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eirekay Yaxha - A travel report by Eire
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Yaxha,  Guatemala - flag Guatemala -  Petén
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eirekay's travel reports

Ruta Maya Road Trip

  16 votes
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From intricate carvings to brilliantly colored murals and amazing stucco panels, a string of Mayan artistic wonders brought daily delights. Remote locations gave an Indiana Jones quality to the trek as we wandered alone through ancient palaces and temples report of the month contest
Mar 2008

Temple I sit behind the three storied Central Acropolis Palaces
Temple I sit behind the three storied Central Acropolis Palaces
How to choose - there are so many fine Mayan sites to pick from. We narrowed the choices to those that changed or expanded knowledge of the Mayan culture: Tikal for its monumental twin pyramids, Yaxha for its carefully laid out astronomical plazas , Topoxte for its postclassic columns, Yaxchilan with its carved door lintels, Bonampak for its renown murals and Palenque with its World Tree structures. Traveling from east to west, we could link all 6 without traveling more than 2 or 3 hours a day.

As you hike from the entrance into Tikal, the walls of various structures quickly rise around you. Every mound conjures up images of another building. Coming up to the Grand Plaza, with its behemoth twin pyramids, many roomed acropolis structures lining either side, is a step back in time. This pyramid system, two twins facing each other, originated here but quickly spread through the Mayan world. Climb Temple II just to stand on top (Temple I is not accessible) but the real treat is to wind in and around the palace rooms and courtyards of the Central Acropolis. We found a young fox hunting lizards within the palace walls. Temple IV, still unexcavated except for its roof comb, can be climb using a set of very spooky stairs/ladders but the view is so stunning that George Lucas used it in the closing scene of Star Wars IV.

Yaxha, the sight of Survivor Guatemala, was next up. The excavation of Yaxha has been controversial, done with private funds, for profit. The results however are marvelous. Centered between two lakes, the name literally translates to Blue Green Waters. Tall pyramids sit at precise astronomical coordinates conjuring up visions of ceremonial sacrifices. Roars of howler monkeys echo as flocks of green parrots flap overhead. All 9 temples can be climbed and most offer incredible vistas of the lakes trimmed in dense rain forest. Over 40 stelae occupy Yaxha but most remarkable is a Teotihuancan Rain God, Tialoc, showing the influence of other cultures.

Favourite spots:
Amazing carved detail in doorway lintel at Yaxchilan
Amazing carved detail in doorway lintel at Yaxchilan
Early the next morning we drove over the border into Mexico on our journey to Yaxchillan. Accessible via an hour boat ride up Rio Usumacinta, we felt like Indiana Jones. Ceiba trees, hung heavy with vines and oripendula nests lined the steep banks. Bring a head lamp and a settled stomach-the entrance into the ruins is through a pitch dark labyrinth filled with bats and spiders, a monument to the Xilbalba, the Underworld. You exit into a vast courtyard acropolis oddly without the typical pyramids. Instead a series of low buildings line the river bank, most with intricately carved hieroglyphics texts adorning door and window lintels. As beautiful as these are, the jewel lays up the hill. Temple 33, with its detailed stone lattice roof comb, has some of most amazing carvings in the Mayan world. Doorway lintels had me immediately flopped on my back to take in the exquisite bas reliefs. Sacrificial and ceremonial scenes carved to the last toe nail. Ball games in mid play lined staircases.

What's really great:
Processions of War at Bonampak
Processions of War at Bonampak
Close by Yaxchillan sits the other major art find of the Mayan world, Bonampak. Until recently, only a 10 mile trek through the rain forest could get you to Bonampak but the Lakandon Indians, a local Mayan tribe control this land and have installed an electric bus system to reach the ruins. Despite a grand staircase up the hillside, the ruins are small and unimpressive. What is impressive are three rooms discovered in 1946 in Structure I, midway up the hillside. The murals surround you on all sides as you enter, walking you through a series of events. Room 1 announces the birth of a son. A den of mothers gossips on one wall while trumpeters blare on another. Room 2 prepares for war and the battle itself. Room 3 graphically displays the tragedy of the captives who lay dying at the feet of Lords in full celebration. The colors are vivid and the natural body movement is astounding. Although I had seen pictures, nothing prepared me for the impact of standing amidst them. No flash photos.

The Palace with its 4 story Tower
The Palace with its 4 story Tower
Palenque completed our Ruta Mayan adventure. Larger and better known then our last 4 sites, we taken aback by having the share the ruins with tourists again. Known for its Temple of the Inscriptions, the second longest text of glyphs in the Mayan world, it tells of 180 years of history. The Palace, with its 4 storied tower, is a marvel of courtyards lined with intricate bas relief carvings. Most impressive though are the three Temples of the Cross structures, named for the Mayan World Tree carvings which adorn the altars at the top of these three structures. The carving depict a ceiba tree adorned with ears of corn but the appearance is very much of a Christian cross. We were discouraged from walking down the "Eco Path", a 2 km trek through the forest, but this was a highlight! Clusters of Mayan residences line the path waiting to be explored and a gorgeous waterfall awaits at the mid point. The Museum at the bottom houses artifacts from digs - this was the best of the museums we saw.

