Central America's Mayan ruins

by Claus Hirsch, New York, NY

My first visit to a Mayan ruin occurred in 1982 when I was on a visit to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. After a long ride over very rough, unpaved roads from Cancún to Chichén Itzá, I saw the spectacular pyramids and ancient ball fields at the site. I vowed then to see more of such magnificent evidence of ancient Mayan architecture.

Twenty-five years and 59 countries later, I finally had that opportunity while on a 4-country tour of Central America with Overseas Adventure Travel in May ’07. The 2-week tour was called “Route of the Maya” and included El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize, in that order.

Starting out

Our group of 12 seasoned travelers started out in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. We had a short stay at the 5-star San Salvador Presidente Hotel and, after a brief tour of the city, embarked by minibus to nearby Joya de Cerén, a Mayan farming village that was buried by volcanic ash around A.D. 600.

The archaeological site at Joya de Cerén, we were told, is visited by travelers and volcanologists from South America and elsewhere for the quality and scope of its ruins. It was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site of the tour.

From Joya de Cerén we next headed for Honduras, taking a slight detour through the southeastern part of Guatemala before reaching the border at Honduras. Local troubadours playing Spanish guitars entertained us as we waited to cross.

During our 2-day stay in Honduras we spent most of our time visiting the Mayan ruins at Copán, our second World Heritage Site.

As in other countries of Central America, only a small fraction of all Mayan sites here has been uncovered, but the ones we saw were evidence of the fact that these people had already established towns and major monuments dating back to at least A.D. 400. (Some Archaeologists actually speak about an “archaic” period in Mayan history dating to circa 3000 B.C. in what is now Belize.)

At Copán we saw a number of Mayan pyramids, stele and altars as well as various carved figures. The surprising revelation, for me, was that many of these are actually marked as to the day, month and year of their completion, based on the Mayan calendar.

Many, of course, are quite ornately carved and glorify the local gods and Mayan kings.

Legend has it that many of the Mayan cultures thrived until around A.D. 900 in what is known as the “classic” period of Mayan civilization. Powerful Mayan rulers were especially active in constructing stone columns, called stele, as well as stone altars, from A.D. 711 to 736.

On to Guatemala

The visit to Honduras was followed by a roadway trip, again by minibus, to Guatemala. We spent a full seven days in Guatemala, and that time clearly was justified by the range and quality of the extant Mayan monuments.

Our first stop was La Antigua, a charming town full of well-preserved residential buildings and cobblestoned streets. This was our third World Heritage Site and the designation is well deserved, in my opinion.

In Antigua we stayed at the colonial-style Porta Hotel Antigua, a place with high-ceilinged rooms, a gracious staff and an excellent kitchen.

Several small towns are located near Antigua, and we had friendly visits to the local markets in Santa María de Jesús and San Pedro las Huertas. It was a treat to see the wonderful fresh vegetables and fruit for sale and to interact with the local vendors, each of whom invariably was accompanied by a small child strapped to their back.

From Antigua we headed through the Sierra Madre mountains by minibus to Panajachel on the shore of Lake Atitlán. It was a scary experience because, although the 2-lane highways were paved and in good condition, inter-city bus drivers were very reckless — passing on curves and up hills. Our driver, however, was careful and responsible.

Our hotel, the Porta Hotel del Lago, was right on the edge of Lake Atitlán, 5,000 feet above sea level, and each room had a view of both the lake and nearby volcanoes — truly a spectacular sight. The posted room rates here were $110 for a single and $120 for two persons.

We had a motorboat ride on the lake, eyeing the local fishermen in their small wooden boats as well as the grand mansions (some with their own helicopter landing pads) that dotted the coast.

The next Mayan ruins on our schedule comprised the fabled archaeological site of Tikal. My expectations were high and yet were met, if not exceeded.

Here one sees pyramid after pyramid — most in exceptionally good condition and some over 140 feet high — as well as many stele, altars, tombs and ancient Mayan carvings, 3,000 in all! And, yes, even here not all Mayan sites have yet been uncovered.

Some of the steep steps of the pyramids are off-limits to visitors, but several sites have wooden steps adjoining the structure for those eager to reach the top.

The experience of visiting Tikal reminded me of an earlier trip to Machu Picchu in Peru, both in terms of breathtaking sights and exceeded expectations.

A few final sites

On our way out of Guatemala toward Belize, we stopped at the archaeological site known as Yaxha. This is the third-largest Mayan site in Guatemala and it contains its share of impressive monuments. Then it was on to Belize for two more days of visits to ancient Mayan monuments.

In Belize, we saw the wonderful Mayan ruins at Caracol. This is the country’s most extensive Mayan site, with over 30 square miles of area, including ancient temples, ball courts, plazas and an astronomical observatory. At its height, around A.D. 700, we were told the site might have had a population exceeding 180,000.

Summing up

This tour surpassed my expectations and was a good learning experience. Our tour leader, a Guatemalan named Vinicio, or “Vinny,” provided much useful information on the local customs of each area we visited, on Mayan history and on general developments in each country. This was supplemented by local guides in each country. However, it would have been an even more meaningful experience if the tour company had provided some local academic experts to brief us on the troubled recent history of the region.

This aside, anyone visiting the area cannot help but come away with an appreciation for the civilization that flourished for so long in an area only a few hours away by plane from the continental United States.

• Safety — I felt completely safe when walking around tourist sites and in the streets near the hotels. In Guatemala, now at peace after many years of turbulence, I did see armed guards in front of banks and in some convenience stores. The military also provided escort service to some car convoys going to, or leaving, some tourist areas, but these did not seem too overt or menacing.

• Locals — The people we met, mostly in informal settings, were always polite and approachable. We did visit some extremely modest local homes and an elementary school in Guatemala where the kindergarten kids treated us to some joyous and funny skits — an altogether endearing experience. We experienced very little begging.

• Money — The U.S. dollar was readily accepted in all of the four countries we visited. In fact, the greenback is the official currency in El Salvador, while the value of the Belize dollar is directly tied to the U.S. dollar (two to one).

In the markets in some smaller towns, though, the use of local currency is easier on the small merchants. ATMs are not widely available except in the larger cities.

• Language — Some rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is quite helpful on visits to this area of the world. The guides and hotel employees, of course, speak English — as do most local guides — but even many merchants know little or no English.

• Food — The breakfasts we were served typically included fresh orange juice, pineapple and other fresh tropical fruits, eggs, toast, sweet rolls and coffee. Lunch and dinner often consisted of a choice of local fish, like tilapia or bass, chicken and other meats and cooked vegetables. Many restaurant meals were accompanied by the ubiquitous tortilla.

The meals were fairly bland, but salsa or hot sauce was always available. Sodas and beer were readily available everywhere, and, in my opinion, the beer was best in Honduras. Of course, we stuck to drinking only bottled water.

• Costs — My 2-week Overseas Adventure Travel (Cambridge, MA; 800/493-6824, www. oattravel.com) tour cost $2,345 exclusive of single supplements and some airport departure taxes and before deducting any prior earned credits. This amount covered all airfares, hotels, site admissions and breakfasts and some lunches and dinners.