Howler monkeys are part of the wild ambience at Yaxha
BY SUSAN C. HEGGER
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
We heard the howler monkeys long before we saw them. When our eagle-eyed driver finally spotted them, we poured out of the van and looked upward - to the tops of the trees.
One juvenile played cautiously while two adults moved so quickly from branch to branch I could barely keep track.
We were on the road leading into Yaxha, a surprisingly large Mayan archaeological site with the claim to fame that "Survivor: Guatemala" was shot there. (By the time we got there, though, not a single buff or torch could be found.)
For being a secondary site, Yaxha, which means place of the green water, was rather imposing. Mario Soto, our guide throughout Central America, and Carlos Galindo, our guide for the day, both commented that Yaxha was like Tikal 50 to 60 years ago - overgrown and largely unexcavated and unrestored.
Indeed, the first structure we saw upon entering Yaxha was a mound under excavation, with workers digging tunnels and clearing vegetation.
The path through the park wound around so many uncovered structures that we were almost surprised when we came upon Structure 216, built in the A.D. 700s. This pyramid, the site's largest, offers splendid views of Lake Yaxha, rumored to hold crocodiles.
Farther in the jungle, we came across the beautifully restored Oratory - two symmetrical temples, one facing east, one west - where sacrifices occurred, according to Carlos. The ancient Mayans were quite into blood-soaked rituals.
Throughout our visit, we heard the high-pitched shrieks of the howler monkeys, underscoring our sense of being in the wild.
When the monkeys make so much noise, said Carlos, it's a sign that rain is on the way.
When we awoke the next morning, it was raining, and it continued for three straight days.
Where: In the Peten, a subtropical jungle in lowland Guatemala.
The basics: Tikal National Park is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Covering 222 square miles, it is one of the largest excavated archaeological sites in the Americas.
The history: Tikal is one of the most important, and impressive, Mayan sites. First settled around 600 B.C., its peak came between A.D. 300 and 900. Thanks to advances in deciphering Mayan glyphs, its dynastic rulers have been identified and some of its history recovered. At its height, up to 100,000 people may have lived there.
What's so special: In a word, everything. Obviously the architecture is glorious, but visitors should also be on the lookout for wildlife, such as howler monkeys, ocellated turkeys, toucans and coatimundis.
Don't miss: The climb up Temple IV, the highest building in Tikal, for a panoramic view of the jungle.
Word of caution: Come prepared with rain gear, good walking shoes - and bug spray and sunscreen, if it's sunny. Many guidebooks recommend avoiding the remote Temple VI (Temple of the Inscriptions) because of bandits.
What else to see: The nearby Mayan site of Yaxha was the location of "Survivor: Guatemala" and is a surprisingly interesting site.
How to get there: Most visitors fly into Flores from Guatemala City.
Where to stay: There are a few hotels on-site. Otherwise, hotels are available in El Remate on Lake Peten (about a hour's drive from Tikal) and Flores, which is farther still. Organized tours and public buses to Tikal are available from both.
We stayed at the lovely Hotel Camino Real in El Remate. The rooms were attractive and spacious, with balconies offering lake views. The grounds were lush, with plenty of places to relax. The hotel offers free late afternoon cruises.
Where: In western Honduras, less than 10 miles from the border with Guatemala.
The basics: The archaeological site, a UNESCO world heritage site, is close to the small town of Copan Ruinas. For hoofers, it's within walking distance; otherwise, minicabs are available. Unfortunately, while we were there, its notable on-site museum, featuring a reproduction of the bright red Rosalila temple, was closed. However, visitors could opt for one of the tunnel tours inside the pyramids, and the museum in town was open.
The history: Copan was founded by Yax K'uk Mo' in A.D. 426, the first of 16 rulers, although settlement in the area predates that. The last was Yax Pac (Rising Sun), who ruled from A.D. 763 to 820. At its peak, Copan had fewer than 25,000 people. After the death of Yax Pac, Copan went into decline.
What's so special: The artistically and historically significant stelae and the Hieroglyphic Stairway with its glyphs that record Copan's history.
What else to see: A mile from Copan's central acropolis is Las Sepulturas, residential ruins. The town of Copan Ruinas is a small, picturesque village with quaint cobblestone streets.
How to get there: The nearest airport is in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with connecting bus service to Copan Ruinas.
Where to stay: The charming Hotel Marina Copan is about the nicest hotel in town. It covers a city block but seems smaller, and quieter, because of its many intimate and lushly landscaped courtyards.
Where: Western Belize, not far from the Guatemalan border.
The history: This is the largest Mayan archaeological site in Belize. Caracol reached its peak between A.D. 250 and 900; in 650, it was bigger than the current capital of Belize in size and population. It was a major military power, conquering Tikal in 562 and Naranjo in Guatemala in 631.
What's so special: The pyramid Canaa, the tallest building in Belize; and the reconstructed stucco masks on a structure in Plaza B that depict the Mexican god of thunder, Tlaloc. (The molds for these masks can be seen in the archaeologists' quarters on-site.)
How to get there: Located in the Chiquibul Forest, Caracol is relatively remote. It can be reached by rental car; tour operators in the Cayo District can also arrange a guided outing.
What else to see: Xuantunich, another Mayan site in the Cayo District just outside the town of San Ignacio, has a magnificent pyramid called El Castillo. The site is perched on a mountain ridge and offers great views.
Where to stay: We stayed in the Five Sisters Lodge, an "eco-resort" in the Mountain Pine Ridge preserve, with palapa-covered cabanas. The setting was gorgeous, but the resort is somewhat rustic: no phones or TVs, no electricity after 10 or 10:30 p.m. If money is no object, the nearby Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by Francis Ford Coppola, offers more luxurious accommodations.