The Lowlands (Part 1 of 2)

By Jaci Winters

In March three friends and I set off  for a 12 day trip to Guatemala. Through a small tour agency called Guatemala To Go, in Antigua, Guatemala, I prearranged our itinerary to include some of the wonderful Mayan Ruins in the tropical lowlands and also the culture and crafts of the highland area. Day 1 we flew from Mexico City to Guatemala City. The next morning we boarded the early morning flight from Guatemala City to Flores in Peten and took a shuttle to Tikal National Park for a two-day stay at the Tikal Inn. The instant we arrived we went for a tour or should I say a hike, of the extensive Tikal ruins with our English-speaking guide. On the way we saw coatíes (a relative of the raccoon) and spider monkeys. Tikal was a major Mayan ceremonial center with one of the highest temples in all the Mayan civilization. You can climb the 180 steps to the top of Temple IV to see the whole site. There are several other big plazas to explore on this large site with numerous temples, small buildings, stellae and a large mask below ground level. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included in our two-day stay, with a single menu for all three meals. Our accommodation was in lovely little thatched bungalows surrounding the gardens and pool. We were very glad of the pool because it was very hot and humid and was refreshing after long sticky walks through the ruins. The next morning the intrepid types went on the Sunrise Tour to Temple IV at 4am to view the overall vista of Tikal with clouds and mist rising above the jungle. You can also arrange a Sunset Tour to the same temple.

In the afternoon we took the shuttle to Flores and spent a lovely evening in the charming town of Flores which is on an island with a boardwalk lined with hotels and restaurants. We enjoyed drinks on the patio of the hotel and watched the sunset over the lake. Being Sunday there were lots of local events happening with music and food to enjoy in this pastel-colored town. It is definitely worth a longer stay if you need a restful place with Tuk Tuk taxis to drive you around the island.

Day four we were picked up at our hotel for a wonderful tour of Yaxha, another ruin in the Peten where we saw howler monkeys and learned about the first corn used by the early Mayan. We took a boat to get to the site, There were not many people at this site so we could enjoy it in peace and quiet. Our guide was an archeology student who was very knowledgeable about the environment as well as the ruins. We climbed to the top of the main temple and had a view of the tops of other ruins and the large lagoons surrounding the site. Later in the afternoon we took the long (four hours) drive to Rio Dulce. A short five minute boat ride took us to our house on the river. The property was built on stilts because of the changing tides of the river and we reached our little house in the jungle by raised wooden walkways. That night we went by boat to the opposite side of the river and had a lovely dinner on the outside patio of the local hostel hotel.

The next day (Day five) our hostess and guide Iliana took us on a long boat ride down the Rio Dulce to Livingston which is at the mouth of the river where it meets the Ocean. On the way we stopped several times to photograph herons, cormorants, pelicans and buzzards. We visited some small Mayan river communities that sold fish and crafts to locals and tourists. Young girls in small boats sold jewelry made from seashells and purses made from coconut shells. Along the river there were many yachts anchored in sheltered bays. Some of the owners had also built houses along the river and stay there during the hurricane season. In Livingston we stopped for a wonderful breakfast at Casa Rosada. After breakfast we walked around the small town which is populated with Garifuna, a black population whose ancestors arrived many years ago. Iliana told us that night time is the best time to visit here because the people love to dance and play music. The Garifuna also salt fish which they lay out in the sun to dry. Our hour-long boat ride back to Rio Dulce was bumpy and windy because of the changing tide but overall the trip was well worth it.

We left Rio Dulce at 1.00 pm and drove to Quirigua, a Mayan and UNESCO Heritage site that I had been looking forward to seeing because of the large number of beautifully carved stellae discovered there. The tallest stella (35 feet) ever found on a Mayan site stands among many others almost as tall and each one is intricately carved with a story of its rulers and the history of the Maya. Also there are several large round stones called zoomorphs carved to represent animals such as the jaguar and turtle. The zoomorphs and stellae at this site are very unique with their carvings well preserved because the stone found here is much harder than in other Mayan sites. There were not many people at this site so we had time to enjoy these Mayan treasures with our knowledgeable guide. Quirigua is incomparable with any other Mayan site I have visited and should be on every tourist agenda. Later in the day we drove another four hours along winding roads, hilly terrain and towns to Copan Ruinas, the small town in Honduras where we stayed overnight in the lovely Clarion Hotel.

The next day (Day six) we met up with our guide at Copan, another major Mayan site. Again there were only a small number of tourists at this site, although it contains some beautiful plazas, temples, paintings, three dimensionally carved stellae, and archeological tunnels dug under one of the temples. One of the stunning monuments is the magnificently carved stairway, built by the last ruler of this Mayan city to regain its honor after its king, Rabbit 18, was executed at Quirigua. We toured tunnels built by archeologists who were looking for evidence of previous Mayan cities. Subsequent rulers generally built on top of earlier temples. We viewed large-scale stone carvings and paintings excavated underneath the temple, proof of earlier Mayan structures. Macaws are carved into the stone  in the pyramids in the tunnels as an emblem. At Copan, the stellae designs are carved into the stone with detail on all four sides. The stone found in Copan is hard like that in Quirigua and has withstood time and erosion. At this Mayan site, they also had many beautiful, red, blue and yellow colored Scarlet Macaws that had been rescued and released back into the forest. Macaws had been hunted out in this area and they are trying to reestablish the population in the park. Next we visited Macaw Mountain Bird Park and saw many different birds and animals. Some parrots were tame enough that we could hold them and take photos. After lunch we had a long drive back to Guatemala City where we stayed overnight in luxury at the Barcelo Hotel. This was the end of the tropical section of our tour.

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