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May 9, 2015

#Guatemala #Tikal, #Yahxa and the #Petén region JESS Kalinowsky JESS@FriendsTravel.com

Filed under: Central America,Guatemala — centralamericawithfriendstravel @ 1:38 am
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#Guatemala #Tikal, #Yahxa and the #Petén region

JESS Kalinowsky JESS@FriendsTravel.com

Tikal, Yahxa and the Petén region

Tikal from Air


For any visitor to Guatemala, exploring the untamed jungles of the northern Petén region is a must. Home to many of the lost Mayan cities, including Tikal, one of the largest and grandest, the Petén also offers a host of adventure and cultural activities, though many travelers don’t venture far beyond Tikal. After a night in Guatemala City, our group departed on the 6:30am Avianca flight to Flores, the gateway to the Petén. Avianca offers two flights per day, leaving GUA at 6:20am or 5:30pm and returning from FRS at 7:55am or 7:10pm. Guatemala City’s airport is conveniently located in the heart of the city and when it’s clear, offers tremendous views of the dramatic volcanic peaks of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It’s a short 45 minute flight and the landscape changes dramatically from rugged mountain peaks and highland forest to farmland and lush jungle.

The village of Flores is located on an island in Lake Petén Itzá connected by a short causeway. It is the hub for day tours of Tikal, located around an hour’s drive away. But the city itself is a wonderful place in its own right and worth a visit or to stay the night. Formerly the Mayan site of Tayasal home of the Itrza’ people, today Flores is a charming colonial town full of pastel colored buildings with red roofs, narrow cobblestone streets, a historic church and a Spanish plaza. There are a plethora of restaurants and shops perfect for the wandering traveler to stumble upon while exploring. It is safe and a relatively quiet place. For the overnight visitor, Flores has a number of small B&Bs (hospedajes), youth hostels and small hotels. Most of these are better suited to the budget traveler or backpacker. Hotel Isla de Flores is a good mid-range option for those who want to stay on the island.

Most travelers to the Petén stay at one of a handful of small ecolodges or larger resorts located on or near Lake Petén Itzá. Our first stop was at one of our favorites and undoubtedly the most authentic property in the region – Ni’tun Lodge and Private Reserve. Ni’tun is located across the lake from Flores, accessible by a 20-30 minute boat ride or 45 minutes by road. We chose to arrive by boat, which is definitely the way to go unless the weather is stormy and the lake rough. Upon arrival, we were enthusiastically and warmly welcomed by owner Lorena Castillo. Ni’tun is a labor of love by Lore and her wonderful team. The Ni’tun Reserve, once just five hectares, now encompasses 35 hectares of protected native forest and is home to many different species of animals and birds. Howler and spider monkeys, long banished from the lake front forest due to development and slash and burn agriculture, have recently been spotted in the reserve.

nitun web


Ni’tun is the most ecologically minded and welcoming lodge in the Peten. The lodge has a secret getaway feel to it. When arriving by boat, you’d never know that a lodge was tucked among the thick forest lining the lakefront. But sure enough, Ni’tun’s four spacious casitas are nestled throughout the lush native forest on a gentle slope above the lake. They are well spaced and provide the ultimate in privacy. Both the main lodge and the guest houses were built by hand in the native Colojché style, the walls made with sticks and rocks plastered together by stucco and the roof thatched with palm leaves. The décor of the rooms is simple, consisting of handcrafted lamps, original paintings and beautiful indigenous bedspreads and carpets. Each room has a private bath with hot and cold water showers and views through the native forest to the lake shimmering below. There’s no AC but it’s not really necessary with the stone walls, thatch and the tree cover.

Nitun main lodge


The two story main lodge is the definition of a peaceful gathering place. Open to the surrounding forest, the first story has a large dining area and kitchen. The second story is relaxation heaven, with large couches and hammocks perfect for whiling away an afternoon with a book and a beer. The lake is relatively warm and is great for swimming. Kayaks are also available for those looking to explore further along the lakefront.

The kitchen is the heart of the lodge and Lore is a tremendous chef. All dishes are freshly prepared with local ingredients using her own creative and delicious recipes. Our group enjoyed a traditional chapin (Guatemalan) breakfast of farm fresh scrambled eggs, refried black beans, plantains, tamales, fresh fruit and handmade corn tortillas, accompanied by rich and smooth coffee from Lore’s father’s award-winning coffee plantation. Ni’tun is a true labor of love, from the construction of the casitas to the preparation of every meal. And while the location means a longer trip to Tikal and Yaxha (1.5 hours vs less than an hour for most other options in the area), it’s well worth it. This is the best option in the Peten for those experiential and adventure travelers’ seeking a peaceful retreat, where the pace slows and it’s all about relaxation.

Villas Maya room


From Ni’tun, we returned to Flores and then onward to Villa Maya, a larger ecolodge located just 15 minutes from Flores also in its own private reserve along the shores of Petenchel and Monifata lagoons. Villa Maya is part of the larger Guatemalan hotel chain Villas de Guatemala, with properties in Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City and Livingstone on the Caribbean coast. Villa Maya’s 56 rooms have two categories – standard and superior – and is the best value in the Petén for a mid-level hotel. The simple white plaster and thatch bungalows are configured with two double beds or one queen; all have private bathrooms with hot water showers, A/C and balcony with views of the surrounding lagoons. There is a great pool overlooking the lagoon making Villa Maya a very good option for families – ask for one of the interconnected rooms.

spider monkey yaxha


We continued our explorations, heading deeper into the rainforest of the Petén to the ruins of Yaxha. Reaching its peak in the late Classic period, (c. AD 600-700) Yaxha sees far fewer visitors than its larger cousin/rival Tikal. It is located on a ridge overlooking a lagoon of the same name (another little visited Mayan site, Topoxte, it located on an island in the lagoon, and can be accessed by a 15-20 minute boat ride. This is highly recommended for the adventurous and or archaeology nut). Yaxha is derived from the Mayan word for “blue-green water.”Access is a bit more challenging than Tikal, though only moderately so. It takes around an hour and a half to drive from Flores; the final 30 minutes are along a dirt road, which is well maintained though it can be rough ride in the rainy season. Yaxha is also well known to fans of the reality show Survivor, as one season of the show was filmed here in 2005.

Our guide for afternoon was Melvin, one of Maya Trails’ best in the Petén. He impressed all of us with his depth of knowledge about the Maya as well as his skills as a naturalist. And he’s simply a fun and engaging guy with an affable personality.

At its peak, Yaxha was believed to have covered 92 sq mi with a population of 35-40K. It was rediscovered in 1904 by Teoberto Maler, a German-Italian explorer but archaeological work didn’t begin until 1980. Today, only 8% of the site has been excavated, which along with the lack of visitors, gives it an exciting lost-in-time feeling. The excavated temples and palaces are magnificent like at any Maya site. But for me, the highlight at Yaxha is ambling through the vibrant and lush jungle which connects the restored parts of the site. Howler and spider monkeys abound along with a myriad of fascinating native trees and plants, all of which seem to have a medicinal or culinary use for the Maya. Large mounds of vegetation hide other unexcavated structures along with their ancient history and secrets.

yaxha sunset


Another unique feature of Yaxha is the opportunity to watch the sunset from the top of a Maya temple. We like to think of this as the Guatemalan version of the sundowner and it’s just as impressive as any African setting. The view from the top of Temple 216, the highest at Yaxha, looks out over the endless jungle and the shimmering Yaxha lagoon. Access is via a long staircase attached to the side of the temple, winding its way through the canopy. There are a lot of stairs but it’s absolutely worth the effort thanks to the experience that awaits. The panoramic view atop the temple is complimented by the calls of myriad birds and the shrieks of the howler monkeys reverberating throughout the jungle below. It’s a stunning setting and a fitting finale to the magic of Yaxha. Like any good sundowner, we enjoyed a snack of olives, cheese and crackers (alcoholic beverages are generally frowned upon given the 100+ foot elevation and lack of railings, though a bottle of wine can usually be arranged as desired).

Departing Yaxha, we drove to Camino Real Tikal, our hotel for the evening. Part of the Camino Real chain, this is the largest hotel in the Petén with 72 rooms. Camino Real offers 24 Club level rooms which have larger and more luxurious beds, flat screen TVs and wifi access. There are 48 standard rooms which feel very dated and a bit worn. All rooms have AC and balconies with views of the lake. There is a pool and jacuzzi. They offer a daily two hour nature walk beginning at 7am through the Cerro Cahuí Natural Reserve surrounding the hotel. There are kayaks available for rental and sunset boat cruises on Friday and Saturday evenings. Guests can also experience a traditional Mayan temascale (sauna). Kids and families will appreciate the extensive grassy areas along the lake and the free bike rentals, great for riding into the small village of El Remate, located just down the road. In my opinion, the best feature of Camino Real is its location just 30-40 minutes from the Tikal National Park. This is a good choice for those guests looking for a traditional international-style hotel, as a convenient overnight before or after visiting Tikal or for families with older children who are looking for active adventures. For the price point, Villa Maya is a better value or, for an upmarket option just down the road from Camino Real, consider La Lancha, one of the Francis Ford Coppola properties (along with Turtle Inn and Blancaneaux Lodge in neighboring Belize).

Exploring Tikal with an archaeological rock star

Temple I and II Tikal


Tikal is the largest excavated Maya ruin site on the American continent. The National Park was established in 1956 and encompasses 222 square miles of primary tropical rainforest, teeming with diverse flora and fauna and harboring the remains of the one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mayan world. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The ruins of the once great city-state were re-discovered in 1848 by a chicle prospector for the Wrigley chewing gum company. Major excavation of the site didn’t begin in earnest until the University of Pennsylvania’s Tikal Project from 1956 – 1970, which mapped much of the site and excavated and restored many of the structures. But even with this major effort, along with subsequent archaeological projects, only about 15% of the structures have been uncovered. The rest remains buried in the surrounding jungle.

The 6+ square miles of excavated ruins at Tikal can be an overwhelming place, especially on a first visit. A good guide is critical to get the most out of the experience and to make the visit more manageable. And wow, did Maya Trails arrange for quite the qualified guide! We had the great pleasure of exploring Tikal with one of the foremost Mayan archaeologists in the world today – Francisco Estrada-Belli. Born and raised in Italy by his Italian mother and Guatemalan father, Francisco first visited Tikal at the age of seven. He decided then that he would one day become an archaeologist. A National Geographic Explorer, he is best known for his 2001 discovery of the lost Mayan city of Cival, one of the earlier pre-classic Mayan sites, dating to 800 BC. Last August, in another high-profile find, his team unearthed an enormous stucco frieze (26 ft L x 8ft W) at the Mayan site of Homul. This frieze is one of the largest and best-preserved ever found in the Maya world.

Francisco Estrada Belli Tikal


This was the archaeological rock star who would lead us around Tikal. But while clearly his credentials were impeccable, how would he relate to our group of travel agents and tour operators? Francisco couldn’t have been farther from the socially awkward or pompous stereotype of a scientist or academic. He was genuine, pleasant and engaging. Our group was captivated. In addition to being a great guy, he was also incredibly good at distilling high level concepts down to a level that the average non-archaeologist could understand.

I’ve made four visits to Tikal and the awe and wonder at the achievements of the Maya never cease. From entry gate, we headed for the Great Plaza, which is about a 20-30 minute walk, often at a slight incline. The path leads past a huge a ceiba tree. Gazing skyward, the massive canopy and extensive root system of this sacred tree serve an example of the connection between the living and the dead in Maya mythology. Approaching the Great Plaza, the backside of Temple I is the first structure visible. Rising to a height of 144ft, the Temple of The Great Jaguar an impressive sight and a good indication of the sheer size of the monuments the Maya built.

The Great Plaza is where most Tikal tours start. It’s also where the modern Maya people still practice ancient rituals during sacred days throughout the year. Walking into the plaza around Temple I you are faced with the equally impressive Temple II directly across the plaza. Temple II can be climbed via a wooden staircase on its backside. From the altar just below the temple peak, one can peer down the impossibly steep and tall stone stairs on the front of the temple and imagine how imposing a Mayan king must have appeared, towering over his subjects far below.

Tikal MT FAM


From the grandeur of the Great Plaza to the lost-in-time character of the ancient Mundo Perdido (the oldest structures in Tikal), Francisco led us on an archaeological treasure hunt through the labyrinth of Tikal’s many limestone structures, bringing to light the multi-layered history of this fascinating place. As for many visitors, one of the day’s true highlights was the outstanding view from Temple IV, the tallest in Tikal at 212 ft and one of the tallest in the entire Mundo Maya (El Mirador, in the remote northern Petén, has the claim of the tallest temple at 273ft). We scrambled up the long staircase to the top of the structure which offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle with the summits of Temple I and II peaking through the vast forest canopy. George Lucas found this view so impressive and otherworldly that he filmed a scene from Star Wars from this very viewpoint. This was also the place where a seven year old Francisco Estrada-Belli decided that he wanted to be an archaeologist when he grew up. And that same childlike fascination and wonder was still present as we admired the very same view, now decades later.

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