Tikal

One of the very first Maya ruin we agreed we’d visit was Tikal. It is supposed to be one of the biggest, heighest, largest, bestest sites and we both had fond memories of playing the board game Tikal together. A game where you play a group of explorers that searches for pyramids and artefacts. The longer we thought about it, the more accurate the game seemed to us. You don’t see anything while walking through the jungle and have to just hope to stumble upon the next temple. The temples are excavated in layers, just like the Mayas built their temples in layers. The only minor inconsistency is that the highest pyramids in the board game have ten stories, while everyone knows that Mayan temples only have nine levels (same as the underworld in their beliefs).

We had been warned about a lot of things for Tikal: It’s gonna be overrun by tourists, it will be way too hot, it’s too large you’ll get lost, the weather is too bad, you won’t see the sunrise and so on. People recommended us to leave at 4:30 for the sunrise, skip the sunrise and enjoy the ruins while you still could.. Unfortunately that didn’t quite align with our natural laziness and we, instead, to take the 9:00am bus. And it was absolutely fine, I don’t know if we got very lucky or if it’s just not as full but we barely saw a handful of people in the ruins and it didn’t really get hot either as the sky was quite covered.


Tikal, as a big tourist attraction, is unfortunately also rather inapproachable. Out of the 10000 buildings of Tikal, about 350 have been excavated, two of which can be accessed by tourists. One of these two is the highest pyramid in Tikal with about 66m in height and allows a view onto all of Tikal.. if it wasn’t for the forest. Barely three of the thousands of temples manage to have their roof comb peak through the canopy of the forest. It was built by Yik’in around 750AD. He also built or changed almost everything else in the city. He is credited with modifying the city layout in such a way, that it actually became defensible and the city was never conquered after these changes. That being said, the last stelae was erected in 869 and the city abandoned before the tenth century so there wasn’t all that much time in which they could’ve been conquered left either.


Yik’in’s tomb remains a bit of a mystery with our tour guide books basically offering three opinions on where and why he’s buried. His tomb remains undiscovered to this day, but there are apparently archaeologists digging into this, highest, pyramid to find his tomb.. Which might prove completely fruitless if the tomb is actually in a tiny, unfinished, unimportant pyramid on the grand plaza, as my guide book claimed.
The grand plaza was truly amazing to see and hosts the second accessible pyramid from which you can have a bird’s eye view of the remaining pyramids. The northern part of the plaza is covered in small pyramids since, apparently, every king wanted to be buried there. This lead to numerous problems and ‘extensions’ to create room.. which, I think, overwhelmed also the archaeologists at time. At least that’s the only way I can explain names like “Temple 33-d5”.

There were two more plazas that we found interesting the first was the plaza of the seven temples, which, well, has seven temples on one side and, fascinatingly enough three parallel ball game setups on the other side. Each of these is aligned with a temple entrance on the opposite side.. While one seems to know a lot about the layout of the place, not a lot is known about the use.
The other place is called “lost world” and while I kind of expected dinosaurs to walk around, the place is not quite *that* old. The center is an astronomical pyramid built over the earliest version from 500BC. The current version must date back to somewhere around 400AD and apparently holds typical symbols from the Teotihuacan from central Mexico. We looked, but couldn’t really find these ‘obvious’ signs.

 

After so many nice plazas we decided that we should also stop at the East plaza even though it wasn’t on any of the official walk-throughs.. Well.. it turns out that’s for a reason. We saw one wall and decided that couldn’t be all of it and kept on moving. When we reached a sign saying “Group F” without any visible ruins at all, we admitted defeat.. I guess there was a reason this was not on the recommended walk-through of Tikal.

