The Mayan/Inca/Aztecan civilisations were so great that their traces are still within Central and South American communities. Small villages retain ancient traditions, clothing, medicine and languages.
Before starting my trip I had very little knowledge about all this and all I could think about when I heard the word “Maya” was the 2012 apocalypse. I did some research and found a lot about Chichén Itzá (Messico), Tikal (Guatemala) and Copán (Honduras) with a few references to Tulum (Messico) due to its huge flow of tourists who mostly do not care about the history of such places and all they are looking for is the perfect Instagram picture. I was about to skip the North of Guatemala (Petén) and with it, the old capital of the Mayan empire, Tikal.
Every Guatemalan I spoke to tried to convince me to go and I just thought they’d be biased. Of course they are, but I am thankful because if it wasn’t for them I would have missed out on some of the best views during this trip. The road heading North from Lanquín/Cobán is rough at the very beginning, but will make itself forgiven when the landscape opens up. Mountains covered in vividly green trees and breath-taking valleys. As the totality of people visiting Petén, I went to Tikal and I don’t regret it. Taking the bus at 4:30 am takes you there just before the park opens, which means more wildlife, less people and less heat (very important!), without having to pay extra for the sunrise ticket.
You can easily see why Tikal is such a popular spot, besides being famous in the movie industry for its appearance in films such as Star Wars Episode IV and James Bond’s Moonraker. Climbing up its pyramids will allow you to immerse yourself in the tropical rainforest and enjoy stunning views of the ancient city.
At this point you may think that Tikal are the ruins I refer to in the title of this post. Sorry to disappoint you, but a lot has already been written about them and I wasn’t as impressed as I was with… [rolling drums] Yaxha! You can book tours from Flores like most backpackers, but booking in nearby Santa Elena or El Retiro may be cheaper.
You can only get there in the afternoon with a collective shuttle, but if you want to go in the morning you’ll have to pay for private transportation and it will be a looooot more expensive (I’m talking 6 times more!). The bus departs from Flores at 12 and takes 1h30m-2h. Depending on the company you will pay between 100 and 150Q (€10-15) for a guided tour. I’d recommend booking with Marco Expedition, the first agency you see on the left of the bridge as soon as you go on the island. Ask for Saúl, his knowledge is impressive and I can assure you the tour will not be disappointing. The entry to the park is only 80Q!
As you walk in you immediately find an astronomical building on your left and original carved stones on your right. The guide will talk about the symbolism of numbers in Mayan culture and how you can recognise them on Guatemalan notes. You will then walk on a typical Mayan road surrounded by what look like hills. Those hills are the city which was covered by trees and left there due to lack of money and, of course, to better preserve them. Nature quickly takes it all back, and seeing plants growing on ancient temples and roots hugging very few emerging stones is intriguing.
Soon you realise that all around you the forest is alive, with spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Saúl will talk about the importance of sacrifices during political and religious ceremonies, all marked by the popular Juego de Pelota, the most ancient team ballgame. Each pyramid you climb will reward you with a different view of the rainforest and the neighbouring lagoon. As time goes on, the sunset light paints the sky with a new glow and howler monkeys will fill the air with their roar. All of a sudden it feels like being inside Jurassic Park and hearing the T-Rex approaching. The later it gets, the easier it will be to even spot them!
Meanwhile… why not teasing a tarantula to come out of its home and play with you? When I woke up that morning I wouldn’t have imagined that a few hours later I would have let a poisonous spider the size of my hand walk on my arms. She was incredibly gentle, carefully moving on my skin, feeling like a caress. If you’re lucky, Saúl will also find a scorpion. According to local medicinal practises, the venom from the brown or black species is a cure for bone cancer. Don’t worry, neither these nor the tarantula will kill you, but the pain won’t be negligible.
A few moments later I was on top of the tallest pyramid of one of the plazas, overlooking partially restored buildings on one side and the awakening sound of nature all around. In my head the thought that I just held a tarantula and that I was really there. I mean, really. I thought I had lost the “wow effect” at one particular stage of my trip. It frightened me. But places like Semuc Champey and Yaxha brought it all back with interests. At the end of the tour you can climb the tallest temple of the whole city. I rested my hands on the limestone placed there almost 2000 years ago, closed my eyes, listened to the sounds around me and felt emotional tears building up.
Every day I’m grateful for this experience. I thank myself for not letting this opportunity go, for making the best decision of my life and booking that one-way ticket. I thank the people I meet, their hospitality, their precious advice, their understanding. If it wasn’t for my dear friend Julien I wouldn’t have gone to Yaxha. It would have remained one of many things I read about in my Rough Guide to Central America and never get the chance to see myself. Well, dear readers, I invite you to give yourself that chance. Right now! 🙂
While you’re thinking of booking your next trip, why not taking advantage of a discount? Use this link to book accommodation and the more reservations you make, the more discounts you’ll get 🙂