Nitun's open air dining room and kitchen. Enchanting!
Nitun's open air dining room and kitchen. Enchanting!
Nitun, located just outside Flores/St. Elena was an incredible treat. Casitas with large patios line a rain forest hillside on beautiful Lake Flores. An open air kitchen and dining room, with bar above, provided breakfast and dinner. Parrots roamed the patio amidst toad, butterflies, and wild orchids. The lake water was so warm that we arose at 6am to a swim rather than a shower. The meals were 4 star and the surroundings were beyond description. This is the most enchanting place I have ever stayed.

Frontera Corozal, our base for Yaxchillan and Bonampak was an exact opposite of Nitun but when you are up a river in the middle of no where, anything works. Again, meals were provided, 2 star at best, and the room was unconditioned, had limited electricity and poor bathrooms. All the same, I wasn't expecting much beyond a bed to sleep in.

Mission Palenque was a very standard tourist hotel. The equivalent of perhaps a Holiday Inn. Clean but nothing special.

A community between Bonampak and Palenque
A community between Bonampak and Palenque
The drives between sites provided their own entertainment. Villages and farms line the two lane highways, providing a glimpse of rural life that is largely unchanged from 200 years ago. Sadly, slash and burn clearing can be seen throughout Guatemala and Southern Mexico. Farms are still tilled by oxen or horse and animals roam freely. The is a nobility and beauty in the lifestyle that is not to be taken lightly.

Spicy Tortilla Soup on the Main Plaza in Palenque
Spicy Tortilla Soup on the Main Plaza in Palenque
Most of our meals were provided in hotels because we were some distance from villages. The exception was in Palenque. One of my favorite things is to dine upstairs over looking the main plaza! This was the ticket: El Pacal on the corner of Independencia and Hidalgo. The view provided for perfect great people watching so that fact that the food was delicious was a bonus!

Other recommendations:
Gun Runner's Road Block in Southern Mexico
Gun Runner's Road Block in Southern Mexico
We had opportunities to delve into several markets. Palenque's evening market, located in the main Plaza, was, by far, the best we found. This may be because so many more tourists come to Palenque.

We ended our trip in Villahermosa, Mexico. The Olmec Park, located on Lake Villahermosa, offers a wonderful opportunity to see carvings that pre-date, but definitely influenced, Mayan Culture. Truth is that this provided the closest airport in Southern Mexico for departure.

Be forewarned - English is not widely spoken in this region of the world, even the staff in the touristy hotel in Palenque was not English speaking. I speak enough to be able to get by but this was a problem for my son whose French was useless!

Southern Mexico has had a number of rebel outbreaks in the Mayan Mountains. We experienced a number of armed road blocks in which we had to exit our car and open our luggage. We were told that they were looking for gun runners. I look just like a typical gun runner!

Published on Friday March 28th, 2008

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Wed, May 07 2008 - 01:38 PM rating by porcupine

A fine job Eire. Congrats on the report of the month. Another great Central American adventure that I will surely take notes on before any planned trip there.

Sat, Apr 12 2008 - 03:08 AM rating by downundergal

Marvellous! I loved your description of the jungle and had a small shudder reading of the cave (being a claustrophobic) but I would have braved it to see those wonderful lintels - you have to go to Cambodia and see Angkor and all the other temples there - you would love it!!
I loved Palenque and recall sitting in that same plaza watching the world go by.
Terrific reading - thanks.

Mon, Mar 31 2008 - 05:13 PM rating by zrusseff

Quite an adventurous tour and well documented. Your reports definitely sounds like the stuff movies are made of. Most Excellent!

Mon, Mar 31 2008 - 07:13 AM rating by marianne

Excellent information, a joy to read, beautifully written.

Sat, Mar 29 2008 - 01:05 PM rating by rangutan

Excellent, full of mystery and adventure [4.6]

Sat, Mar 29 2008 - 09:28 AM rating by mistybleu

What an enjoyable read. I hope to go to Guatemala in November, so thanks for the tips.

Fri, Mar 28 2008 - 09:02 AM rating by krisek

Great report! I like the practical info and specific qualities of the sites you visited. The pictures depict the trip beautifully as well and nicely matched with the narrative. Thank you very much for sharing.

Fri, Mar 28 2008 - 08:58 AM rating by ravinderkumarsi

very nice to read such report ,well done

Fri, Mar 28 2008 - 07:08 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Glad to see you back in Globo. Glad to read again another of your beautiful reports. Thanks.

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