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Bonampak

Bonampak was part of the tour to Yaxchilan. But my sister didn’t want to write about it. So here I am again. She did definitely want to go there though. Bonampak is more or less the only place where you can find Mayan drawings. It is assumed that most, if not all Mayan cities were actually quite colorfully painted and that the empty stelae one can see in many of the sites aren’t ‘unfinished’ but used to be covered in stucco and painted over. Unfortunately it turns out that this kind of decoration really doesn’t persevere well and rain, wind and tourists have removed most of these decorations today. Therefore it is even more astonishing to see so much paint in one place. The rooms are not just ‘some paint left in the corner’, they’re pretty much completely covered in paintings.
The ruins themselves are not particularly interesting. Apart from the three houses housing the painted rooms, not much remains standing. A nice feature of the ruins is that they, in theory, let you see how the Mayas reused their buildings. Most of the Maya ruins one can see aren’t built in a single go. They start out with a small temple and then, 20 years later, they built a bigger one on top.. and 20 years later.. You get the idea.. So when the archaeologists first arrived, they dug into one of the ruins and found broken statues further down below. They left the hole open and put a net on top of it, so that tourists can have a look and catch a glimpse of the earlier temple under the current temple.. In practice that net is so full of leaves and dirt that nothing can be seen though.

p2017_08_20_15h54_21This means however that everyone coming to Bonampak heads straight for the paintings.. But the rooms are small and there’s only ever three people at once allowed inside. Even if there’s only about fifty people, lines form and you will have to wait your turn for each of the three rooms, with guards telling you what you’re not allowed to do. In particular a sign told us: Don’t glasses, don’t selfie and don’t cap… Which apparently is due to the fact that people kept losing their stuff when looking up. It’s good to see that tourists can’t even look at walls without screwing up.


The rooms themselves are awe-inspiring to a varying degree. I definitely had a big favorite in the third and last room which included rulers with some ridicules head-dresses.. I was expecting to see another mention of aliens, because they clearly looked like it. But no reference to extraterrestrials were made probably because Erich von Dänicken hasn’t been here yet.


My least favourite, probably also because it is the room in the worst condition, was the second room showing war prisoners and the ritual execution of a captive enemy ruler.
The final, or rather first, room is also very interesting to see. It is likely the scene of a new heir to the thrown being presented, there’s lots of dancing and music going on and it is an overall joyful scenario, contrary to the other two.

The tour in itself was pretty cool. We were excited for the ruins, but didn’t expect much in terms of included food or accommodation. However I had a really nice fish for lunch and the terrace of our room didn’t leave anything we could’ve possibly complained about. Judge for yourself:

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Yaxchilán

Soooo… I’m the history buff who is forcing her sister to visit all those horrible ruins and historic places, I am really sorry. As a compromise (or maybe punishment?) I now have to contribute to her blog. And I must say, it is so much easier to just send her the occasional photo, but I will try my best.

Before we made our way to Guatemala, we (well, let’s be honest… I did) decided to visit Yaxchilán, an almost forgotten Mayan city in the middle of the jungle and right next to the Usumacinta River. Well, it’s forgotten in certain parts of the world. The tribe of Lacandón, an indigenous people of this region still travel to Yaxchilán to honour their Mayan gods.

The ruins are only reachable by a 40min boat ride or a private airplane. Being on a budget, we opted for the first one.

My imagination ran wild. We were sure to see jaguars mauling a crocodile or the other way round. I’m fine either way, I might even throw a big snake into the mix. Monkeys would surely steal our cameras and take selfies and all the birds would just stop midflight for the perfect photo opportunity. Well…. no such luck. Though we did see crocodiles, howler monkeys and toucans, they weren’t really interacting with us and at least concerning the first one, I am actually quite glad they didn’t.

The jungle feeling on the other hand delivered. First of all, there are only a few tourists at Yaxchilán, because it is a bit harder to reach and although they have excavated quite a few buildings, most of them are still hidden away under hundred of years of forest growth. The great thing of lesser known Mayan ruins is that you get to play explorer. You can actually climb buildings, go into pyramids, get lost in labyrinths, only being able to find out by fleeing in terror from spooked bats flying out. So, that was pretty awesome. The jungle feeling lost a bit of its charm, when they started to mow the lawn, but hey, just tell yourself it’s a jaguar growling at you from the underwood.

