In Guatemala discover ancient Maya culture in the lowland jungles and experience a bustling, contemporary Maya market in Chichicastenango, in the highlands.
A hike through Guatemala’s rainforests come with all the delights of lush jungle trails-- twittering birds, crescendo of cicadas and the guttural cries of howler monkeys--plus in Tikal and Yaxhá, insights into ancient Maya civilizations.
Once a major city, Tikal, Guatemala’s jewel, sprawls for 222-square miles. Lesser-known and smaller Yaxhá, a ceremonial site, remains mostly unexcavated.
Both sites are within El Petén, home of the 21,000-square km Maya Biosphere Reserve. In Tikal as well as Yaxhá, follow trails shaded by cedar, mahogany and towering ceiba trees. You might see toucans flying, spider monkeys jumping from limb to limb or hear the screeching of howler monkeys.
Despite hordes of visitors, Tikal, with its vast acreage, remains impressive. Yaxhá intrigues, not so much because of its excavated structures but because it’s off-the-beaten path enough to retain a dense, rainforest feel marred by relatively few visitors.
Tikal’s highlights are the Great Plaza, anchored by Temples I and II, as well as the 230.98-foot high Temple IV, the site’s tallest. Climb its wooden staircase and be rewarded by a panoramic view of the pyramids’ peaks rising from the thick, green forest canopy.
Yaxhá’s Temple 216, located in the East Acropolis, may look familiar. It was here that the cast of the television show “Survivor” met to decide who stayed and who was banished. For an entire season the cast schemed and struggled in Yaxhá’s steamy jungle.
Whether you visit Tikal or Yaxhá, expect much walking, whether or not you climb the temples. Carry more water than you think you’ll need, wear a hat and long sleeves plus consult your health provider about taking precautions against mosquitoes and malaria.
A good base for exploring both Tikal and Yaxhá is the Camino Real Tikal, Lake Peten Itza. The property offers a pool, comfortable rooms, reasonable rates and meals.
To witness a lively, modern Maya city, visit Chichicastenango, dubbed “Chichi” for short on either a Thursday or a Sunday. That’s when hundreds of Maya vendors from all over Guatemala sell their wares.
Shopping here is not for the timid. You must elbow your way through crowds and dissuade Guatemalan women who will trail after you, hawking their hand-woven scarves and wall hangings. That said, there are bargains on tablecloths, linens, leather belts and much more. Besides, Chichi is fun, part of Guatemala’s living Maya culture.