Story and photos by Joshua Berman
Travelers’ tales about Tikal inspire a sunrise photo quest—and a race against park guards and time.
On my first morning in Tikal, Guatamala, I blinked awake an hour before my pre-dawn alarm, anticipatory endorphins surging through hungry traveler’s veins. I could hardly believe where I was—Tikal. At sunrise. It was a legendary place-time combo. I just prayed it was not overcast as it had been the previous afternoon. I wanted that sunrise.
I’ve never been a check-it-off-the-list kind traveler, hopping from sight to sight for bragging rights and passport stamps, putting quantity before quality. But after years of listening to incomplete and deficient tales about Tikal, I knew I had to go. I’d met too many travelers who were at a loss for words when trying to describe it.
“It was spiritual,” said a freckle-faced, blond backpacker during a rum-fueled story swap in Managua, years before I ever made it to Guatemala. “You’re in the forest and it’s so far, and it was just…”
She paused and we waited. This was during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, an exotic and confounding land in its own right, but devoid of any massive old cities like those of the Maya region. Don’t get me wrong—I love Nicaragua. I loved living there. I had a life, a house, friends, possessions, a job, a cat—all in a dirt-road pueblo on the Panamerican Highway. But each month, when I traveled to Managua, I stayed at Hospedaje Santos, a $4-a-night, freak-magnet of a flophouse planted firmly on the Central America gringo trail. There I met people in motion, backpackers on long, linear journeys; they bought “open jaw” tickets, starting in Cancun or Chiapas and working their way all the way to Panama, sometimes beyond.
Santos had a wonderful open balcony that lorded over its common space and mismatched rooms. We gathered around the plastic furniture and fraying, filthy hammocks and talked and listened and laughed. The southbounders threw around names like Utila, Cayo, Caulker, Antigua, Atitlan, and Palenque. These were strange-sounding, wondrous words, and when the bright-eyed, blond woman talked about Tikal, there was a hush in the hospedaje. Someone tinkled ice into their glass and we leaned forward.
Finally, she decided to compare it to Copan, a Maya archaeological site in western Honduras. I’d been to Copan and had been impressed—each Maya king built a new city atop his predecessor’s. The site was a deep, deep layer cake of indigenous history, full of some of the most intricate carvings and stelae in the Mundo Maya, the “Athens of the Mundo Maya.”
But, said the girl I did not know but whose opinion I trusted completely, compared to Tikal, Copan was “like a golf course, all manicured and cut grass.”
“Tikal is different,” she said. “Tikal is wild.”
Two Guards Between Us and Sunrise
I stepped outside to look at the stars. They were bright. I did a silent hallelujah dance for the clear sky. I got dressed and double-checked my camera bag, took a cold shower, then went outside to meet a friend.
Daniela was a fellow amateur photographer who had also dreamed about Tikal. We’d crossed paths, quite literally, the previous summer while working on a fire in Montana. Like many National Park Service firefighters and rangers, we’d hiked, dug, scraped, sprayed, and camped all summer, all the while banking hundreds of hours of overtime and hazard pay which we used for traveling. Having shared so many intense moments of travel during the summer, firefighters would sometimes meet up in wonderful places in the off-season to create more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle.
We walked briskly across the hotel grounds and the abandoned airstrip, and discussed our prospects of sneaking in. The park didn’t officially open for another hour and we were desperate to find the perfect spot before the sun appeared. We thought we’d be able to slip right in; it was so dark and early, there couldn’t possibly be anyone else up, not even the guards. We were wrong.
Dozens of travelers—mostly young, from Spain, Australia, Israel, and the United States—were huddled together in the chill, mewing and whining their indignation at not being allowed to enter. We joined them. Two Guatemalan guards stood with shotguns.
“¡Por favorrrr!” cried a Spanish girl. Her cheeks glistened in the headlamps and fading moon light.
“We came from the other side of the world!” she said in proper Castilian. “For the sunrise!”
“Not until six,” repeated a teenage, hollow-cheeked Guatemalan soldier, rifle across his chest, olive cap pulled low over his forehead. His companion’s face was unmoved. The two were like jungle Mestizo versions of the Queen’s Guards.