Yaxchilán is famous for its hundreds of inscription filled sculptures. Apparently. But almost none of them are still at their original location. One didn’t make it to Mexico City, although they really tried very hard to. It is now described as followed at the site: „Following a failed attempt to take it to Mexico City […] and yet more misadventures on the Usumacinta River, it was returned“.

We had a few hours in the ruins and I would definitely recommend bringing a flashlight to discover hidden pathways and keep clear of giant spiders. We started with the little acropolis high upon a „mountain“, originally sporting a great view of the Great Plaza over a thousand years ago. Apparently Mayan acropoli never have to do with temples or religion, but are rather living quarters of the higher class. They are built above the rest of the town and since Mayans didn’t have horses or the wheel, we suspect that the nobles were carried up there in handheld palanquins, but we could only confirm that for a few of the kings in other cities. Unaware that the small Acropolis is linked to the great Acropolis, we went back down to the great Plaza, which is reached either boringly on top of or more excitingly through a maze of underground dark passages. And up, up, up we go to the great Acropolis, a huge building with an impressive roofcomb whose purpose we still haven’t found out.

My sister decided she didn’t get enough sun the last few weeks and went on to the temple of the sun further up the hill. I took advantage of the spare time and turned my eye to the tree tops and saw some easily identifiable toucans and some other birds.

Back on the boat we headed for Bonampak, a totally different experience, Mayan- and touristwise.

Palenque

From Merida we moved on to Chiapas and the Palenque ruins. The vegetation changed quite a bit and became more jungle like. The city itself is also older with the creation myth claiming the original ruler reigned something about 1000BC. Then, however, there’s no trace of another ruler until some 1500 years later, shedding just the tiniest bit of doubt on their creation myth. There is one exception “Casper I” who apparently reigned around 300BC. If you’re wondering why Casper seems to have such a European name, that’s because the archaeologists named all unknown rulers Casper.. Surprisingly the list contains only two Caspers, one of which is likely mythological.. The Mayans did enjoy documenting everything that happened.


The most famous building is the temple of inscriptions. The guide books go and on about how beautiful and unique the inscriptions are, only to reveal at the very end that tourists are no longer allowed to climb and view said inscriptions. One is however, still permitted to visit the woman’s tomb, probably the wife of the ruler buried in the temple of inscriptions, in the pyramid next door.

This tomb however does not have any kind of decorations, making it quite easy to take the scene it at the first sight. We would see (a replica of.. the original is in Mexico City like most interesting things found in Maya ruins) the sarcophagus of Pakal later on in the on-site museum, which is absolutely worth a visit! The sarcophagus alone weighs 20 tons and is absolutely huge. Some people live in rooms smaller than that sarcophagus. The decorations on it are incredibly well preserved and show his ancestors with corn, symbolizing their possible rebirth. Or, of course, according to our good friend Erich von Däniken, it’s an alien astronaut. Everything is aliens according to him.

Apart from the temple of inscriptions Palenque is very accessible, we got to climb around almost all the ruins to our hearts desire and especially in the palace we got lost more than once. I’m almost certain we managed to see all the rooms though! One thing that stood out in the palace was the roman tower. It looked so much like a European medival church tower, that we had to check four to five times that it wasn’t added by the discoverers. But it is definitely part of the original palace and was probably used for astronomical observations.


Southwest of the palace lies the ‘group of the cross’. The group features three temples dedicated to each of the three founding deities of the city god one, god two and god three as their names are unknown as well. It took us a while to figure out that GI, GII and GIII aren’t actually Mayan names, just abbreviations. The temples were built in form of symbolic steam baths, which were the place of labor and birth. Thereby the temples symbolically became the place of birth of these gods.


The name “group of the cross” stems from one of the reliefs which shows the world tree in a cross shape inside one of the temples. Unfortunately, access doesn’t necessarily guarantee understanding and while we saw the reliefs, I’m really not quite sure which of them was the one with the cross in it. We decided to call it the group of the cross because of the fascinating stone criss-cross on top of the temples. We tried to figure out the ‘deeper meaning’ but we’re not sure there is any.

