A trip to Guatemala’s Mayan enigma
One of the great cradles of Mayan culture, Guatemala still conserves stunning treasures that reveal its former splendour. In the Mayan Biosphere Reserve (in Guatemala’s El Petén area) alone, there are the remains of nearly 200 Mayan cities. With its extensive landscape filled with roads, acropolises, squares and temples, the old citadel of Tikal represents the culmination of ancient endeavour. Other cities – such as El Mirador, with the tallest pre-Columbian building, Quiriguá, decorated with delicate sculptures, and Santa Lucía, with its obsession with death rituals – speak to us of an enigmatic civilisation that knew more about astrology than its European contemporaries and whose cities were abandoned and buried in the jungles for centuries... and we still don’t know why.
There’s no reason to wonder what became of the Mayans: they still exist in Guatemala and Belize, in the southeastern third of Mexico, and in parts of Honduras and El Salvador. That area – the size of Germany – is where their ancient civilisation developed. There were Mayans in Guatemalan cities such as El Mirador in 600 BCE, and they are still there today. Their traditions are alive and – although they’ve evolved and blended – their languages, holidays, spirituality and customs are conserved. A stroll through cities such as Rabinal or a visit to the Ixil communities reveals ample evidence of this. Mayan civilisation is long-lived and resilient. Its period of maximum splendour – when it founded large cities in tropical rainforests – one of the most hostile and fragile ecosystems on earth – lasted 2,000 years.
A visit to the remains of Mayan splendour begins in the mountains of El Petén
El Petén is home to the two most emblematic cities: Tikal and El Mirador. There are some 200 more, each with its own personality and artistic, architectural and urban attractions.
Tikal is the largest and most impressive. For 800 years, it lay buried in the rainforest, where everything assumes proportions that are more divine than human. It takes at least two days to explore it well, Its 576km sq were home to a population of 10,000 to 90,000 by the fourth century BCE. The current layout of its most striking building dates from the eighth century, when the culture reached its zenith. The Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks – funeral temples – are arranged around the Great Square, its ceremonial centre. Somewhat distant from the others is Temple IV. Dedicated to the Two-Headed Serpent in 741, you can climb its 70m for breath-taking views of the rainforest and city. Inevitably, the landscape will make you think of the power held by the Mayan warrior-god-kings. Tikal was their Imperial Rome or today’s New York City.
The pre-classic era site of El Mirador has even steeper staircases. The steps of La Danta – the tallest Mayan pyramid of all – rise 72m to the top. From the top of this temple, you can see a city with hundreds of buildings under attack by rainforest vegetation. Its difficult access makes it even more appealing.
MORE MAYA CITIES IN EL PETÉN
Without leaving El Petén and while still in the vicinity of Sayaxché, the possibilities of continuing your immersion in the Mayan civilisation are more than can be done in just one trip. The San Bartolo site boasts more than 100 structures within a single square kilometre. In addition to its size, Piedras Negras has the additional adventure of its jungle access. El Zotz, which borders Tikal National Park, has not yet been excavated, but you can see its outline of plant-covered mounds and get an idea of how many more cities lie beneath their roots. La Blanca, a major Mayan trade centre, has beautiful murals depicting the origin of the civilisation. Río Azul reveals the history of maritime trade, primarily with cacao. Seibal was a powerful independent kingdom located on three hills and a ceremonial centre famous for its amazing carved stelae. Aguateca is a walled city on the banks of Lake Petexbatún. And Dos Pilas – scene of a cruel battle that marked its end – has a stairway carved with hieroglyphics that was used to climb up to the royal palace.
The list is long in this mountain range, and there are still other places, such as the Naj Tunich caves, which boast 3km of galleries decorated with 94 murals and many hieroglyphic texts about art, ball games, religion and history. Nor must we forget the astronomical observatory at Uaxactún. Isolated in the rainforest, it has the second largest of all Mayan stelae.
Tour of the Mayan ruins of western Guatemala
While El Petén is where you’ll see one spectacular thing after another, thanks to the centuries of isolation provided by the mountains, there are sites in the rest of the country as well. To the west, Ixmiché, a charming, naturally fortified city just 15km from Lake Atitlán, continues to be a centre of ritual pilgrimage for Mayans. In El Quiché, Q’umarkaj offers a site featuring columns and a pitch for ball games, among several partially buried temples whose decorations and carved stones were plundered by Spaniards, as it was one of the last Mayan cities to fall during the Conquest.
Takalik Abaj is located on the Pacific Coast. This major maritime trading area is decorated with sculptures of animals, some from the sea, and colossal Olmecoid heads. Also on the coast is Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. This small town has several enclaves of the seemingly sinister Pipil, a culture obsessed with the afterlife. Just across Guatemala’s eastern border with Honduras is the once-powerful Copán, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its hieroglyphics and sculptures were done with great artistic delicacy. The nearby site of Quiriguá was part of Copán, and is on the Guatemalan side of the border. Somewhat smaller, its exuberant ornaments are even better preserved than those in neighbouring cities.
This extensive tour of Guatemala’s Mayan culture can be enriched by (or kicked off by) the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City. Its collection includes ceramics, jewellery, stelae and the everyday items that help to decipher a civilisation whose many mysteries (the abandonment of cities, advanced astronomical knowledge and mathematics...) will never be fully understood.