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Tikal Basecamp Option #2 – Flores, Guatemala

In a recent post we told you about some of the best places to stay and eat in chilled out El Remate which, along with Flores, is one of two main basecamps for travelers headed to the thoroughly awesome Tikal National Park and Archaeological Site.

Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Flores is the larger, more established of the two basecamp options we found less to rave about in Flores than we did in El Remate. Yes, it’s a bit of a thrill to stay in a town that’s an island unto itself (a short causeway connects Flores to the bustling, dusty “mainland” town of Santa Elena). And the sunsets over the branch of Lake Peten Itza that wraps itself around Flores are spectacular (though the water was weirdly murky and unsatisfyingly warm when we were there).

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza as seen from Flores, Guatemala.

Sleeping in Flores

What we certainly can rave about is Hotel Casa Amelia (280Q, about US$35, double). There are a lot of hotels in Flores but you can’t miss the bright green shutters of this lakeside hotel that opened in 2005 in what used to be the family’s home. The owners kindly hosted us while we were in Flores and we loved watching sunset from the roof deck and the WiFi connection.  The great staff even babysat our truck while we spent a week trekking to and from El Mirador archaeological site.

Hotel Casa Amelia, right on the lake in Flores, Guatemala.

Eating in Flores

While there are many hotel options in Flores, finding someplace to eat was more of a challenge. We do agree that traveler favorite Cool Beans is an excellent place for big, delicious breakfasts (including homemade bread) and great coffee. But we had a  harder time finding budget lunch or dinner options.

After a few days in town we stumbled upon a man barbecuing chicken and beef on the street between the Gran Hotel de la Isla and the causeway and his 28Q (about US$3) plates with grilled chicken or beef, fresh salad and fries were good and good value.

And for a worthy splurge we can recommend La Albahaca. Albahaca is the Spanish word for basil and they know what to do with it at this corner cafe (open after 6pm Monday to Saturday) just around the corner from Hotel Casa Amelia. We had some of the best pesto sauce we’ve ever had here over a plate full of homemade fettuccini for 45Q (about US$5.75). The homemade bread and herb butter was a treat too. .

A replica of a Mayan mask discovered at the El Mirador archaeological site greets visitors to Santa Elena, Guatemala.

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Tikal Basecamp Option #1 – El Remate, Guatemala

If you want to visit Tikal National Park and archaeological site (and you do) there are two basecamp options for travelers:  Flores or El Remate. We spent time in both towns. We’ll tell you all about Flores in our next post. For now, we’re focusing on El Remate on Lake Peten Itza which we believe is emerging as the better of the two options.

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza as seen from El Remate, Guatemala.

El Remate is a chill, lakeside village near the Biotopo Cerro Cauhi which has a growing list of budget and mid-range accommodations and a few solid economical eating options. El Remate is also closer to Tikal than Flores is, making your trip to the dramatic remains of this Mayan city shorter and cheaper. It has the look and feel of what Panajachel on Lake Atitlan might have been like 30 years ago.

Sleeping in El Remate

El Remate has a small selection of the usual passably clean hostels and dumpy guest houses. But if you have  few more quetzales to rub together El Remate also offers some real values for money, all on the north side of the lake.

Looking down at Lake Peten Itza while horseback riding in the hills above El Remate, Guatemala.

Mon Ami had nice-looking stand alone bungalows in a quiet back garden for around US$20, but we didn’t stay there because we were being hosted at Posada del Cerro (300Q doubles, or about US$36, including breakfast featuring homemade bread) which turned out to be as interesting and worthy as we hoped it would.

Owned by a German biologist and community organizer named George and his Brazilian wife Raimunda, Posada del Cerro opened in 2008 right next to the entrance to Biotopo Cerro Cauhi. The Posada has seven rooms and bungalows, two charming apartments with kitchenettes and one guesthouse with seven beds. Each one of them contains no less than five different types of local woods, some of them costing more than $25 per foot on the open market. These gorgeous woods (yellow, toffee, dark chocolate) were used in building construction and in the clean, crisp furniture–much of it designed and created by George.

Our room at the charmingly hand-crafted Posada del Cerro boutique guesthouse in El Remate, Guatemala.

Rooms are minimal, homey and stylish–like an IKEA catalog (utilitarian design, primary colors) in the jungle and the place reminded us a bit of a budget version of Verana boutique hotel in Mexico. Excellent home cooked meals are available (often eaten with George and his family) and there’s WiFi throughout and good views of the lake from some rooms. Check the mattresses before settling on a room, however. They’re all new and clean but some are very, very hard.

A romantic open-air loft room at Posada del Cerro boutique guesthouse in El Remate, Guatemala.

Right across the road there’s even a lovely dock jutting into the blue/green water of the surprisingly long and clear Lake Peten Itza, perfect for a cooling swim.

Karen starting the day off right at Palomino Ranch Hotel with two of her favorite things: coffee and a horse.

A slightly splurgier accommodation option in El Remate is Palomino Ranch Hotel (400Q doubles, or about US$50). The place has a dude-ranch-meets-hacienda vibe and a swimming pool with a horsehead tiled into the bottom. There’s also a stable full of real horses–appaloosas, quarter horses, palominos and even a cremello stallion–a horse that’s pure white with blue eyes and whose genes guarantee to produce a palomino (beige coat with white mane and tail) foal when bred with a chestnut mare. It’s genetic magic.

Palomino Ranch owner Arturo Iriarte has been passionate about horses since he worked on his dad’s ranch as a child. Looking at him at the ranch you’d never guess he owns an advertising business in Guatemala City. Arturo’s well-trained horses (overseen by maestro de caballos Jose) were a pleasure to ride.

 

Maestro de caballos Jose with the distinctive cremello stallion at Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Us riding around Lake Peten Itza with gorgeous horses from Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Arturo also owns a chunk of land near his hotel that’s dotted with unearthed Mayan ruins and abuts the neighboring Biotopo Cerro Cauhi which means he has fantastic, essentially private trails as well. Riding through these steep, jungly hills (150 Q or US$20 for three hours) we got great views out over Lake Peten Itza and ample opportunities to dismount and wander through areas full of the remains of small Mayan settlements, mostly untouched by archaeologists and unvisited by tourists.

Owner Arturo Iriarte showing off the jumping skills of one of his horses at Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Palomino Ranch Hotel owner Arturo Iriarte in the saddle.

The next day we took the horses along the shores of nearby Lake Salpetén then looped back to the Ixlu archaeological site. The remains of this Mayan civilization have been excavated (and are probably being meticulously raked and swept by the devoted care taker even as we speak). Riding around and amongst the hulking structures added a fresh layer of adventure to the site. There’s just something cool about signing the visitor book at an archaeological site from horseback.

Jose, Palomino Ranch Hotel’s maestro de caballos, takes a break.

Eating in El Remate

Mon Ami, which had the bungalows in the garden which we mentioned before, is also known for it’s food which was much better than average and very reasonably priced. One warning: Don’t get hoodwinked by their less-than-clear sign about internet charges. The 10Q (about US$1.25) amount posted is PER HOUR even though that’s not mentioned on the sign…

Two places that caught our eye but we never got the chance to try are Sugar Sap, an open-air cafe with homemade desserts and what looked (and smelled) like real coffee (located near Mon Ami) and Las Orquídeas (also near Mon Ami) where people swear by the pizza.

The crystal clear waters of Lake Peten Itza at El Remate in Guatemala.

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Beyond Tikal – Uaxactun Archaeological Site, Guatemala

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.

Karen in front of what remains of a Mayan structure in Group A at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

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 longest known carved mask in Mesoamerica covers the base of this building at Uaxactun. Unfortunately, we can’t show you the mask because the Slovakian archaeologists who discovered it have prohibited photos (see the sign, below).

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. 

The trilogy of temples in the top photo is the oldest known astrological complex in the Mundo Maya. The structures mark the spot where the sun rises during the equinoxes and solstices every year, as shown in the sign below the picture of the structures.

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:

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tata Chus taking part in Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala. This guy came all the way from Peru to take part.

Sunrise lights up the Pyramid of the Masks as Mayan rituals mark the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Sunrise lights up the Pyramid of the Masks as Mayan rituals mark the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala. These feathered costumes are actually Aztec and were worn by a couple from New Mexico.

A conch shell is blown during Mayan rituals marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala. This feathered costume is actually Aztec and is worn by a man from New Mexico.

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 Uaxactun

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. 

The brightly painted Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun. Various panels along the bottom depict wild xate, havesting, packaging, exportation and the use of xate by flower companies around the world.

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.

Workers sorting xate in the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun. The controversial palm frond is prized as bouquet filler by floral companies around the world because it’s cheap and it stays fresh for up to 60 days after it’s cut.

A worker sorting xate in the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun. The controversial palm frond is prized as bouquet filler by floral companies around the world because it’s cheap and it stays fresh for up to 60 days after it’s cut.

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.

Pyramid of the Masks in group E which serves as the observation platform for astrological events marking the Solstices and Equinoxes over a trio of temples on the other side of the plaza. 

 

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Photo of the Day: Cat Suckling From a Dog

This is just WRONG.

In the tiny town of Uaxactun, Guatemala (near the Mayan ruins of the same name) we saw an adult cat suckling from a dog. Neither seemed to care at all that they were contirbuting to extreme inter-species shenanigans.

We can tell you who DID care. As we stood staring an old lady walked past and noticed the spectacle. She clasped her chest and hissed “Dios mio!” (My God) before rushing away as if she’d just seen the devil himself. Perhaps she had…

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If We Had to Pick a Favorite – Tikal National Park Archaeological Site, Guatemala

When Eric visited the remains of the vast and powerful Pre-Columbian Mayan city of Tikal in Northern Guatemala in 1993 he quickly dubbed it his favorite Mayan archaeological site. Eighteen years later we have now visited more than 50 other Mayan sites, including Tikal for a second time. Though we love most of the Mayan sites we’ve visited Eric says that Tikal, which was Guatemala’s first national park (designated in 1955), is still his favorite.

Though it feels a bit like choosing one child over the others, there’s just something about the combination of epic architecture, deep jungle (more than 20 square miles of it) and legendary history that makes Tikal appeal in ways few other Mayan cities do.

Tikal main plaza - Temple 1

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

You can’t rush Tikal

To get to the Tikal site you must first pass through Tikal National Park. If you’re driving (as we were, of course) you get a time-stamped form (called a Boleta de Contro de Velocidad or Speed Control Form) at the national park entrace and a warning about the 25 mph speed limit within the national park. Arrive too quickly at the second park check point 10 miles down the road and they’ll know you were speeding. Pretty clever.

To be honest, we were worried that time, “progress” and the pitter patter of so many tourist feet (Tikal attracts bus loads of visitors) might have changed the vibe of the site or, worse, damaged it. Some things have changed at this UNESCO World Heritage Site since Eric’s first visit. Conservationists complain of damage to structures and jungle areas and too much garbage (though there are plenty of trash cans and we didn’t notice trash on the ground during our visit).

Also, you can no longer climb Temple 1 in the Grand Plaza, in large part because at least one tourist has fallen down the crazy-steep stairs of this structure and died. Hey, good reason.

Tikal Group Q twin pyramid

A pyramid in Group Q at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

Start at the top

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

After paying 150Q per person (about US$20, the highest archeological site admission in Guatemala) we walked along a shaded path with jungle encroaching on either side. At 6:30 in the morning the sound of the birds starting their day was almost too loud. After passing an enormous ceiba tree, we reached the main attraction: the massive Grand Plaza and its facing temples.

At that time of the morning fog draped the imposing structures that anchor the Grand Plaza, adding to the already substantial amount of mystery mystery. Temple I (aka The Great Jaguar temple) is 144 feet (40 meters) high and was the burial place of a beloved leader. It faces shorter Temple II (aka Temple of the Masks) where his wife was  entombed.

 

Early morning fog over the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tikal Temple 2

Temple 2 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

In the Central Acropolis between Temples I and II an impressive mask can be seen on a an inner part of the temple which archaeologists have thoughtfully excavated for easy viewing.

Tikal mask

An unearthed mask in the Central Acropolis at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Pop culture tidbit: Part of of the original Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), was shot at Tikal mostly from on top of Temple IV looking back at the tops of Temple 1 and Temple II.

Tikal temple vista from Temple IV

Temples 1 and II as seen from Temple IV at Tikal–much like the footage shot here for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope–the very first Star Wars movie which was shot in part at Tikal in the ’70s. 

 

Beyond Tikal’s Grand Plaza

Temple V at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tikal’s Grand Plaza is breathtaking, but this massive site–with more than 3,000 structures and 250 stelae (most of them unexcavated) spread over six square miles and criss-crossed with trails–has other surprises in store.

In fact, limelight-hogging Temple 1 is not the tallest structure at Tikal. Temple IV, one of the most massive structures in the known Mayan world, is 212 feet (65 meters) high (more than 60 feet taller than Temple 1). It’s also still climbable via a vertiginous set of stairs that switch-backs up the side of the structure.

Temple V may only be 187 feet (57 meters) high, but it’s the steepness that will get you. It requires a practically vertical trip up and down a rickety, rusting metal staircase built up the side of this structure to reach the breezes and views from the top.

 

Steep steps down Temple 5 Tikal

Looking down from the the top of Tikal’s incredibly steep Temple V.

One of the distinct pleasures of Tikal is the trail system that connects all of these various plazas and areas. A peaceful stroll through the jungle is rewarded with the “discovery” of another civilized area, like Mundo Perdido (Lost World) which may date as far back as 500 BC.

Mundo Perdido pyramid

A pyramid in the Mundo Perdido area of Tikal archaeological site.

Even further afield you find five groups, each given a different letter. One of our favorites was Group Q with its twin pyramids. Group R at Tikal also has twin pyramids. The only other known Mayan site with twin pyramids is Yaxha.

A rebuilt pyramid in Group Q in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Intercultural exchange: Though they weren’t Mayans and they lived more than 600 miles way, experts believe that the rulers of Teotihuacan, near what is now Mexico City, taught inhabitants of Tikal how to use spears (instead of hand-to-hand combat) and that helped Tikal dominate the Mundo Maya, control other Mayan cities and sustain a peak population of 60,000.

Speaking of the Mundo Maya, you may have already heard that the astoundingly accurate Mayan calendar abruptly ends on December 21, 2012. Depending on who you ask, this marks the end of the world, a chance for humanity to hit the re-set button, or nothing at all.

Our video, below, gives a sense of Tikal’s Grand Plaza in morning mist followed by the epic views you get from the top of Temple IV.

 

The end of the Mayan calendar

In 2012 countries in the Mundo Maya are laying on special celebrations of Mayan culture all year long as a way of marking the end of mysterious end of the epic Maya calendar. There are so many special events planned that Moon decided to publish a special guide called Maya 2012: A guide to celebrations in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras–to which we contributed!

At Tikal, 2012 celebrations will include an amped-up version of the annual Dia de La Razas (Day of the Races, October 12)—an alternative to Columbus Day which celebrates the accomplishments of the Latin American population and honors indigenous cultures.

We were also told that special ceremonies and rituals, lead by Mayan tatas and nanas (accomplished male and female spiritual leaders whose job is, literally, to “count the days”) will be held on December 21 at Tikal–the exact day the Mayan calendar ends. Details were thin when we were there, but alll are welcome to attend just be prepared for crowds during special events. Looking for a less-crowded place to mark the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012? Just 12 miles (23km) beyond Tikal lies Uaxactun archaeological site which has the earliest known astrological complex in the Mundo Maya.

Conquistador fact: In 1525, Hernán Cortés  basically rode right past Tikal.

Leaf Cutter Ants

Hundreds of leaf cutter ants create tiny superhighways and keep the jungle floor clean at Tikal.

 

TIP

We’re about to post lots of details about the pros and cons of using El Remate vs. Flores as a basecamp for your visit to Tikal. However, your time, price of admission and access to the site will be unquestionably maximized if you can spend two nights at one of the hotels located atTikal itself.

Tikal Temple III

Karen with Tikal’s Temple III behind her.

New admisstion rules have eliminated a policy that used to allow you to use one ticket to enter the site in the evening then again in the morning and you now need a new ticket every single day.This means that if you want to see and photograph Tikal in the morning and the evening (and you do) the easiest way to do that is to stay two nights at the site.

This allows you to arrive, sleep, then get and enter Tikal early then sit out the afternoon heat and crowds, re-entering the site in the evening before spending a second night at the site.

Another option is to pay 250Q per person (about US$31) on top of the normal 150Q (US$20) entrance fee to gain access to Tikal before and after opening and closing times (6 am to 6 pm).

There are three hotels within a few hundred yards of the entrance to Tikal. We were hosted at Jaguar Inn which has 10 big, clean, tile-floor bungalows with great beds and WiFi plus a decent on-site restaurant. There’s a grassy, flat camping area too including a few sites under a palapa roof.

As an added bonus, the grounds of the Jaguar Inn are full of plants that attract monkeys, so if you didn’t see enough of them in the site itself, you can check them out from the patio and hammock on the front porch of your bungalow.

A spider monkey having lunch–just one of the wild animals that live in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

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Survivor Mayan Style – Yaxha Archaeological Site, Guatemala

Little known fact: Eric sent in a video application to be on the very first season of Survivor. That obviously didn’t pan out and, in hindsight, that was for the best. What does that little confession have to do with Yaxha, the remains of a pre-Columbian Mayan city in Guatemala? Quite a lot, actually.

Surviving Survivor

In 2005 Survivor Guatemala (ridiculously called “The Mayan Empire” season) descended on Yaxha where cast and crew spent weeks shooting and stirring up controversy over things like whether it was culturally sensitive (or even accurate) to ask participants to dress up like Mayans by smearing on face paint and sticking feathers in their hair. Hmmm.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala where a season of Survivor was shot in 2005.

One of dozens of stelae (carved stone pillars) that have been found at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

Anyway..Yaxha survived Survivor. Yaxha is one of the largest Mayan sites in Guatemala and has nine plazas and more than 500 buildings, most of them relatively un-reconstructed. Most of the big structures (and there are plenty) have their original stairs. To facilitate climbing, wooden staircases have been built up the sides of the buildings allowing us to get to the top but leaving the original architecture intact and looking pretty authentic. The staircases also happened to be gorgeous and ingeniously constructed with wooden pegs instead of nails which would just rust way in the jungle humidity.

Yaxha also has a twin-pyramid complex in Plaza C. The only other known Mayan site with a twin-pyramid complex isTikal.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

One of the ball courts found at Yaxha, one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemala.

We loved the rounded corners on this pyramid at Yaxha.

The wildlife of Yaxha

Temple 216, the big daddy of Yaxha.

Templo 216, aka the Eastern Acropolis, is the highest structure at Yaxha. The temple itself is only 100 feet (30 meters) high, but its constsructed on top of a massive platform. The top of Temple 216 is a great place to get an overview of the site and peer down into the surrounding croc-filled lakes and dense jungle, home to howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coaties and birds including raucous Montezuma Oropendolas dashing in and out of their strange pendulous nests in the huge trees that dot the plazas.

Howler monkeys (named for the sound they make) must be heard to be believed. Check them out in our video, below.

Survivor may have brought some degree of fame to Yaxha, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it.  During our two days at the site we saw fewer than 25 other travelers. At times it felt like there were more groundskeepers than tourists at Yaxha, each of them armed with a green palm frond broom which they used to meticulously sweep every possible surface.

Guatemala’s Yaxha archaeological site is book-ended by two croc-filled lakes as you can see in this shot taken from the top of Temple 216.

 

The best campground in Guatemala

Survivor did, however, prompt an upgrade of the facilities at Yaxha so, in a roundabout way, we have producer Mark Burnett to thank for the awesome camping area at Yaxha.

Yaxha is part of a trio of pre-Columbian Mayan cities, along with nearby Nakum and Naranjo which make up the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. Your admission fee of 80Q per person (about US$10)  includes access to all three parks (though Naranjo is remote and best reached on horseback) and two nights of camping at Yaxha in one of five raised platform camping shelters with weather tight thatch roofs (we know because it poured) and views of lake. It was like camping on the awesome porch of a friend’s lake house.

Two nights in one of these awesome camping platforms is included with your entrance fee to Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park in Guatemala.

The camping area also has outdoor showers, indoor flush toilets and a communal outdoor grilling area. Howler monkeys woke us up each morning and adorable pacas (basically very large jungle hamsters) scampered around on the ground at dusk. It would have been one of the best campgrounds in Guatemala even without the Mayan ruins. We still can’t figure out why we were the only ones using it.

Templo-de-los-Tableros at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

GLAD WE HAD

Our SteriPEN which allows us to quickly and easily purify water anywhere using UV light, not chemicals. This allows us to say yes when a lovely camping opportunity (like Yaxha) unexpectedly comes our way, even if we’re not prepared with extra drinking water.

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