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.

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

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 carved mask wall 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 of their find.

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.

Earliest known Mayan astrological observatory

One of the most interesting aspects of Uaxactun is its observatory which is 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.

Equinox ceremonies at Uaxactun

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.

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.

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 and the ball is made out of stone.

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 international 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 by flower companies around the world.

At the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun men bring in various forms of xate palm which 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.

A worker sorting xate in the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun.

Some environmentalists claim that the demand for xate has fueled over-harvesting. 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 post about the xate environmental 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.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala


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  1. Roy Marvelous November 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    Well I guess if the world is ending on Dec 21st next year, that’ll be the place to be!

  2. Suzy December 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    The Mayans were certainly talented artists and sculptors. I clicked on the link for the panels. The mask must be massive!

  3. Jarmo December 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    I only got as far as Tikal, which I really enjoyed!. But the seremonies at Uaxactun seem really interesting, must have been nice to be able to observe them! 🙂

  4. David Bennett December 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Yes, the mask looks fascinating.

    How is Uaxactun pronounced?

  5. Laura December 8, 2011 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Fills you with inspiration. The Mayans seem out of this world.

  6. Barbara Weibel December 8, 2011 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Fascinating article – especially with regard to the newly discovered carved mask, but I just don’t see the point in covering these things back up (don’t much buy into the whole idea of preserving the ruins by re-covering them). Seems like they are more interested in their own fame.

    • Karen & Eric - Trans-Americas Journey December 8, 2011 at 10:18 pm - Reply

      Actually, there are a number of valid reasons for covering the masks over. Most importantly, these stucco masks can’t be left unprotected from the elements. It takes time, money and research to determine the best way(s) to protect and preserve such finds. The archaeology season lasts only a few months each year. In the off season the scientists are back at their home institutions reviewing the year’s finds. I’m sure some studies will be made as to how to best protect these masks, but then of course there is the need for funding to accomplish this, not to mention the approval of the Guatemalan government. Another issue is protecting the finds from people and looters. Uaxactun unlike the more major sites is not surrounded by a fence and does not have a security force. Without reburying such finds the sad but true fact is that someone may steal pars of it or “John was here” might be chiseled into them.

  7. Stephanie - The Travel Chica December 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Perfect timing! Cool to see and learn about their beliefs and customs.

  8. cheryl December 12, 2011 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Wow, how lucky you were to be there for the ceremony! Mayans have such an interesting history …

  9. Bret December 20, 2011 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Wow, I’d never heard of these ruins before, but your story gives us another reason to add Guatemala to our list of must-see destinations. It’s exciting to learn about places like this and Coba (in the Riviera Maya), where there is still much to uncovered via archaeological digs. Great photos!

  10. Alexa Meisler February 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    The Mayan culture is so rich with traditions and rituals and the architecture of the remains are just simply spectacular. It’s good to see how Uaxactun continues to remain and authentic and beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

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