Pictures/Journal - page 20

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Part 3:  Maya Ruins of Copán, Tikal and Quiriguá


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   Copán (Honduras)


The Maya culture flourished from 200 BC to AD 1450.  They inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador -- 324,000 sq. kilometers.

Among their many achievements, the Maya developed agricultural technology allowing for large population growth in diverse ecological conditions.  They created a complex writing system, and a vigesimal (based on the number 20) numbering system which included the concept of "0".  They developed a calendar with remarkable precision.  Their political organization consisted of city/state, and a confederation with a lead chieftain. 

But the Maya's greatest achievement is considered to be architecture, building palaces, pyramids, temples and causeways.  Amazingly, they never knew or used the wheel, nor utilized beast of burden.  Equally staggering is the absence of metal - Tikal flourished without gold and without metal tools.  Everything they built was with only chipped or ground stone (flint/obsidian) tools. 

The Pre-classic Maya period dates from 2000 BC - AD 200; Classic period AD 200 - 1000; and the Post-Classic period AD 1000 - 1450. 




A 4-hour van ride took Deborah and the girls (and a small group of cruisers) to the Guatemala-Honduras border.  We had a very quick and simple clear-out/clear-in process with both Guatemalan and Honduran customs & immigrations and paid a $3 fee giving us a 3-day visitors pass good for the Copán area only.  We exchange some Guatemalan quetzals for Honduran lempiras and we're off.  A short ride and we're in the town of Copán Ruinas.  The next day we take off in tuk-tuks for Copán a mile away where an English-speaking guide has been previously "interviewed" and retained by our cruiser trip leader.  (To see where Copán is, see above map.)

SIGNIFICANCE: The Tikal ruins in northern Guatemala are better known than Copán because of it's immense size - both in its mega-proportions and number of structures.  Copán, even though not as vast, is considered superior with respect to its multitude of well-preserved carvings, sculptures and inscriptions.  There have been several recent, significant finds at this site including the Rosalila Temple in near-perfect condition and the lengthy Hieroglyphic Stairway.

HISTORY:  Evidence shows that people had been living in the Copán area since around 1400 BC and that there must have been significant commercial activity.  This dynasty ruled during the Classic period (AD 250 - 900), with the first noteworthy royal family coming to rule in AD 426, whose mysterious king, #5, Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw, was regarded as a semi-divine founder of the city.  Other rulers included king #12, Smoke Jaguar, who ruled for a surprising 67 years and was responsible for major military and commercial endeavors expanding the population; king #13, 18 Rabbit, known for military conquests although he literally lost his head in a battle with neighboring Quiriguá; king #15, Smoke Shell, who was the greatest builder and was responsible for the Hieroglyphic Stairway; Yax Pac was king #16.  In all there were 17 rulers.  At its peak around AD 800, Copán had a population of close to 30,000 people - a figure not again attained until the 1980's.

It has only recently been surmised that the collapse of Copán was brought on by a tremendous population growth, straining its agricultural resources where it was no longer self-sufficient and forcing expansion into outer areas.  What resulted was deforestation, followed by severe erosion and then flooding, wiping out food sources.  Remains have been found showing that people died of malnutrition and diseases with decreased life-spans.  This is in some ways what is happening in Guatemala now.  Incidentally, a Mayan belief is that life is cyclical and history repeats itself.

Civilization didn't die out immediately, though, as it probably existed in some form until 1200 when nature took over again.  In 1576 a Spaniard discovered the city's ruins, informed the king but no action was taken until almost 300 years later when another Spaniard mapped the area in 1839, making it known to the world.

Today, 3,450 structures have been found within the immediate area of the "Principal Group", with another 4,500 structures found less than 100 miles away.  There are 5 separate phases, or layers, of construction at Copán, each being built on top of the previous.  The final phase dated from AD 650 to 820.  In many cases the previous structure was destroyed before building the next - but that wasn't always the case.  The layers of buried ruins underneath the visible ruins are now being explored by means of underground tunnels, of which 2 are open to the public.  The exquisite Rosalila Temple was discovered this way - intact - and a full size replica is now the focal point in the onsite Museum of Sculpture.  This museum also houses some of the original pieces to protect them from the environment; reproductions have replaced the originals outdoors and are placed in the exact location where they were originally erected.  Excavations are continuing and new, exciting discoveries are still being made.  Remember, this IS Central America and these things take time  .   .   .