Uxmal – Merida

The next day we decided to go to Uxmal, another Maya ruin close to Yucatan’s capital Merida. It has slightly less visitors and the little guide book we bought describes it as the most beautiful ruin city in Yucatan. The little book did like to use a lot of superlatives. To quote “It possesses some of the best examples of Classic architecture. […] A few of these monuments have been skilfully reconstructed by expert archaeologists to […] how they looked in their day of glory.” It did however contain a lot of useful information about the ruins itself and their history and was a great buy. Unfortunately it hasn’t been reworked in a while, so it ended up being quite a teaser, describing in exhaustive detail the amazing things to be observed inside the pyramid of the Magician, which is no longer accessible to tourists. The pyramid of the Magician remains an interesting building as it is the only pyramid with rounded corners.

The next stop was the nunnery. Mayan nunneries are like khmer liberaries: Nobody knows what the use of the buildings were and they just picked a word and stuck with it. Therefore any Mayan building with a larger number of rooms is called a nunnery. In this particular case there were four such buildings arranged around a square with absolutely stupendous and well preserved decorations on every front.

The little booklet helped us understand that while these buildings are typical Puuc style, some foreign elements were introduced later. The decorations included the traditional references to the rain god with it’s elephant-nose, geometric decorations and some minor figurines. Later on, after the cult of the feathered serpent reached also Uxmal, some things were added to the Puuc decorations, like a big serpent or, apparently the “sexual features” on some of the figures which are not Maya.

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The book went also into details on how to separate the two different Maya building styles present in Uxmal: Chenes and Puuc, but to be perfectly honest we were not quite able to make out the difference. The only ‘pure’ Chenes building we saw in Uxmal was the entrance door on top of the Pyramid of the magician. Maybe some of it wa also lost in translation.. The Puuc style completely covered the building in decorations while the Chenes style adorned the building in decorations entirely.. We weren’t quite sure where the difference is. In either case oth were very pretty and often they were mixed in the same building, which didn’t facilitate the differentiation.

From the nunnery we walked out to see the standard buildings that seem to exist in almost every Mayan ruin: The mandatory ball court, the second pyramid, the emperor’s palace and what was announced as a second nunnery but really turned out to be just a single wall left standing.. There was supposedly a second wall on the opposite side. But we couldn’t figure out which direction it was supposed to be in. I suppose there wasn’t much left of it.

We happened to be in Merida at the right time to watch a game of Pok-ta-pok in the city center. It’s on every Friday evening if you want to see it too. It was nice to get an idea of how the game would usually be played, even though I suspect that the life or death games the Mayas used to (probably) play had people that were a bit more accustomed to playing the game. Because the game wasn’t fascinating enough, they decided to light the ball on fire after a while. But, to even things out, you were then allowed to touch it with your hands.. As if you would want to!

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Maya ruins in Yucatan and we’d been looking forward to visiting them. What we didn’t look forward to was the expected millions of tourists occupying the place. Being the most famous ruin doesn’t come without some drawbacks.

We decided to go very early in the morning in order to beat the crowds and the heat. The heat wasn’t really going anywhere but when we arrived the place was still relatively empty. We started walking around the place and quickly learned that Chichen Itza is maybe not the ideal Maya ruin to start your Maya-journey with. Built towards the end of the classic area, it tried to reclaim the faithful following of their subordinates by introducing a new god coming from Northern Mexico: Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.

This, however, wasn’t a huge success because this got demands frequent human sacrifices and somehow many people didn’t really love the idea of them or their next of kin being sacrificed. So Chichen Itza couldn’t return to its days of glory with this move.
It has however left its marks on the buildings and architecture. Many of which show influences of the Northern tribes that moved here after 987. Since this was the first larger Maya ruin we visited the difference to the traditional Mayan style wasn’t apparent to us.


