Guatemala is a country rich in impressive archaeological Mayan sites. Just how many is uncertain; but when we walked through Yaxha National Park, our guide told us there are over 3,500 ancient Mayan sites to be found in the Petén region alone, but only a very small fraction have been officially uncovered; many are still buried under dense jungle foliage.
Captivated by culture, we visited two of the top easy-to-reach Mayan sites in Guatemala, discovering old cities, palaces, temples and pyramids.
Yaxha Nakum Naranjo National Park – A Guided Tour
The total serenity of Yaxha National Park was obvious as soon as we walked into the grounds. There was such a calming aura. The peace and quiet broken only by the distant sound of thunder and the howler monkeys shrieking in the tree tops as lightning flashed across the sky.
We stared in awe at the monumental size and architectural brilliance of the ancient jungle-shrouded temples. It’s low season and we’re among only a handful of people exploring these magnificent Mayan ruins, which are nothing short of amazing in grandeur, stature and mysticism.
Yaxha – North Acropolis…with Nev sitting at the very bottom of the stairs!
The 142-square-mile national park includes four Classic Maya sites. Yaxha forms a triangle with Nakum and Naranjo, while Topoxte is on an island, reached by boat from the Yaxha lagoon. Since 800 BC, these cities have played an important role in the Central Lowlands of Guatemala.
The history is fascinating. Where the Egyptian’s used camels to drag around the stone for their pyramids, our guide tells us the Mayans did it by hand, without the use of animals. As a result of this back-breaking work, their life expectancy was no more than 30; while the royalty would live to their mid-70’s. So it’s no surprise that royalty were considered demi-gods.
Yaxha stands on a hill between two sizable lakes, Lago Yaxha and Lago Sacnab. Once home to a population of 20,000, the 500-plus structures include acropolises, two astronomical observatories, a twin-pyramid complex and palace ball court. Here, opposing teams would battle it out in an early form of football/basketball that saw the losing team being sacrificed to the gods in Xibalba (pronounced Shi-bal-ba), the Mayan underworld.
In 2005, Yaxha National Park received a large donation, when it was nominated as the location for “Survivor: Guatemala – The Mayan Empire”. This helped to uncover and restore many more structures. The restoration process continues today, albeit, slowly.
Back to our tour and, unlike Tikal, at Yaxha you can still climb the steep, crumbling limestone steps of some of the structures. It’s a little dicey, but to walk the same route up a temple as the Mayan royalty did is rather unique in the 21st Century.
Yaxha – Climbing the crumbling stone steps at North Acropolis
Aside from the magical air that surrounds Yaxha, the history, setting, quality of the restored temples, jungle, flora and fauna, animals and birds, all contribute to make it worth visiting.
Our tour culminated at the Temple of the Red Hands (Structure 216), aptly named as red hand prints were discovered there when it was uncovered. At 30 metres, it’s the tallest structure in the park and the best place to watch the sunset.
As we climbed the wooden steps that wrap around one side of the Temple, the thunder clouds got closer, the sky darkened and the rain advanced towards us. But it seemed to enhance, not detract, from the mesmerising views below, across the jungle, rain-forest and lagoons.
Had it not been for our guide, with all the lightning and rain, we might have scuttled down to the safety of terra firma. He encouraged us to stay, saying it’ll be worth the wait. And he was right.
Yaxha – The sun makes a final appearance
Yaxha – The sun sets quickly, but the sky is still alive with colour
Despite the sound of thunder, lightning and howler monkeys, there was still a mystical calm surrounding us. Then, with seconds to go, the sun burst out from beneath a dark cloud and we had the most stunning sunset. It was simply breathtaking.
Yaxha Nakum Naranjo National Park – Costs
Our afternoon tour, was spread over six-hours and included a knowledgeable guide and transportation from El Remate, which took one-hour each way. It was booked by our hotel (Palomino Ranch Hotel) using Horizontes Mayas Tour Operator, which cost Q150 per person (GBP£15).
