La Ruta Maya
It is hard to remember when my fascination with New World Archaeology began. I can recall my visit to the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1980’s and my first glimpse of El Castillo, Chitchen Itza.
Grand and impressive best describes the main stone pyramid and its magnificent courtyard. Tales of high priests, astrological brilliance, and sacrificial virgins were all so intriguing when revealed by my guide at the site of occurrence.
I traveled a circuit between Cancun and Merida to access the area’s many archaeological treasures. One memorable night was spent near Coba, situated close to several lakes that remain a stronghold of the Maya population in the Yucatan today. Women and children in embroidered smocks gathered by the waterside to wash and socialize. At dawn I climbed a 140-foot stone temple in what was once the largest population centre in the region. Coba has thousands of remnant structures in varying conditions of decay and restoration, many connected by a stone roadway, still visible in the undergrowth of the tropical forest.
Twenty-eight miles away lies coastal Tulum. What Tulum lacks in volume is made up in setting. Its buildings rise above a cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters. Off-shore reefs and inland cenotes offer snorkelers the opportunity to swim with reef fish, observe living corals, or marvel at submerged limestone formations that also supported fish diversity.
A few years passed before my next visit to the world of the Maya. This time it would be to Guatemala’s Peten jungle. I included visits to several ceremonial sites in the area, but the most magnificent was the complex of Tikal. The protected area of Tikal covers 222 square miles, with the excavated area 50 square miles. Five granite pyramids over 200 feet tall rise above an already high tropical canopy. Each temple was given a number during the mapping phase, and some were also given inspiring names such as Moon temple, Lost World temple, and Temple of the Double-headed Serpent. I climbed the steps of Temple IV to watch the sunset over the Peten, the tops of three pyramids visible to the east. George Lucas also found this spot mesmerizing, using it as a setting in one of the Star Wars film. The forest includes mahogany, tropical cedar and centuries old Ceiba. The forest is alive with monkeys, other small mammals, birds (over 400 species), and offers the odd sighting of a wild cat. Tikal showcases both the prominence of the Maya civilization and the accomplishments of this Mesoamerican culture. The sites have been studied for answers to questions relating to linguistics, cosmetology, spirituality, masonry and agriculture. If you decide to travel here, you'll want least two nights, and if possible, at one of the jungle lodges inside the National Park.
Traveling 3 hours west brings one to San Ignacio, Belize. The town is popular with adventure travelers and archaeology enthusiasts. I enjoyed the pyramid of Xunantunich, an interpretive hike along the medicine trail, a paddle down the Macal River, and most of all, a journey deep into the Maya Mountains to visit Caracol – the largest Maya site in the country. Re-discovered in 1938 and further explored in the 1950’s, Caracol revealed itself as an important centre with many significant structures. It is estimated that 120,000 to 180,000 people once occupied the city. This is about half the number that now occupy the whole country of Belize. Remoteness helped preserve the wildlife and even in daylight I saw spider monkeys and a jaguarundi. Today, a paved road connects San Ignacio and the site in just two hours. There are many other archaeological sites in Belize, along with three other living Maya cultures (Yucatec, Mopan and Kaekchi) often found in small villages in rural areas of the North, West and South.
While I have visited several other Mayan sites in Belize, it is a site in Western Honduras that is beckoning a return. From San Pedro Sula, the drive is approx. 4.5 hours to Copán. The town of the same name lies quite close to the Guatemalan border and many travelers enter from Guatemala City. The UNESCO World Heritage site offers a grand combination of Mayan history and a beautiful natural setting including easily viewed Scarlet Macaws. Although not the largest Mayan city, Copán was the principal cultural center during the 400 years when the city was at the peak of its development. It was far ahead of other larger Mayan cities in sculpture, astronomy, and hieroglyphic writing. Today it is composed of a main complex of ruins with several secondary complexes encircling it. The main complex consists of the Acropolis and important plazas. Among the five plazas are the Ceremonial Plaza, with an impressive stadium opening onto a mound with numerous richly sculptured monoliths and altars and the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, with a monumental stairway at its eastern end that is one of the outstanding structures of Mayan culture. On the risers of this 100m wide stairway are more than 1,800 individual glyphs which constitute the longest known Mayan inscription.
The construction of the Great Plaza and the Acropolis reflects a prodigious amount of effort. During an early morning visit through the tunnels under the acropolis, I came to appreciate the enormous volume of its elevated mass.
Copán lies in a fertile valley traversed by the Copán river, boarded by hills covered in dry pine and mixed forests. A delicious lunch in Hacienda San Lucas, was a perfect spot to appreciate the still pristine nature of the area and do some birdwatching. We saw White-fronted Parrots, Green Kingfishers, the lovely White-throated Magpie Jays, Elegant Trogons and more. After a full day of archaeology and nature, one can enjoy excellent Honduran cuisine at one of Copán Ruinas' many cozy restaurants!
“TOP 8” RECOMMENDED MAYAN Hot Spots
Chitchen Itza, Yucatan
Tikal, Peten Jungle
Yaxhá, Peten Jungle