El Petén, the northernmost department of Guatemala was once the center of the ancient Maya people. Reminders and remains of this civilization are found within an area covering more than 125,000 square miles and five countries.
Today, we still call this "El Mundo Maya" - the World of the Maya - who lived not only in Guatemala, but in Belize, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
The development of the Maya culture covers three periods: (1) Pre-classic from 2000 BC to 300 AD, (2) Classic from 300 to 900 AD, and (3) Post-classic from 900 to 1500 AD.
The sciences of mathematics, astronomy, agriculture and architecture were astutely developed by the Maya who also made great strides in the complex areas of socio-politics and economics. The hieroglyphics they developed to convey their thoughts have not yet been totally deciphered and are found in their codex, stelae and monuments as well as in the evolution of their ethical, aesthetic and religious thinking.
Many of the Indian dialects, presently spoken by the different ethnic groups in Guatemala, have a common linguistic root: the Maya.
TIKAL NATIONAL PARK
Step Back In Time....visit Hotel Camino Real Tikal
The park covers 222 square miles amidst the thick, tropical jungle of El Petén. Created in 1958, UNESCO declared the park a "Monument of the World's Heritage" in 1979. It is regarded ad one of the most important cultural and natural reserves in the world. The easiest access to the park is by air. It is just a 20-minute flight from Guatemala City to the airport of Santa Elena. From there you can reach Tikal in 45 minutes over an excellent highway.
There are more than 4,000 structures or constructions in Tikal. The oldest date from the Pre-classic period (800 BC), and the most recent from the Post-classic period (900 AD). It was during this period that the Maya attained their artistic, architectural, mathematic, agricultural and commercial heights.
The most important plazas and temples in Tikal National Park are:
The Great Plaza: The most spectacular structure in Tikal is the plaza surrounded by stelae and sculpted altars, ceremonial buildings, residential and administrative palaces, and a ball court. At each end of the plaza loom the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple II.
Temple of the Great Jaguar (Temple I): Located on the eastern side of the Great Plaza, it is more than 150 feet in height. The temple was erected about 700 AD by order of Ah Cacao, whose tomb was discovered inside.
Temple II: This temple stands at the western end of the Great Plaza and rises to a height of 120 feet. It was also constructed by Ah Cacao around 700 AD.
Temple of the Jaguar Priest (Temple III): Rising to 180 feet, and located west of Temple II, it was constructed around 810 AD. It has a carved lintel, almost intact, depicting a central personage clothed in jaguar skin.
Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent (Temple IV): At 212 feet, this is the highest standing structure in Tikal. It was built around 470 AD by Yaxkin Caan Chac.
Temple V: Constructed around 750 AD and located south of the Great Plaza. This temple is close to 190 feet high.
Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI): It is located south of the Méndez Causeway. The roof comb contains the longest hieroglyphic recording to date. It is estimated that the construction date was around 766 AD. It is believed to have been built under the rule of Yaxkin Caan Chac, but the inscription was done during the reign of Chitam. Stela 21 and Altar 9 are located at the base of the temple.
"The Lost World" - Plaza of the Great Pyramid: Located southwest of the Great Plaza, this area features the largest pyramid at Tikal. It is approximately 100 feet high and, together with the structures to the west, forms part of an astronomical complex. To the south is the group called "Great Masks".
Plaza of the Seven Temples: Located east of the Great Pyramid, it is formed by ceremonial structures of the Post-classic period. A palace with five doors, from the Pre-classic period can be seen covered up and used as a foundation for another building built during the Post-classic period. The building of one structure on top of an existing structure was a common practice with the Maya.
El Petén Archeological Sites
Ceibal: Located in the southeastern part of this department on the shores of La Pasión River. The most beautiful and best preserved stelae of the Post-classic period can be found here along with ceramic pieces and anthropomorphic pottery figurines. The origin of the founders is still unknown, but the first settlements date back as far as 800 BC.
Yaxhá: The city is comprised of two sectors of rectangular structures laid in such a manner that they form streets and plazas. Yaxhá is located 50 miles from Flores, the department capital. The hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate that it was inhabited sometime between the Pre-classic and Post-classic.
Topoxte: This Post-classic city is found in the small islands of Lake Yaxhá. Its buildings are similar to those found in Mayapán, Yucatán, Mexico. Topoxte, may be reached from El Remate at the end of Lake Petén Itzá.
Uaxactún: The oldest of the Maya cities, it is believed that this is where the Maya consolidated their culture; where their writing system was perfected and where their calendar started.
Located about 16 miles north of Tikal, it is accessible from Flores. Discovered in 1916, it bloomed during the Classic period. A beautiful painted mural was discovered in one of the structures and here you will also find the oldest Maya stela dated about 328 BC.
