Guatemala and a trip to the heart of the Mayan World

I’m definitely biased, I won’t lie. Guatemala has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Some of the sights I grew up with. There are volcanoes everywhere you look.

Growing up there I might not have appreciated it as I could have. My American husband visited more places in Guatemala in the two years that he lived there than I did in twenty-three. So now, after traveling for a while and living far away, I want to make the most of my trip whenever I go back.

I planned a trip to Petén, in the north side of the country and the heart of the Mayan world. I’m not kidding. In just this region there are more than fifty Mayan archaeological sites and they keep discovering more and more.

I started planning where most of my trips have started: on Airbnb. I was lucky to find a beautiful house which is part of the upscale Hotel Bolontiku. Since we were planning our trip for the Holy Week, I knew I’d better act fast. In Guatemala both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays, plus it’s the time when the temperatures get to the highest, right before the rainy season starts, so a lot of people go out on vacation. I started looking in late December and booked in January for the trip in late March.

The living room on our Airbnb.

Second, after having plane tickets to Guatemala City ($398.49 from SFO), we needed to figure out how to travel to Petén. There are not many options, sadly, and infrastructure is still one of the country’s biggest challenges. None of the bus lines were running on Good Friday, which was the day we wanted to come back to the city, and we were not sure we wanted to drive for eleven hours. We finally bought plane tickets on TAG airlines.

After a weekend outside of Guatemala City, where my family lives, and hanging out in Antigua, (that awesome Unesco Heritage colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes), we started our real vacation in Petén.

TAG delivered. We flew on an 18 seater Embraer 110 for about an hour. The plane was safe, a little loud, but totally fine.

The Airbnb was glorious. The house was huge, with rain showers, fully equipped kitchen and air conditioning. We had access to all the amenities at the hotel, a pool, kayaks, a shuttle boat back and forth to the Island of Flores, as well as drinks waiting for us every time we got back. If we had stayed there, we would have had a great time, no doubt, but we did not make it all the way here to not do some exploring in the middle of the jungle.

Though a trail in the jungle, you arrive to the temples!

First was Tikal, the most famous Mayan site in Guatemala. I had only been as a toddler, so even if it’s more touristic, I wanted to see it.

I had no idea how big the park was, with trails through the jungle that lead to half uncovered structures, with spider monkeys following you from the tree limbs above until you finally reach the main square where the pyramids stand tall.

Tikal

On Thursday, however, we visited a lesser known park: Yaxhá. After 12 kilometers over a crazy unpaved road, you finally arrive. The park is smaller than Tikal, but I found it more mysterious and with a lot more to learn from. It’s a big city with main roads that lead to the acropolis, aqueducts, ball game courts and the big ceremonial pyramids. There are many structures which have been left underground because of a lack of government funding to preserve them once uncovered. The ones that have been dug up, however, are marvelous. We did the sunset tour and went up the main pyramid of the eastern acropolis. From up you’re surprised by the immensity of the jungle, spreading as far as your eye can see. The howler monkeys howling, or actually, growling, all around us and to the west, a view of lake Yaxhá took our breath away.

There is so much history and so much to learn and explore from the ancient Maya civilization and I went back with a lot of questions and a sense of curiosity to learn more about my ancestors who built these impressive and complex city states.

View of Lake Yaxhá from the top of the pyramid at sunset.

Four days relaxing with mojitos in hand, eating out in the island and exploring the sites and jungle are not enough. This was the first time I took a real vacation in a while and I’m already planning the next one.

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