable moments of the tour. As light flooded the jungle, the sky tinged with pink and more and more temples emerged. On top of them, hundreds of people stood, people catching a glimpse of the new Mayan world beginning.

After the photos had been taken, we descended back down the pyramid. In the light of day the steps seemed more uneven and each stride was taken more tentatively. The world didn’t feel any different, even at Tikal but it felt strangely surreal to have witnessed such a historic event even though no momentous change happened.

Jess travelled on Tucan Travel’s Quetzal Highway over Christmas 2012. (We no longer run this specific tour but we do have a very similar one which you can view here.)

About the Author: Jess is Communications Coordinator for Tucan Travel. She has travelled independently and on group tours through Central America, Africa, North America, Israel and Europe. You can find her on or read her other contributions here.

Spread the love

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *