Other Maya ruins

There are literally hundreds of Maya sites in the Petén. Below are a handful of sites, whose ruins have been explored, and of whose histories something is known.

Uaxactún

In the village of Uaxactún (pronounced Waash-ak-tún) are ruins, famous for the oldest complete Maya astronomical complex found, and a stuccoed temple with serpent and jaguar head decoration. The village itself is little more than a row of houses either side of a disused airstrip. Uaxactún is one of the longest-occupied Maya sites. Its origins lie in the Middle pre-Classic (1000 BC-300 BC) and its decline came by the early post-Classic (AD 925-1200) like many of its neighbouring powers. Its final stelae, dated AD 889, is one of the last to be found in the region. The site is named after a stela, which corresponds to Baktun 8 (8 x 400 Maya years), carved in AD 889 -
uaxac
means 8,
tun
means stone. South of the remains of a ball court, in
Group B
, a turtle carving can be seen, and Stela 5, which marks the takeover of the city, launched from Tikal. Next door to this stela under Temple B-VIII were found the remains of two adults, including a pregnant woman, a girl of about 15 and a baby. It is believed this may have been the governor and his family who were sacrificed in AD 378. From Group B, take the causeway to
Group A
. In Group A, Structure A-V had 90 rooms and there were many tombs to be seen. The highest structure in the complex is Palace A-XVIII, where red paint can still be seen on the walls. In
Group E
the oldest observatory (E-VII-sub) ever found faces structures in which the equinoxes and solstices were observed. When the pyramid (E-VII) covering this sub-structure was removed, fairly well preserved stucco masks of jaguar and serpent heads were found flanking the stairways of the sub-structure. The ruins lie either side of the village, the main groups
(Group A and B)
are to the northwest (take a left just before
Hotel El Chiclero
and follow the road round on a continuous left to reach this group). A smaller group
(Group E)
with the observatory is to the southwest (take any track, right off the airstrip, and ask. This group is 400 m away. The site is 24 km north of Tikal on an unpaved road. It is in fairly good condition taking less than one hour in any vehicle.

El Zotz

El Zotz, meaning bat in Q'eqchi', is so called because of the nightly flight from a nearby cave of thousands of bats. There is an alternative hiking route as well . Incredibly, from Temple IV, the highest in the complex at 75 m, it is possible to see in the distance, some 30 km away, Temple IV at Tikal. The wooden lintel from Temple I (dated AD 500-550) is to be found in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in the capital. Each evening at about 1850 the sky is darkened for 10 minutes by the fantastic spectacle of tens of thousands of bats flying out of a cave near the camp. The 200-m-high cave pock-marked with holes is a half-hour walk from the camp. If you are at the cave you'll see the flight above you and get doused in falling excrement. If you remain at the campsite you will see them streaking the dark blue sky with black in straight columns. It's also accessible via Uaxactún. There is some basic infrastructure for the guards, and you can camp.

El Perú and the Estación Biológica Guacamayo

A visit to El Perú is included in the
Scarlet Macaw Trail
, a two- to five-day trip into the
Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre
, through the main breeding area of the scarlet macaw. There is little to see at the Maya site, but the journey to it is worthwhile. In 2004 the 1200 year oId tomb and skeleton of a Maya queen were found. A more direct trip involves getting to the Q'eqchi'-speaking isolated community of
Paso Caballos
(1¾ hours). Here, the
Comité de Turismo
can organize transport by
lancha
along the Río San Pedro. From Paso Caballos it is one hour by
lancha
to the El Perú campsite and path. It's possible to stop off at the
Estación Biológica Guacamayo
, www.propeten.org
, where there is an ongoing programme to study the wild scarlet macaws (
ara macao
). The chances of seeing endangered scarlet macaws during March, April and
May in this area is high because that's when they are reproducing. A couple of minutes upriver is the landing stage, where it's a 30-minute walk to the campsite of El Perú: howler monkeys, hummingbirds, oropendola birds and fireflies abound. From there, it is a two-hour walk to the El Perú ruins. Small coral snakes slither about, howler monkeys roar, spider monkeys chuck branches down on the path. White-lipped peccaries, nesting white turtles, eagles, fox and kingfishers have also been seen. The trip may be impossible between June and August because of rising rivers during the rainy season and because the unpaved road to Paso Caballos may not be passable.

El Mirador, El Tintal and Nakbé

El Mirador is the largest Maya site in the country. It dates from the late pre-Classic period (300 BC-AD 250) and is thought to have sustained a population of tens of thousands. It takes five days to get to El Mirador. From Flores it is 2½ to three hours to the village of Carmelita by bus or truck, from where it is seven hours walking, or part horse riding to El Mirador. It can be done in four days - two days to get there and two days to return. The route is difficult and the mosquitoes and ticks and the relentless heat can make it a trying trip. Organized tours are arranged by travel agents in Flores - get reassurance that your agents have enough food and water. If you opt to go to El Mirador independently, ask in Carmelita for the
Comité de Turismo
, which will arrange mules and guides. Take water, food, tents and torches. It is about 25 km to El Tintal, a camp where you can sling a hammock, or another 10 km to El Arroyo, where there is a little river for a swim near a
chiclero
camp. It takes another day to El Mirador, or longer, if you detour via Nakbé. You will pass
chiclero
camps on the way, which are very hospitable, but very poor. In May, June and July there is no mud, but there is little chance of seeing wildlife or flora. In July to December, when the rains come, the chances of glimpsing wildlife is much greater and there are lots of flowers. It is a lot fresher, but there can be tonnes of mud, sometimes making the route impassable. The mosquitos are also in a frenzy during the rainy season. Think carefully about going on the trip (one reader called it “purgatory”). The site, which is part of the Parque Nacional Mirador-Río Azul, is divided into two parts with the
El Tigre Pyramid
and complex in the western part, and the
La Danta
complex, the largest in the Maya world, in the east, 2 km away. The larger of two huge pyramids - La Danta - is 70 m high; stucco masks of jaguars and birds flank the stairways of the temple complex. The other, El Tigre, is 55 m in height and is a wonderful place to be on top of at night, with a view of endless jungle and other sites, including Calakmul, in Mexico. In
Carmelita
ask around for space to sling your hammock or camp. There is a basic
comedor
.
El Tintal
, a day's hike from El Mirador, is said to be the second largest site in Petén, connected by a causeway to El Mirador, with great views from the top of the pyramids.
Nakbé
, 10 km southeast of El Mirador, is the earliest known lowland Maya site (1000-400 BC), with the earliest examples of carved monuments.

Río Azul and Kinal

From Uaxactún a dirt road leads north to the campamento of Dos Lagunas. It's a lovely place to camp, with few mosquitoes, but swimming will certainly attract crocodiles. The guards' camp at Ixcán Río, on the far bank of the Río Azul, can be reached in one long day's walk, crossing by canoe if the water is high. If low enough to cross by vehicle you can drive to the Río Azul site, a further 6 km on a wide, shady track. It is also possible to continue into Mexico if your paperwork is ok. A barely passable side track to the east from the camp leads to the ruins of Kinal. The big attraction at Río Azul are the famous black and red painted tombs, technically off limits to visitors without special permission, but visits have been known.

Yaxhá, Topoxte, Nakum and Melchor de Mencos

About 65 km from Flores, on the Belize road ending at Melchor de Mencos, is a turning left, a dry weather road, which brings you in 8.5 km to Laguna Yaxhá. On the northern shore is the site of Yaxhá (meaning Green Water), the third largest known Classic Maya site in the country, accessible by causeway. Open 0600-1700. This untouristy site is good for birdwatching and the views from the temples of the milky green lake are outstanding. In the lake is the unusual Late Post Classic site (AD120-1530) of Topoxte. About 20 km further north of Yaxhá lies Nakum, which it's thought was both a trading and ceremonial centre. You will need a guide and your own transport if you have not come on a tour.

Northwest Petén and the Mexican border

An unpaved road runs 151 km west from Flores to
El Naranjo
on the Río San Pedro, near the Mexican border. Close by is
La Joyanca
, a site where the chance of wildlife spotting is high. You can camp at the
cruce
with the guards.

Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre and Biotopo

The park and biotopo is a vast area of jungle and wetlands north of El Naranjo. The best place to stay is the CECON camp, across the river below the ferry. This is where the guards live and they will let you stay in the bunk house and use their kitchen. Getting into the reserve is not easy and you will need to be fully equipped, but a few people go up the Río Escondido. The lagoons abound in wildlife, including enormous crocodiles and spectacular bird life. Contact CECON.

Sayaxché

Sayaxché, south of Flores on the road to Cobán, has a frontier town feel to it as its focus is on a bend on the Río de la Pasión. It is a good base for visiting the southern Petén including a number of archaeological sites, namely El Ceibal. You can change US dollar bills and traveller's cheques at
Banoro
.

El Ceibal

The height of activity at the site was from 800 BC to the first century AD. Archaeologists agree that it appears to have been abandoned in between about AD 500 and AD 690 and then repopulated at a later stage when there was an era of stelae production between AD 771 and 889. It later declined during the early decades of the 10th century and was abandoned. You can sling a hammock at El Ceibal and use the guard's fire for making coffee if you ask politely - a mosquito net is advisable, and take repellent for walking in the jungle surroundings. Tours can be arranged in Flores for a day trip to Sayaxché and El Ceibal but there is limited time to see the site. From Sayaxché the ruins of the
Altar de los Sacrificios
at the confluence of the Ríos de la Pasión and Usumacinta can also be reached. It was one of the earliest sites in the Péten, with a founding date earlier than that of Tikal. Most of its monuments are not in good condition. Also within reach of Sayaxché is
Itzán
, discovered in 1968.

Piedras Negras

Still further down the Río Usumacinta in the west of Petén is Piedras Negras, a huge Classic period site. In the 1930s Tatiana Proskouriakoff first recognized the periods of time inscribed on stelae here coincided with human life spans or reigns, and so began the task of deciphering the meaning of Maya glyphs. Advance arrangements are necessary with a rafting company to reach Piedras Negras.
Maya Expeditions
(address on page) run expeditions, taking in Piedras Negras, Bonampak, Yaxchilán and Palenque. This trip is a real adventure. The riverbanks are covered in the best remaining tropical forest in Guatemala, inhabited by elusive wildlife and hiding more ruins. Once you've rafted down to Piedras Negras, you have to raft out. Though most of the river is fairly placid, there are the 30-m
Busilhá Falls
, where a crystal-clear tributary cascades over limestone terraces and two deep canyons, with impressive rapids to negotiate, before reaching the take-out two days later.

Petexbatún

From Sayaxché, the Río de la Pasión is a good route to visit other Maya ruins. From
Laguna Petexbatún
(16 km), a fisherman's paradise can be reached by outboard canoe from Sayaxché. Excursions can be made from here to unexcavated ruins that are generally grouped together under the title Petexbatún. These include
Arroyo de la Piedra
, Dos Pilas and Aguateca.
Dos Pilas
has many well-preserved stelae, and an important tomb of a king was found here in 1991 - that of its Ruler 2, who died in AD 726. Dos Pilas flourished in the Classic period when as many as 10,000 lived in the city. There are many carved monuments and hieroglyphic stairways at the site, which record the important events of city life.
Aguateca
, where the ruins are so far little excavated, gives a feeling of authenticity. The city was abandoned in the early ninth century for unknown reasons. Again, a tour is advisable. It's a boat trip and a short walk away. The site was found with numerous walls (it's known the city was attacked in AD 790) and a chasm actually splits the site in two. The natural limestone bridge connects a large plaza with platforms and buildings in the west with an area of a series of smaller plazas in the east. These places are off the beaten track and an adventure to get to.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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