View Copán Ruins Slide Show

We made a return trip to Copán in January 2008.  In addition to the above ruins, we visited the secondary ruins of Las Sepulturas, the elite residential area.  We also visited Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve, a pretty forested area where rescued and donated macaws, toucans and parrots live in the open and where you can hold them.  This trip update can be read at Copán Maya Ruins '08 on Pictures/Journal page 29. 

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We made another trip to Copán in January 2008.  We used the same English-speaking ruins park guide I had in 2006 and would recommend him (although I'm sure any "official" park guide would be fine):  Cesar Aquinp, cell (504) 975-2130,  Visiting the secondary ruins of Las Sepulturas is worth it if you have time; a ruin digger became our unofficial guide and in Spanglish helped us make sense of the structures and layouts, and not miss some of the great carvings.

We stayed at Hotel Acropolis Maya and can recommend: tel (504) 651-4634, $40 or $45/night.  In 2006, I had stayed at Hotel Plaza Copán, with pool and  more expensive, also nice.  We hear that La Casa de Cafe is very nice but they were full. 

A half-day outing (less than a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride from town) to Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve is recommended where you can hold a half-dozen macaws, parrots, toucans, etc. at once (don't forget your camera).  Lunch at their restaurant over the creek is pleasant but the food was ordinary and overpriced for what we got, and/or sample their good home-grown 'n' processed Miramundo coffee at their separate cafe.

Recommended restaurants:  Carnitas Nia Lola (grilled meats/chicken), Copán Pizza, Twisted Tanya, and Xibalba Pub for their "Full Monte" breakfast was great.  We also hear from others that C. Momos and La Casa de Todo are also good.  (Jan. 2008)

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A pleasant 3-hour bus ride from the Rio Dulce through peaceful countryside puts us on the lake island of Flores in the northern part of Guatemala.  It is an hour ride from there to Tikal Park.

Based on friends' recommendations, we spend the first and last nights in Flores; then 3 days/ 2 nights in Tikal Park.  This gave us time to explore Tikal without being too rushed or too exhausted.  If you stay on the park grounds as we did, you are able to be in the ruins area before and after park hours, as long as you have a guide accompanying you.  This not only allowed us to experience Tikal when tourist are few and wildlife is most active, but also see the full moon rise, sunrise and sunset from the tops of pyramids with just the eerie sounds of nature surrounding us in complete darkness, as the ancient Maya may have done.  Simply magical.

Over our 3 days at Tikal, we walked many miles each day and climbed at least 7 pyramids.  Although it is rainy season we only saw rain late one afternoon for an hour. 

SIGNIFICANCE:   Tikal, located deep in the jungle, is known for its grandeur.  The sheer size of this ancient Maya city is mind-boggling.  Tikal National Park, the first such park in Central America, covers 222 sq. mi..  Infrared imaging reveals 10,000 structures.  Central Tikal contains 4,000 separate constructions in a 6 sq. mi. area, of which probably half this area is open to visitors. 

At its peak Tikal had a population of 150,000.  Tikal became the prime city of the Maya people populating the Yucatan Peninsula.  Evidence indicates that civilization existed at Tikal from 700 BC to AD 900 when it collapsed for no apparent reason.  It's existence coincides with that of Copán.   Most of the visible construction at Tikal dates from AD 550 - 900.



HISTORY:  The Maya settled this area around 700 BC.  Tikal is set on a low hill, possibly to get relief from the surrounding swampy area.  Also, flint is in abundance here, the principal material from which tools and hunting weapons were made.

Around AD 250 Tikal had become an important religious, cultural and commercial city with a large population.  Under King Yax Moch Xoc, the dynasty that would rule Tikal thereafter began.  In the mid-4th century, Tikal adopted a new and brutal method of warfare used by the rulers of Teotihuacán in Mexico.  Instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat, support units would surround the enemy and throw spears from a distance to kill them - the first use of "air power".  This enabled Tikal to conquer an adjacent civilization to become the dominant kingdom in El Petén.  Tikal suffered in the 6th century when it was defeated by another king using their own warfare methods.