The site itself has been almost completely restored. You can start to imagine what it must have looked like during Maya times, and then your guide tells you that back in the days it was all paved, no grass.. So it must’ve looked very different after all.Chichen Itza impresses first and foremost by its size, the buildings are huge and imposing. The area is quite extensive and you will walk around for hours without repeating your steps. From the Southern group (which includes the only round astronomy observatory known in Maya architecture) to the holy cenote in the north it’s an easy 2km. It was believed that the holy cenote held the rain god Chac and the priests would visit the cenote to pray for rain and to sacrifice young boys. From east to west the site measures about 400m

Upon exiting the site we saw the amount of people that had accumulated in front of the entrance waiting to be let in. I can imagine that Chichen Itza gets very full in the afternoons and we were definitely be happy to have done it in the morning.

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Ek Balam

Ek Balam is an ancient Maya ruin. Not much seems to be known about the site since many of the buildings carry descriptive titles such as “structure 2” or “structure 18”. The outer walls are still quite easily recognized as are the remains of the ball court, but the hoops are gone. The single most interesting building is the pyramid at the very back of the site. After the original builder died he was buried in the pyramid. His son then went ahead and put what he considered a modern facade over the old original one. Of that new modern facade nothing remains, but it did protect the old decorations from the damage of time.

This means that you can now see quite a few nicely preserved reliefs. Or you could if they weren’t busy restoring it and have put up some big structures to do so. We couldn’t see the figures at the top very well, as they were hidden from view. But we did watch the people working on the reliefs scraping, gluing and fixing the tiny, invisible tears before they could become visible.

 

Goodbye Bolivia, hello Mexico

I am both sad and happy to move on. Sad that I’m leaving Bolivia behind and happy for the new adventures waiting for me. The switch from Bolivia to Mexico, however, has been hard.. Going from comfy, dry 15-20 degrees to 100% humidity and 33 degrees has been a bit of a challenge. My skin also doesn’t seem to be made for that much sun, the first bottles of sun screen have already been emptied. But I’m getting there.


It doesn’t help that we arrived just shortly after a tropical storm which raised the humidity to a whole new level. But we’re coping and slowly acclimatizing..
The first few days we stayed in Tulum, a little touristy town a few km’s from Cancun with pretty beaches (even though they’re covered in debris from the storm at the moment) a Maya fortress and cenotes, waterholes in cave like settings.We did it all of course. The Maya fortress was originally overshadowed by something completely unexpected: A huge iguana at the entrance.. and then another and another.. until we stopped looking at them at all because they’re quite literally everywhere. We did also spot a coati to my sister’s delight. The ruins, themselves, are quite run down. There’s only a few walls standing and almost none of the decorations remain. It is, because of the closeness to the city also a very overrun place. Tourists from town flock to it and you’ll be alone among thousands.

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But since the area is quite large one can still get the occasional tourist free glimpse and it is, after all, the only Maya fortress built next to the Sea making it quite unique.

From the touristy Maya ruin we went to a touristy cenote, but they all seem to be. Most of the ones we could reach by bike or public transport seemed to charge entry fees. We ended up picking one that was reasonably close so that we could go there by bike. The gran cenote consists of two such “holes” connected by a cave in which you can swim. As well as a second cave on the opposite side. In it live several types of fish and turtles, though I highly suspect that the turtles have been put there by the people managing the cenote. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the cenote is absolutely pretty, the water changes color from dark blue to turquoise and there are birds and bats flying in and out of the caves.. Or at least that’s my best bet since I wasn’t wearing my glasses.. I guess it could also have been witches and vampires.

The next day we went about an hour south to visit the national reserve of Sian Ka’an, where we marveled at the turquoise water once more,  swam in it and watched turtles, dolphins and the reef..

Pico Austria

 

All good things must come to an end and so, as well, must my stay in Bolivia. I have loved almost every minute of it (maybe I didn’t love every minute of that night in the bus or the moment my phone got stolen) and I wanted to find something to do on my last day that be a fitting end to my trip. It was quite clear that it should relate to mountains and I originally had my mind set on the valle de los animas. Once again, it failed because I was by myself and these tours aren’t done for one person.

