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Mayan Country

I have visited Central America four times with the sole intention of visiting the ancient Mayan sites. The following notes outline a brief description of my threee favourite sites; Quiriga, Chaccoben and Tikal.

Quirigua lies in the lowlands of south eastern Guatemala and lies close to the Rio Motagua which eventually winds it sway to the Caribbean. The settlement contains the largest stelae discovered in the Mayan world. The site is slightly over 90 kilometres from the sea port of Puerto Barrios and also the closest place to Guatemala City at which to see significant Mayan ruins.

Archaeologists have worked out that Quirigua was most likely founded in the late Pre-Classic period, possibly around 550AD, and flourished until the 10th century until it was abandoned to the jungle. The reasons for this happening are anyone’s guess. The most likely supposition is that it was due to an earthquake. Many of the buildings are heavily buttressed and in 1976 when there was a massive quake in Guatemala it was discovered that the fault ran directly across one corner of the Quirigua site.

There are currently nine stelae arranged around the central plaza as well as altars carved with zoomorphic (animal-like) shapes. It is suggested that some of these altars may have been used for human sacrifices. The tallest of the stelae is more than eight metres tall.

The zoomorphs are enormous un-quarried sandstone boulders which have been carved to represent certain animals. It can take quite a bit of imagination to see them as a Mayan person might have viewed them many centuries ago.

The stelae remain as the principal written documents of this ancient and long lost civilisation as well as the key to their highly advanced calendric system. Trying to explain either the hieroglyphs or the calendric system is way beyond this brief explanation though.

The ruins have largely been cleared but are not yet fully restored. There is a comprehensive understanding of the hieroglyphs on the stelae and altars and they tell of Quirigua’s relationship with nearby Copan (in Honduras) which was one of the most significant Mayan cities lying approximately 100 kilometres south across the mountains. It seems likely that the craftsmen who built Quirigua may well have come from Copan.

Copan had been erecting monuments for 250 years before Quirigua and strangely both cities seem to have started in their decline within five years of each other.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about the construction of the stone buildings and carvings is the fact that they were all done without the aid of metal tools. The craftsmen working here used only stone tools struck with other stones. It is believed that sometimes they may well have used a hard stone similar to jade. It is also worth noting that the sandstone used at this site is considerably harder than the limestone used at other Mayan sites which means the degree of intricacy in the carving here is lesser, although better preserved.

The monuments here are notable for other reasons too. The fact that they show full frontal views of the human figure is unusual and seen at few other sites. The tradition was usually for figures to be shown in profile. A form of ‘longhand’ was used when carving the glyphs which means that full human and animal figures have been used rather than smaller symbols of ‘head-type’ glyphs which were the more common abbreviated versions.

The city went through various stages of construction which led to the Acropolis (mainly used as a complex for the ruling elite), the old and new ball courts, the erection of the monuments on the site and various stages which can be identified in the construction of the residential buildings.

The Mayan culture flourished from approximately 700BC to 900AD and the majority of the significant ruins can be found in and around Tikal, Guatemala, as well as around Copan in Honduras.

There are though a number of fantastic sites in the Mexican Yucatan, notably Chichen Itza, Tulum and Chaccoben. It is Chaccoben which I shall focus on here and little of note is known between its downfall and the 1940s when a local farmer, Mr Cohuo decided to settle close by. The first professional study of the site was carried out in 1972 although it was many years before the site was fully restored. Mr Cohuo was allowed to stay on at his farm but died before the restoration of the site had been completed.The restoration took place between 1994 and 2002 when the land was purchased from the Cohuo family and the site was opened to the public.

The site is not heavily visited compared to many of the other Mayan sites known to tourists from the Western World. This may be because it is not that easy to get to or simply the fact that it has not long been on the tourist trail of places to see and visit. To me that is a God-send as it preserves not just the site but also the mystical feeling which oozes from temples and places of such magnificence which have seen so many centuries come and go.

