Through the Land of the Mayas

Digging under the acropolis, archeologists have also found a complete religious sanctuary which was buried by the Mayas. This building, about 18 by 12 metres in size, two storeys high and elaborately decorated on the outside, is the most completely preserved example of the Mayan architecture of the 6th century CE.   It can be seen from the tunnel, or as a replica in the museum.

The small town of Copan Ruins has a nice square, some shops and a small museum, but otherwise is not really worth a visit.  However, the small Maya site of Quirigua, only a short distance away across the Guatemalan border in the Montagua valley, certainly is.  There are no soaring temple pyramids here, but a huge plaza, the largest one so far found, bordered on two sides by shallow mounds, which were spectator seats before the jungle claimed them again.  On the third side are the low-rise palace and living quarters, and the fourth side is jungle with still contains large ceiba trees and the chickle tree, which the natives tapped to make chewing gum from the sap.

Museo Ixchel, Guatemala City.Quirigua’s best known ruler was Cauac Sky, who ruled for 54 years.  In 738 CE he defeated Copan and sacrificed its 13th and most famous ruler, Eighteen Rabbit (who was so strangely named by archaeologists, although his real name is now been deciphered).   Nine massive and well preserved stelae, carved on all four sides, tell this and other events, as do three so-called zoomorphs, massive carved boulders, two of them depicting gods emerging from the jaws of animals and the final one showing the sacrifice of Eighteen Rabbit.

It is about 300 km to Tikal, our next destination.  We cross the wide but short River Dulce which drains Guatemala’s largest lake, Lago de Izabal, into the Caribbean, and the landscape changes again completely.  We are entering the Petén, a thinly-populated, hot and humid lowland covered by primary rainforest.  The only highway into that area was built some 20 years ago; before that one had to take a plane or spend two to three days driving a four-wheel drive vehicle along a dirt track to reach Flores, the only town near the ruins, located on an island in Lago Petén Itzá, but connected to the mainland by a causeway.

What can be said about Tikal, the second largest Maya city so far found?  It covers an area of roughly four by four kilometres and consists of five major temples, a central acropolis and numerous other buildings and ball courts, all located in a large national park.  From about 200 BCE to 800 CE it was the seat of the government of a city state which at its peak had some 60,000 inhabitants.  They lived in small adobe and thatched buildings in the surrounding area.  By the time the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century, Tikal was abandoned and the jungle had totally reclaimed the buildings as well as the temples on top of the pyramids.  The site was not discovered again until 1857, about 1,000 years after it was abandoned.  Since then, only a portion of the buildings have been excavated and further excavations are usually filled in again to stop erosion of the surfaces.  A number of trees still cling to the remains of the roof comb of one temple.

The reasons why Tikal and other Maya cities were abandoned are subjects of intense discussions among archeologists.  There were a number of settlements in the rain forest of the Yucatan Peninsula, and it is likely that due to deforestation the soil eroded and water became scarce, leading to widespread starvation.  This in turn made the people lose confidence in their religious leaders, who were unsuccessful in enticing their gods to send more rain.  Evidence for this conclusion is that the skeletons show signs of malnutrition, especially in females who usually give whatever food is available to their children.  The Mayas’ enormous need for firewood to make quicklime to plaster the outside of their huge temples and to waterproof the floor of the plazas and irrigation ditches likely contributed to the deforestation.

Hotel Villa Catarina on Lake Atitlan.It is a long drive from Tikal to Antigua, a former capital of Guatemala.  Our short stay in this beautiful colonial city was a fitting conclusion to this exciting and informative journey.  A visit to the coffee museum and plantation gave us some insight into the growing and processing of Guatemala’s major export commodity.  Afterwards we took advantage of the opportunity to shop at the many small stores and spent our last evening leisurely at our comfortable hotel.    Final note: the local rum at $8 per bottle is excellent!

Caravan Tours’ website: or call 1 800 CARAVAN.  For a glimpse of the Hotel Villa Catarina visit : AtititlanGuatemalahotelsLakeAtitlanGuatemala.php 


Heinz Jaeger is a TTS member who lives in Burlington, Ontario.