The entrance fee to the National Park of Q80 per person (GBP£8), covers Yaxha, Nakum, Naranjo and Topoxte. Do take lots of water and mosquito repellent and if you’re going to stay until sunset, then a torch is advisable.
Tikal National Park – Self-Guided
Tikal – Complex Q, one of the restored twin-pyramids
A legendary Mayan city in the jungle, Tikal is Guatemala’s top tourist attraction. Spread over 222 sq. miles, it was considered a Maya superpower and is one of the largest ancient cities ever created in the Mayan kingdom; rivalling those found in neighbouring Mexico. It is also a mixed category UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are over a thousand structures built by the Mayans within the park but archaeologists have uncovered only a fraction of them. Among those excavated and restored are temples, pyramids, plazas, palaces and inscribed stone monuments, the rest remain engulfed by lush, tropical vegetation.
This time, we explored without a guide, choosing to go at our own pace, following a suggested route from the Lonely Planet Central America Guide, which took us past the main temples and park highlights. The Lonely Planet Guide combined with the map we purchased at the entrance, proved invaluable and gave us all the essential details needed as we came across each structure.
There’s no doubt that Tikal is impressive and, as we walked through the jungle canopy, seeing the restored Temples I and II across the Grand Plaza, certainly had the wow factor.
Tikal – The Photographer Captures The Photographer Taking a Photo!
Tikal – The very impressive Temple I
But Tikal is huge; it took us about five hours to cover eight miles; climbing up wooden staircases to the top of almost all the structures we were allowed on. It was fascinating but exhausting and, after a while, the buzz got less and less as another temple or structure loomed in front of us.
Our final ascent was up Temple IV. The tallest structure in the park at 70 metres, the views are stunning, and in the distance, we saw the tops of other temples poking through the jungle. We later found out the same view was featured in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Tikal – The stunning views of the jungle and tops of other temples from the 70-metre high Temple IV
We visited in mid-September, which is low season, but for one of the best-known tourist attractions in Guatemala and for the fact it was also Autumn Equinox, it was unusually quiet.
We were approached by guides inside the park who would happily have escorted us around one or two of the temples for a reduced fee, but we didn’t find it necessary.
Tikal – Ferg and Nev posing on Temple II with Temple I in the background
So which did we prefer? Tikal is the more popular of the Mayan Ruins to explore and is the one everyone who researches the area knows about. However, for us, the better Maya site was Yaxha, which was less touristy, totally off-the-beaten-track and felt so very special.
Tikal National Park – Costs
We took a local bus from El Remate to Tikal, which took 45-minutes and cost Q25 per person (GBP£2.50) one way. The bus stopped at the outside gate to Tikal, where we purchased tickets for Q150 per person (GBP£15), we then got back onto the bus for a further 10-mile ride to the park entrance.
Do take lots of water, food and mosquito repellent. There are stalls inside the park that sell light refreshments – including beer!
How Safe Is It To Travel Around Guatemala?
We’ve been asked recently, just how safe is Guatemala? Well, like any Central American country, it’s certainly got its issues. The area of Izabal, where our boat is moored, is one of 22 municipalities in the north-east of the country currently under a 30-day State of Siege due to drug trafficking and reports of violence. Petén, where we visited the Mayan Ruins of Yaxha and Tikal, is also under this jurisdiction.
The situation is very serious; but it is not aimed at tourists, so we keep our wits about us and use common sense when travelling. And we never use public transport at night.
The tourism industry is hugely important to Guatemala and they want to keep visitors as safe as possible. On this trip, we saw a few roadblocks, checkpoints and many more police on the roads than in the recent weeks. So far, the State of Siege has not impacted on our ability to move freely around and the police presence is rather reassuring, making us feel safe in Guatemala.
© Two Drifters Travel
Coming Soon: Two Drifters Goes Spelunking In Guatemala!