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Steep steps lead to the top of temple 216 in Yaxha, but the view from the top is worth it. Photo by Robert Waite.

In the first part of this two-part series, contributing writer Robert Waite described his visit to Tikal, Guatemala, the enormous ruins of one of the world’s great archaeological wonders, which 2,000 years ago was larger than ancient Rome or Beijing.

In Part II of this series, Bob writes about his travels to another stunning Mayan archaeological site nearby — Yaxha — and finds humor and cultural insights amid the ancient pyramids.

By Robert Waite

On the morning we left Tikal we headed for Yaxha, 30 km (19 miles) to the southeast, with our new guide, Cesar Quinones.

Yaxha is Guatemala’s third largest Mayan archaeological site (after Tikal and El Mirador) and boasts 500 structures spread along a hilltop stretching about three km (two miles).

Located adjacent to Lake Yaxha, archaeologists estimate that, at its peak in the third and fourth centuries A.D., the city had around 40,000 inhabitants and covered 237 sq. km (92 sq. miles). But in the modern era, it wasn’t identified until 1904 and serious excavation didn’t begin until the 1980s.

Call of the Wild

But before we could see any of this, we were distracted by a cacophony of grunts and howls from the tree canopy above.

Howler monkeys!

The author and his family with Lake Yaxha in the background; howler monkeys not included. Photo from Robert Waite.

The sound was unmistakable, one we had experienced before, in Costa Rica. At that time our daughter, Emily, who was about ten, was pursued relentlessly for two days by a howler with amorous intent.

We thought this hilarious, even to the point where we’d arrange for cards to arrive each subsequent Christmas signed “H. L. Monkey.” (In our family, it seems, you need to pack a sense of humor to survive.)

Yaxha is well worth visiting and Cesar proved an excellent guide, steering us to highlights like the Causeway of the Quarry, the Causeway of the Lake, and one of the two ball courts at the site.

Ball Court Myth?

Those who have been to Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan might be familiar with Mayan ball courts – a grassy field rimmed by parallel walls with a protruding stone that has a circular hole in the middle.

The object of the game was to get a ball through the hole – sort of like basketball, except the “hoop” was on its side and well out of reach of even the tallest of today’s NBA players.

I had heard and read that these Mayan ball hawks played to win, for the honor of being sacrificed for their efforts.

Cesar, on the other hand, told us he believed this to be a myth. I must admit, speaking as a certified coward, I had always been skeptical of the “Let’s win this one so we can die” theory.

This imposing pyramid at Yaxha would have made a good climbing test for “Survivor.” Photo by Robert Waite.

We went on to explore the South Acropolis, a residential area for nobility, and then climbed the Astronomical Complex structure.

To top things off, so to speak, we climbed Temple 216 (no Roman numerals here) to gain a terrific view towards Lake Yaxha.

“Survivor Guatemala”

After about three hours, we repaired to the nearby Portal de Yaxha Restaurant for lunch. Here we enjoyed the local Gallo beer and talk turned to the local economy.

Much to our surprise, Cesar said the best thing that ever happened to the region was the filming of the CBS reality TV program “Survivor Guatemala” in 2005.

A number of movies had been filmed at Tikal and Yaxha, including one of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” segments but, according to Cesar, they brought little benefit.

“’Survivor’ was different,” he said. “They really made an effort to interact with the community and they made donations to improve things like schools. Even this restaurant exists because of them – the woman who catered the crews’ meals used the proceeds to build it.”

“Also, the publicity from the show helped our tourist business,” Cesar added. “They are well remembered.”

This was nice to learn – North Americans are well remembered somewhere.

As we finished our bottles of Gallo and prepared to head back to Belize, we knew we would well remember Tikal, Yaxha and the Guatemalan Lowlands for a long time to come.

 

IF YOU GO

We used GEM Trips to facilitate the transfer from Belize to Tikal and for all Guatemalan land arrangements. Coordinator Marlon Diaz (info@gemtrips.com) was particularly helpful.

November to May is the best time to visit in terms of avoiding oppressive heat and higher rainfall.

You can best reach Tikal via Belize or the Guatemalan city of Flores, located a short drive from the ruins. Belize is served by Air Canada and American Airlines, among others; Flores is served by Copa Airlines and others. But it is best to check, given recent COVID restrictions and cancellations.

In Tikal we stayed at The Jungle Lodge, which we would highly recommend. You are close to the ruins in a secure site with a good restaurant. The family that owns the Lodge has been accommodating archaeologists and tourists comfortably for decades and has a deserved good reputation.

Near Yaxha, the Portal de Yaxha Restaurant offers pleasant dining in a covered outdoor space.

In Belize City we stayed at The Great House, a colonial-style accommodation. The rooms are spacious, but the restaurant was closed, even for breakfast, so check ahead. A better choice might be the Radisson Fort George. The Riverside Bar and Grill, not far from the Radisson, is a good choice for dinner.

Author Bio: Contributing writer Robert Waite has written on travel for nearly 50 years; his previous posts for clarknorton.com include such far-flung destinations as Namibia, Rwanda, Albania, Cambodia (Angkor Wat), and Laos. He is also a professor at Seneca College in Toronto and Managing Partner at Waite + Co., a communications consulting firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto.

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