In the late 600's, the very popular King Moon Double Comb, also called Lord Chocolate, restored Tikal's military power and its dominate position in the Maya world.  He and his successors were responsible for building most of the magnificent pyramids and temples around the Gran Plaza.  Moon Double Comb was buried beneath the majestic Temple I.  As with other Mayan civilizations, Tikal also mysteriously collapsed around 900.

In modern history, Tikal was explored in 1848, and again in 1877.  It was completely overgrown with dense jungle, which had to be cut away first before any excavation could begin.  Scientific research began in earnest in 1881.  Today, excavations are continuing.  It is estimated that it would take 20 years of heavy work to uncover the mapped surface-situated structures in central Tikal alone, and a 100 years to find out what underlies just these structures.


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If you're planning a trip to Tikal, check out our Tikal Trip Recommendations which includes information and prices on recommended lodging and transportation, logistics and trip tips in general.

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DECEMBER 21, 2012:   This marks the end of the Maya Long Count calendar and the Maya believed that the world would come to an end on this day.  This happens to also be the winter solstice, and furthermore the path of the sun (ecliptic) crosses the Equator of the Milky Way - an event not to be repeated for eons.  It is remarkable how they could precisely predict this so far in the future.  In short, the Maya Long Count calendar begins on August 11, 3114 BC  (converted to Gregorian calendar).  Related to certain astronomical cycles, and based upon nested cycles of days multiplied at each level by that key Mayan number "20", the Great Cycle is 5,125.36 years long, ending on December 21, 2012.  Today, this calendar is still followed by Mayas in the Guatemalan highlands.




Just over an hour's drive from the Rio Dulce are the Quiriguá ruins set in a beautifully maintained, tropical park atmosphere.  Compared to Copán and Tikal, this ruin area is very small so it can be seen in a short day trip. 

SIGNIFICANCE:  Quiriguá is known for its very tall and intricately carved stelae - huge tombstone-type things - the largest known in the Mayan world.  The largest measures 36 feet (26 ft. above ground and about 10 ft. below ground) and weighs approximately 130,000 pounds.  There is an acropolis but it is insignificant compared to Tikal's or Copán's.

HISTORY:  Quiriguá is situated close to the Rio Motagua with its large beds of brown sandstone, making it possible to garner huge blocks for carving stelae.  Sandstone is soft when initially cut, but becomes hard as it dries.  Quiriguá was a dependent of nearby Copán during much of the Classic period (AD 200-1000) and thus had use of their expert artisans for guidance.  Eventually Cauac Sky became Quiriguá's leader, decided to become independent of Copán (that's when Copán's 18 Rabbit was beheaded), and began commissioning stonework.  For 38 years Quiriguá's stonecutters turned out huge stelae and zoomorphs (animal-creatures).  Seven of the stelae are of Cauac Sky, including the tallest.

The stelae are carved with the rulers' images.  Of special note on the stelae here are the headdresses, the goatees (which is unique), the staffs of office held in the rulers' hands, and the hieroglyphics on the sides of the stelae chronicling his life and achievements.  There are also zoomorphs depicting frogs, tortoises, jaguars, serpents as well as mythological creatures.  An Asian influence can be seen attesting to their probable cultural presence thousands of years ago.

Quiriguá was initially discovered in 1840; excavations began in the late 1800's; in early 1900's the land around it was sold to United Fruit Company (Chiquita) so it is surrounded today by banana plantations.  It is one of the three Unesco World Heritage Sites in Guatemala, the others being Tikal and Antigua.

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A group of us from the Rio Dulce hired a reasonably priced private van from Otitours in Fronteras.  The drive was a little over an hour.  If you stretch it, you can spend 3 hours at the ruins, so this is an easy day trip.  We understand you can also grab a bus to get you to the area, then find a cab or take a long walk to the ruins.  There is a small cafe at the site (we didn't eat there).  This would be a good place to bring a picnic lunch as there are picnic tables and the grounds are lovely.  (Jan. 2008)

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