The first structure that you come across is in Plaza Vias. A low step pyramid. It is difficult to imagine what this must have looked like at the time it was constructed and also how it must have looked when it was being recovered from the jungle. The thing that gave it all away in terms of the extent of the reconstruction is that there seems to have been a damp course inserted into the masonry. For some strange reason I choose not to believe that this is wholly original!

A few hundred metres further into the forest and the canopy of Mahogany, palms and countless other tress adorned with Spanish Moss gives way to reveal yet more splendid structures. Large step pyramids, temples, elevated terraces and perfectly carved stairways. This site really is beautiful and well worth a visit.

From there, I travelled to Tikal in Guatemala, where I was impressed with the towering pyramids rising above the jungle’s canopy to catch the sun. Howler monkeys swung noisily through the branches of ancient trees as brightly coloured parrots and toucans darted, squawking, from perch to perch. When the complex warbling song of some jungle bird tapers off the buzz of tree frogs provides background noise. Certainly the most striking feature of Tikal is its steep sided temples, rising to heights of more than 44 metres. But Tikal is different from Chitzen Itza, Uxmal, Copan and most other great Mayan sites because it is deep in the jungle. Its many plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, its temples uncovered and partially restored, but as you walk from one building to another you pass beneath the dense canopy of the rain forest. Rich smells of earth and vegetation, peacefulness and animal noises all contribute to an experience not offered by any other major Mayan site.

If you visit from December to February, expect some cool nights and mornings. March and April are the hottest and driest months. The rains begin in May or June and with them come the mosquitoes. July to September is muggy and buggy but the rest of the year sees cooler temperatures.

Tikal is set on a low hill, which becomes evident when you walk up to the Great Plaza from the entry road. The hill, affording relief from the low-lying swampy ground, may be why the Maya settled here in around 700BC. Another reason was the abundance of flint, the valuable stone used by the ancients to make clubs, spear-points, arrow heads and knives. The wealth of flint meant that good tools could be made, and flint could be exported in return for other goods.

Within 200 years the Mayan at Tikal had begun to build stone ceremonial structures, and by 200BC there was a complex of buildings on the site of the North Acropolis.

The Great Plaza was beginning to assume its present shape and extent by the time of Christ. By 250AD Tikal had become an important religious, cultural and commercial city with a large population.

The history from this time until around 900AD was one of power struggles and warfare. At time Tikal was the dominant settlement controlling many square kilometres around. At other times in its history it fell under the control of other of the Peten kingdoms. There is no doubting that at times it demonstrated immense military prowess though.

900AD saw the general demise of the whole Mayan civilisation and there remains much speculation as to how this came about. Natural disasters, plagues, wars have all been suggested but no one really knows and perhaps they never will.

Stories of the great ruins were published in 1841 and 1843 and these may be what inspired the Guatemalan Government to send out an expedition in 1848 under the leadership of Modest Mendez and Ambrosio Tut. 1877 saw a Swiss chap called Dr Gustav Bernoulli come along and remove bits of the temples and the scientific exploration of the site began in earnest in 1881 under the guidance of British archaeologist Alfred P Maudslay and has been going on pretty much ever since. This is easier to understand when you realise that the central area of the city is more than 16sq kilometres, with more than 4000 structures.

Tikal lies in the north eastern part of Guatemala and to get there one must first of all get to the town of Flores. The road from Flores to Tikal was improved in the 1980s to facilitate tourism.

The footpath comes into the Great Plaza around Temple I, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. The views from the top are wonderful but the climb is precarious and at least two tourists have fallen to their deaths. Temple II is directly opposite across the plaza. It is not quite as high as Temple I.

The most significant structures in the area are the Central Acropolis, Western Plaza, South Acropolis and Temple V, Plaza of the Seven Temples and El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World). There is much to see at the site.

Click here to view the Mayan photo gallery!

(C) Mike Laird 2024