Monday, July 2, 2012

Mayan Ruins: Guatemala

In this exciting episode, the Mayan ruin sites of Guatemala. For anyone who missed the first part in this series, it was awesome so be sure to read it. It covered the Mayan sites in Mexico. Remember! This is by no means an exhaustive list. Give us some feedback on any you have visited that aren’t mentioned here. We already want to go back to see some more we missed.
Tikal – El Peten

If we had to recommend just one site of the Mayans to visit, this would be the one. I think everyone that visits here will find themselves on at least one occasion, standing at the foot of one of the giant temples letting out an “awwwww” (you might even get a reply from a Howler monkey). You can almost picture the Mayan rulers standing atop the monolithic structures, arms raised in the air to the gods, the people below transfixed in awe. Once you get over this moment, you can climb the rickety wooden steps, constructed to keep people off the actual temples, to the top and play the part of the ruler. Have your friends stand, no better, kneel, at the bottom for true effect. It is at Tikal that you can really get a sense of why the Mayan civilization is considered so advanced for its age. Take a tour to learn about how the structures are perfectly lined up in accordance with specific astral and solar events and also of the epic battles Tikal and its allies fought against Calakmul for ultimate rule of the region. Tikal is so grand it was chosen by George Lucas to be used in a scene of Star Wars. While Tikal is a super popular tourist destination, it is not at the scale (yet) of Chichen Itza. The site itself is quite spread-out, so even if there are a lot of fellow travellers, you could well find yourself on a temple by yourself. Take the time to check out the plazas away from the central plaze. They in their own right are super impressive as well.
HOT TIP: For a truly incredible experience, stay near the site. It might cost a few extra dollars, but it’s worth it. You can get their super early to beat the rush. Or, if you are “friendly” to one of the security guards, they might even grant you special access for what would be a truly incredible sunrise witnessed from the top of a temple towering over the jungle canopy. This is not strictly legal, so no warranties or anything on that one.
El Zotz – El Peten
This site is quite close to Tikal, within walking distance if you are super adventurous. We are proud to say that a personal friend, very recently, dug his way through a temple to find a tomb! It is considered the most important discovery in the Mayan world since that of Pakal’s tomb in Palenque. Read some more about it HERE. Pretty exciting stuff. It does however mean that access to the site may be restricted – we were not able to visit a couple of months ago. So, check out the latest before trying to get there. “Zotz” means bat, and one of the highlights of visiting the site is watching the animals depart from their cave homes on nightfall.
HOT TIP: There should be a few people that know what’s is going on with the status of the site in the lake island town of Flores. Ask around there for information on whether the site is off-limits or not.
El Mirador – El Peten
Lying in the remote Northern region of Guatemala, this very important site is beyond reach to all bar the most dedicated of intrepid explorers. El Mirador dominated the region before Tikal. Hence, the site is one of the largest with the highest concentration of structures in the Mayan world. To visit it either requires a two-day jungle trek to get there, don’t forget you have to walk back, or a LOT of dollars to get yourself aboard a helicopter. I had planned to do the trek a couple of years back. Unfortunately, after a few days spent in Flores waiting and searching for some more people to join us, we were forced to pull the pin. So I am going on reports from quite a few travellers who undertook the mission when I write this. The trek is long and arduous. You will be pounded by mosquitoes, and countless other types of insects. You may also have to contend with snakes, scorpions, crocodiles and jaguars. The ruins are mostly unrestored, overgrown with jungle. What was once a temple may now more resemble a mound of dirt. The Danta pyramid is the biggest structure the Mayans ever built. You can enjoy sunrise or sunset from atop this giant. Is it worth the effort? Some say yes, some no. The achievement of getting there and back in one piece may be the highlight. There is also an environmental issue that should be considered. A path has to be slashed for every tour group that makes their way to the site, including mules that will carry your gear.
HOT TIP: Take on the challenge from the months of January to August. Once rainy season hits, the mud mess will block your path.
Zaculeu – Huehuetenango
Bit of a weird one this site. On the outskirts of Huehuetenango (“Huehue” makes it a bit easier to say), Zaculeu is easily reached by bus. Its distinguishing feature is the way it was restored. The United Fruit Company got license to ruin the ruins back in the day, and decided to cover the thing with plaster to make it more resemble what it would have when it was a functioning city. The result kind of looks like huge concrete blocks. Visit this site to get a sense of how important it is to preserve these precious monuments in the proper way. Even still, the Mam Mayan people use the site to give religious offerings. We noted remains of fire pits in front of a few of the temples. The on-site museum may be the smallest in the world, and is kind of a joke. It is unfortunate that more hasn’t been done here, since the history of Zaculeu is quite interesting. It was the scene for many battles between the Mam and K’iche people with the latter eventually gaining control of the city. When the Spanish arrived, the Mayan rivals banded together to valiantly defend their kingdom. After months of fighting, they were eventually starved out and relinquished control. Zaculeu was immediately abandoned, and the city of Huehuetenango founded.
HOT TIP: Be ready for a chat with the friendly alcoholics out the front!

Quirigua – Izabal
Quirigua can be reached from Rio Dulce and is not a bad idea for a day trip. It is a reasonably small site that shares the same archaeological style with the more well-known Copan. Its history with Copan is pretty interesting, involving betrayal and war. Be sure to hit up wiki for some more information if you’re interested in all that stuff. Don’t visit Quirigua expecting to climb mountainous temples into the upper atmosphere. The highlights are instead the detailed, and tall, stelae and zoomorphs (sculptures of mythological animals composed from toads, jaguars, crocodiles and birds of prey). Stela E is thought to be the largest free-standing monolith in the entire New World. It is 10.6 metres in height! Unfortunately it was broken in half when trying to stand it up, though it has been patched together with concrete.
HOT TIP: Don’t eat spaghetti bolognese on a first date. Slurping of the noodles can make a real mess of a freshly ironed shirt. WHOOPS, wrong blog. Lots of mini vans pass through Rio Dulce headed in the Quirigua direction. You have to change a couple of times, but the driver and his helper will always be more than happy to give you a hand finding your way.
Takalik Abaj – Retalhuleu
Takalik Abaj, formally known as Abaj Takalik (they just couldn’t make up their minds) is located near the Pacific Coast of Guatemala and was occupied from roughly 100 BC to 1524 AD. As Pre-Classic Mayan sites go Takalik Abaj is a real “must-see.” No Joke. Construction, theft, intense rainfall, humid climate and acidic soil create a preservation rate for most sites this old that I would best define as shit.  Many preclassic sites throughout Mesoamerica no longer have or never had monumental architecture to begin with. Typically stelae and sculpture are completely unrecognizable or no longer at the site and the most important information left behind is in the trash, buried meters below the ground you walk on.
Fortunately, Takalik Abaj is visually stunning. There IS monumental architecture, ball courts, sculpture, tombs, stelae, visible glyphs and all other sorts of amazing things that are super exciting to archaeologists that I will not bore you with. Such as, obsidian prismatic blades sourced from El Chayal. Additionally, Olmec, Maya and K’iche’ iconography are found at this site.
So, if you are really into archaeology and Mesoamerican sites go to Takalik Abaj. If not, maybe the drive wouldn’t really be worth it for you.  Takalik isn’t very close to any popular tourist destinations in Guatemala so it has to be something you are really serious about if you decide to visit. For those that do, it will be something that few tourists have done and you will learn about an early period of Mesoamerican rule that isn’t as popularized as the others.
HOT TIP:  There are usually archaeologists working on the site year round.  If you speak Spanish, ask a few questions.  Usually they will be happy to show you what they are working on because tourists are few and far between.

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