I twisted and turned in my sleeping bag liner, trying to find a comfortable groove to sink my body into on the lumpy mat beneath me. It was 8 o’clock at night when my new friend Katie and I went to sleep in our tent at the campsite on the Tikal National Park grounds. We weren’t tired, more so just anxious being the only people camping in Tikal that night. It was pitch black when we made our way back to the campsite. We used headlamps to see in the bathroom. There wasn’t anything to do but read for a bit before resolving to go to sleep.
The silence was eerie. The only thing between the wilderness and us was our thin tent. It baffled me that there were wild animals in the park, yet the campsite was one giant open space encircled by little huts with tents underneath them. I would have felt much safer on the inside of the circle, with more than just a few feet between the jungle and me.
In an effort to drown out the silence, I went to sleep with my headphones in. Unable to regulate my body temperature with the humid air mixed with a summer night, I was awake again within a few hours. I kicked off my sleeping bag liner and closed my eyes once again.
I thought the next thing to awaken me would be the howler monkeys I’d been told about. But it was a flash of light I sensed through closed eyes that rustled me from my uncomfortable slumber. I watched the ray of a flashlight move from side to side across the tent. I sat upright and peered out of the tent’s mesh door to see a man wielding a flashlight by the furthest hut across the yard. But Manuel, the sweet groundskeeper in charge of the campsite that night only had a headlamp with him when I last saw him. And wait…we were the supposed to be the only people camping in Tikal that night. Immediately I was on high alert.
The thoughts running through my head were fast:
Maybe Manuel probably also has a flashlight and is just checking up on things. But I doubt it. Maybe someone new came to the campsite. But I think the entrance to the park closes around 5 or 6 o’clock.
As I listened to rustling sounds and sat back, watching the flashlight sporadically light up our tent, my thoughts turned to fears:
Lots of people saw Katie and I touring Tikal during the day. The people milling around the park saw that we were alone. We told some of the people we met that we were staying at the campsite. Our shoes are outside, that man will know we are sleeping here. Do I wake Katie? I don’t want to scare her for no reason. Why didn’t I lock my passport and second safety wallet in my backpack in the shed? I have all of my camera gear on me; I’m going to lose it all. Any minute now, this man is going to appear in front of the tent door. Then what?
I thought about how lucky I’ve been not to have any past bad run-ins while traveling. I knew it was only a matter of time until something truly scared me out of my skin. This was that moment. I fought fatigue and watched the flashlight for hours until my eyelids were so heavy that I fell asleep.
It was then that the howler monkeys jolted us out of our sleep, their howls more reminiscent of fire-breathing dragons than any real-life animal. It was about 2:30 in the morning and it was still dark outside, but the mysterious man’s flashlight was finally gone. No one had come to attack us. I told Katie what I saw earlier in the night and how scared I was. We were discussing how we’d have to get up in an hour or so to walk through the park to a temple for the sunrise when I realized who the flashlight wielding man probably was:
There are tours to take visitors through the park for sunrise. The man must be a guide.
I felt so stupid and silly for freaking out while still not doing anything to protect myself when I thought I was in danger.
I let my embarrassment lead me to sleep. Finally after only managing a few hours of real sleep, I awoke at 3:30 to hike through Tikal toward Temple IV for the sunrise.
After a night in real fear, walking in pitch-black darkness with my headlamp didn’t scare me in the least bit. Katie and I meandered with a group of other visitors trying to make our way toward Temple IV without a guide. Although we had toured the ruins the previous afternoon, everything looked different at night.
I could barely see in front of me and had made a few wrong turns when at last I thought we were walking in the right direction. I just needed a sign. No sooner did I turn to my right and my headlamp lit up Temple I, the Temple of the Great Jaguar. It was towering over me and I didn’t even realize it was there a few seconds earlier. I felt like I was in a sequel of A Night at the Museum and that the temples came alive at night, hiding in the shadows, only standing as statues when light shone on them.
We were the first people on top of Temple IV for the sunrise. We sat in the dark, listened to nature, and watched the jungle as it came into view.
When we returned to the campground and spoke to Manuel, he confirmed by final conclusion: the man who came to the campsite last night was a guide. Sometimes the guides stay there overnight because they have to wake up so early for the sunrise hikes.
Once again, I felt ridiculous for overreacting and getting scared for nothing, but I also felt human. There are scary things out there that happen to people. I am not exempt and I’m not fearless. I was thankful that day that my fears turned out to be a false alarm, but I realized that I should know how to react in a questionable situation.
The entire camping experience was so that we could watch the sunrise. While the sunrise was overshadowed by the clouds, the course of events leading up to it was enough of an adrenaline rush for me.