There are plenty of great reasons why Tikal archaeological site gets so much attention (and thousands of visitors). However, Tikal is not the only former Mayan civilization in Guatemala’s Peten region that’s worth your time. About 15 miles (23 km) along a good dirt road beyond Tikal lies Uaxactun.
Inhabited from the Middle Pre-Classic period through the Classic Period, Uaxactun thrived from 500 AD to 900 AD and was the longest lasting Mayan city in the Peten region of Guatemala. While Uaxactun and Tikal may have been neighbors they were not friends. War eventually broke out between them and Tikal won, effectively absorbing Uaxactun.
The longest mask in Mesoamerica
Many of the structures at Uaxactun, which cover an area that’s smaller than Tikal, have been cleared but not reconstructed and digs large and small are ongoing. When we were at the site a team of archaeologists from Slovakia (funded by a rich countryman) were hard at work on a major discovery. Along with a fascinating local archaeologist named Neco, who’s single-handedly putting the rock star back in the profession (picture Indiana Jones meets Salvador Dali), the Slovenians have found the longest known carved mask wall in Mesoamerica.
The elaborately carved panels, in an area of Uaxactun called Group H, cover the length of an enormous base for an enormous temple and appear in two panels–one on either side of a central staircase. The archaeologists have been meticulously excavating the mask panels, documenting them, then burying them again to protect them. During our visit the carved panels to the right of the staircase were being reburied. The mask on the left side was being unearthed and was partially visible.
The detail in the carving was amazing, but we can’t show you any pictures of the mask. As a major new discovery, the archaeologists lay claim to it and prohibit photographs until they’ve published their findings. These images, from the Slovakian Institute of Archaeology and History web site, show carved details of one section of the panel and give you an idea of how massive the panels are.
Earliest known Mayan astrological observatory
One of the most interesting aspects of Uaxactun is its observatory–believed to be one of the first astrological structures in the Mundo Maya. Three short temples line one side of an area that’s now called Group E. During the Spring Equinox (March 20 or 21) and Fall Equinox (September 22 or 23) the sun rises directly behind the middle temple (called Temple II). During the Summer Solstice (June 20 or 21) the sun rises over the structure on the left (Temple I) and during the Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22) it rises over the structure on the right (Temple III).
The Mayans constructed a larger temple, called the Pyramid of the Masks, across a small plaza from the temple trio, providing a perfect viewing platform for these astrological events.
Uaxactun is an engaging site at any time of the year but when we visited Uaxactun during the Spring Equinox we got to witness a series of special events including sacred pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies in Group E featuring chanting, fire, dancing and drumming lead by traditionally-dressed tatas (Mayan men who are, literally, the “counters of days”) and nanas (their female counterparts) along with spiritualists from around the world.
Our video of the ceremony is below:
There was also a demonstration of the traditional Mayan ball game which is sort of like soccer and basketball combined (with a touch of fire-ball field hockey thrown in) but with way better costumes.
Our video, below, shows the game as it was played in the architecturally unique ball courts that are fixtures of almost every Mesoamerican archaeological site.
Modern inhabitants of Uaxactun, none of them Mayan, make a living by tapping chicle trees to collect a substance that was once used to make chewing gum (and now has a market among organic gum makers). Locals also harvest a wild palm called xate that’s prized by interntional floral companies who use it as filler in bouquets because it’s cheap and stays fresh for up to 60 days after cutting.
At the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun men bring in various forms of xate palm are harvested by hand from the jungle. The operator of the co-op claim that the xate is collected sustainably with xateros never taking more than two fronds off a single plant. The harvesters told us that they get 1.10Q (about US$0.14) per bundle of 10 palm stems.
A crew of about 20 women sort the stems for quality, discarding about 10%. They said they earn .20Q (about US$0.02) per 20 stems sorted, washed and packed.
Some environmentalists claim that the demand for xate has fueled over-harvesting of xate. Some also claim that xateros are also crossing borders illegally to gather xate from jungles in neighboring countries where they also poach animals and clear land. Before you order your next bouquet, read our detailed post about the xate controversy.
Uaxactun in 2012
Another great time to visit Uaxactun is the Winter Solstice (December 21), which also rubs shoulders with December 21, 2012–the day the Mayan calendar mysteriously ends. Uaxactun will be doing it big in 2012 with even more elaborate Solstice and Equinox ceremonies enabling Mayan-minded visitors to immerse in the culture and traditions without the crowds that will surely be at 2012 events scheduled at Tikal.
Read more about travel in Guatemala