El Mirador: Of all the sites in the Maya World, El Mirador has the greatest number of structures. It is located four miles from the Mexican border in northern El Petén, Guatemala.
Excavations are presently underway so a special permit must be obtained to visit.
El Naranjo: Here you will find impressive architectural structures and numerous stelae containing priceless information about the Maya. The most important monuments are a staircase covered by hieroglyphics and a ball court. Studies reveal that this city was closely related to Tikal.
Río Azul: It is located in the far northeast corner of El Petén, close to the borders with Mexico and Belize. Río Azul reached its peak during the late Pre-classic period when it served as the administrative center of a region encompassing approximately 66 square miles and more than 500 buildings. The trip from Tikal takes about 5 hours along rugged paths. Therefore, the site can be visited only during the dry season.
Nakún: Nakún is located 16 miles from Tikal on the road to Yaxhá and can only be visited during the dry season. There are two large building complexes joined by a "sacbe" or causeway. Some of the structures have singular vaulted chambers and interesting stelae.
Aguateca, Dos Pilas and Tamarindito are archeological sites located in the Petexbatún area, El Petén, southwest of Ceibal and south of Sayaxché and La Pasión River.
Aguateca: Recommended for specialists and adventure lovers, this site is magnificent.
Dos Pilas was home to elite groups between 600 AD and 760 AD when it was abandoned due to constant wars. It reached its peak during the late Classic period. At the site there is evidence of various causeways and of two concentric walls as well as stelae, carvings and a network of caves. Ceramic artifacts where recently found in a tomb probably belonging to one of its rulers.
Other Archeological Sites
Kaminal Juyú: It is located in the western section of Guatemala City (Zone 7) and is the largest site in the highlands. This important site reveals much about Maya ceramics, sculpture, architecture and engineering. Kaminal Juyú was an important city during the Pre-classic and early Classic periods (800 BC to 600 AD).
Iximché: Capital of the ancient Maya-Cakchiquel Kingdom, it is located in Tecpán, 21 miles from Chimaltenango where Pedro de Alavarado established the first capital of Guatemala. It is a fortified hilltop site surrounded by a dry moat about nine feet deep, with a ball court and other structures.
Mixco Viejo: Located in the northeast of Chimaltenango, it was a fortress and the capital of the Pocomán Kingdom. Among its Post-classic structures are two small ball courts.
K'umarcaaj: This ancient capital of the Maya-Quiché Kingdom was also known as Utatlán. Located almost 100 miles from Guatemala City, its ruins are evidence of a magnificent past that was burned down by the conquistadors in 1524.
Zaculeu: Located less than three miles from the capital of Huehuetenango. Like all the Post-classic cities is was fortified. Today, there is a small museum on the site.
La Democracia Museum and Park: The site, located 22 miles from the capital of Escuintla, is considered to be one of the most ancient of the Americas. It contains monumental stone heads carved by the artists of the Monte Alto culture (mid Pre-classic period, 1800 BC to 250 AD). Other sites in this area are Cotzumalguapa, El Baúl and Las Ilusiones. All have large sculptures of the Cotzumalguapa culture which flourished during the Classic period.
Abaj Takalik: A recently discovered site located in El Asintal, nine miles form Retalhuleu. This is a site of impressive archeological structures, some dating to the most ancient glyph period of the Americas.
Quiriguá: Located near Puerto Barrios, in the Motagua Valley, this is a site noted for its spectacular stelae, large zoomorphical stones and a temple.
It was probably constructed within a period of 65 years (745-810 AD). The twelve stelae reveal a detailed style of singular beauty. The largest stela is carved from one block of stone quarried by the ancient Maya. Stela "E" measures 35 feet high, 5 feet wide and 5.5 feet thick. It weighs 65 tons. The zoomorphic structures are altars that bear commemorative dates.
The temple has three chambers. One bears the last carved date in Quiriguá: 810 AD. After this date, the history of this site stops. In 1979, it was declared "Monument of the World's Heritage" by UNESCO.
National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology
Building 5, La Aurora, Zone 13, Guatemala City
Open: Tuesday/Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The most complete collection of archeological objects of the Guatemala Mayan culture.
Edificio Galerías Reforma, 6th Floor
Avenida La Reforma 8-60, Zone 9, Guatemala City
Open: Monday/Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Interesting collection of pre-Hispanic art, particularly in stone sculptures.
Sylvanus G. Morley Museum
Tikal National Park, El Petén
Open: Tuesday/Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Exhibits artifacts from the burial tombs of the Tikal lords; stelae and invaluable ceramic, stone sculptures, jade and bone objects.