It can’t be avoided. If you want to get to the town of Sayaxche in the Peten region of northern Guatemala (and points beyond) you have to get on a low-tech little ferry and cross the Rio La Pasión. That includes horse-drawn carts, 18 wheelers and us.
Rio La Pasión is a pretty grand name for a fairly ho-hum waterway and an even more forgettable town. Honestly, Sayaxché is pretty shitty but it’s the gateway to some very nice Mayan archaeological sites.
The Dos Pilas site dates back to AD 629. It’s small, remote (a two hour drive plus a 30 minute walk from Sayaxche), mostly unexcavated and very lightly visited. We counted 30 names in the visitor registration book for the entire previous month. It does, however, have something that few other Mayan archaeological sites have: stone stairs decorated with glyphs as well as some of the tallest and most intact stelae (traditional carved stone story-telling slabs) in the known Mayan world.
The carved stairs look like mini stelae lying on their sides and they made us wonder what the buildings they lead to must have looked like. We were left wondering since the structures themselves remain unearthed. The steps were only discovered in the 1990s so who knows what else is under there.
Dos Pilas also has some impressively tall traditional stelae. The worn originals are protected by palapa roofs and replicas are placed conveniently nearby. There are also two natural springs (pilas), hence the site’s name and a bunch of caves in which archaeologists found evidence of Mayan rituals.
Did we mention that the Dos Pilas site is also free?
The city of El Ceibal (also sometimes referred to as Seibal) peaked around 840 AD in what is called the terminal period in the timeline of Mayan civilizations. It certainly proved terminal for El Ceibal as the city was mysteriously abandoned not long after its peak.
Like Dos Pilas, El Ceibal’s claim to fame involves carved rock. When we’re done oohing and ahhing over the diorama we notice some huge stelae near the caretakers’ quarters. The staff brush those off as mere copies and send us on our way, into the site itself, to see the real things. And they are remarkable.
At El Ceibal you can see more than a dozen massive stelae all of them amazingly crisp and clear. Very few structures have been unearthed here, but one small structure is visible with stelae placed around it at the cardinal points and there’s an unusual round stone building at the site too.