Discovering the Maya Ruins of Petén, Guatemala: A Journey Through Time

December 15, 2023

Spanning from the 5th century BC to the 16th century AD, the Maya civilization thrived over an extensive territory of nearly 300,000 square kilometers, now divided among Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. Among their numerous enigmatic contributions, their relentless architectural fervor stands out. In a challenging environment of dense tropical forests and swamps, they constructed hundreds of splendid stone cities, with towering pyramids that still defy the lush greenery today. Among these cities, like Palenque, Copán, Oxkintok, Calakmul, Uxmal, and Yaxchilán, Tikal in Guatemala is unparalleled in grandeur and historical significance.

Tikal: The Place of Voices Situated in Guatemala’s El Petén department, the ruins of Tikal were rediscovered by Modesto Méndez in 1848. The site, near where Hernán Cortes passed on his journey to Honduras in 1525, was once the center of a powerful kingdom that collapsed around the 9th century. Originally named ‘Mutul,’ meaning ‘knotted hair,’ the modern name ‘Tikal’ translates to ‘place of voices,’ aptly reflecting the sounds of the forest. Today, visitors can explore only a fraction of this immense city, where majestic buildings rise among the trees in a vast protected natural park. These centers were once vibrant with colorful stucco and housed temples and palaces.

Maya City-States and Temple V of Tikal The Maya civilization was divided into city-states, each controlling a territory, with some cities exerting hegemony over others. Each city had its king, known as ‘ajau’ or ‘kul ajau’ (sacred lord). Temple V in Tikal, situated near the Seven Temples plaza, is a marvel of Maya architecture in Petén. Its construction, around 700 AD, is a subject of chronological debate but is believed to have occurred during the reign of Hasaw Cha’an Kawil I. Some researchers, like Mary Ellen Milner, suggest it might be a funerary monument for Hasaw’s firstborn.

Unique Aspects and Discoveries at Temple V Temple V is unique, facing north towards the Great Plaza, and bears similarities with the Maler Palace. It might have been built during the reign of Yax Ahiin II, possibly as a tribute to his father and grandfather. This 57-meter-high structure features two staircases, one for construction and the other ceremonial. Excavations in 1996 uncovered a tunnel with Maya offerings, including jade, pottery, and anthropomorphic figures. The temple’s structure is distinctive, with a small chamber and thick walls occupying 96% of its structure, contrasting with other temples.

The Overlooked Treasure of Yaxhá Yaxhá, although less known than Tikal, is a fascinating archaeological site located 70 kilometers from the island town of Flores. This Classic Period Maya city was built beside the Yaxhá lagoon, meaning ‘water and green’ in reference to the lagoon and forest. The ruins are part of the larger Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park, which encompasses 351 square kilometers, protecting not just archaeological sites but also diverse forests, rivers, and lagoons.

Experiencing Yaxhá Yaxhá’s combination of archaeology and nature is reminiscent of sites in Guatemala and Belize, such as the stunning Lamanai. Despite having over 500 structures, Yaxhá receives few visitors, partly due to limited infrastructure and public transport. The solitude enhances the experience, allowing visitors to explore the ruins almost alone, accompanied by the sounds of howler monkeys and spider monkeys.

Visiting Yaxhá Our journey from Flores to Yaxhá took about two hours, covering just over 70 kilometers. The tranquility of the park is palpable, with the sounds of nature and wildlife creating an immersive experience. Wooden walkways facilitate exploration, leading to sites like the Ball Game Court and the Great Astronomical Complex. The North Acropolis is a standout feature, with three temples surrounding a central plaza. The East Acropolis and the Temple of the Red Hands offer breathtaking views of the surrounding lagoons.

Yaxhá, the Little Tikal Our visit to Yaxhá was a serene and fulfilling complement to the bustling Tikal. Dubbed ‘the little Tikal,’ Yaxhá allows for a solitary appreciation of the Maya world and nature. This two-hour tour is an ideal accompaniment to the Tikal experience, offering a unique perspective on the majestic ruins of the Maya civilization in the Petén region of Guatemala.

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Archaeological Wonders

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