I did find a lovely alternative though: The pico austria.. a small mountain, only 5300m high. The tour would lead past the laguna khota chiar before turning left and straight up the mountain. I booked with an agency that had a reputation for being unreliable in their timing, but figured it wouldn’t matter.. When the tour guide still hadn’t turned up at my hotel an hour after we initially agreed I started to regret my decision. However, they appeared shortly after and we set off.. Thus started the second hike in South America that only began after noon.


As I later found out the delay wasn’t entirely the companies fault. One of the other people that shared transport with me arrived an hour late. They did, however, wait 45min before calling his hotel and asking if he would show at all.

The hike itself was everything I had hoped for. High mountains, nice views. A lagoon and a lovely little peak that allowed the outlook over the altiplano all the way to lake titicaca. It’s by no means the highest mountain around there, since you can also see the Huayna Potosi once you get a bit higher but it is adorable. It also showed me that now, on my last day, it seems I’m finally acclimatized and can walk up mountains without needing constant breaks. Of course, I’m leaving now to go to the beaches.

Sajama national park

Sajama had been on my list for a long time.. It does have the draw back that reaching is a bit of a pain. After my night in the bus in Mairana I was not eager to experiment with local transport anymore. So instead I tried to get an organized tour from La Paz. As so often, though, tours only leave with a minimum of two people and I am only one person (though I might be as tall as two Bolivians >.>) So after a couple of fruitless efforts (I did find an agency that would’ve taken me by myself, but they had no guide available. I did also find an agency that was taking a group around the dates I wanted to go, but the group changed their mind and shifted the tour back by a week, making it impossible for me to attend), I decided to just risk it and do it the “backpacker” way.


Many blogs tell you how to reach Sajama: Take the bus from La Paz to Oruro at 8am, get off in Patacamaya and there find the one collectivo daily that leaves for Sajama between 10am and 12pm. Due to some timing issues I only managed to catch the 9am bus and I was sitting on hot coals the entire way to Patacamaya (roughly two hours). Would I make it? Will the collectivo have left? I arrived in Patacamaya and my worries were confirmed: The local taxi driver told me to catch the bus to Arica which will drop me off at the road fork and I’d need to walk the lost couple of kilometers. Now, according to the Bolivians it was a matter of 2-3km easily done in an hour. According to my map and the reports I’d read online it was about 12km at 4200m elevation, with a good 20kg of luggage on my back. So more 3 hours of walking than one.


As I was sitting there waiting for the bus to Arica, pondering how I could avoid walking in the dark, out of the blue, the collectivo to Sajama appeared. It was 2pm and I had long given up hope to find it. You just never know. Even better, the only free spot in the mini van was in the front: Perfect view AND a working seat belt. Score!

And the views were absolutely amazing. Maybe even more amazing than in the Sajama National Park. It was as if I was getting a summary of all that I had seen so far in Bolivia. The curled mountains, the canyons, the red stone, the lamas, the golden grass and all of it while riding a bus on a perfectly tarred road! After about two hours we reached the fork where we left the main road to drive towards Sajama village. Sajama itself is absolutely tiny and, of course, as we arrived, party preparations were being held. This time it didn’t come as a surprise, the next day was Bolivian Independence day!


My original plan had been to climb one of the numerous 6000m high mountains in Sajama, however a number of circumstances, including the fact that I ended up being slightly sick, made me change my plans. So, instead, I went to the “laguna de los alturas” with a pair of Belgian guys. Apart from the fact that it was quite a steep climb, it was absolutely amazing. I ended up being so happy that I did the hike instead of climbing Acotango. The views were absolutely stunning, the country side varied quite drastically between the individual lagunas and we saw a bunch of Vizcachas.. These animals that are somehow half mouse, half squirrel and half kangaroo.

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The hike itself took us a good eight hours to complete, because we enjoyed the view at the third laguna so much. After climbing towards the first (of three) lagunas you lose the view onto Sajama, Bolivias highest mountain. You end up walking in a somewhat narrow valley, where the surrounding mountains hide much of the view. As you get higher you can see Parinacota and Pomerape reappear and when you reach the third laguna, there’s a break in the wall and you have a free view onto Sajama, which is even reflecting in the lake. We couldn’t get enough of the view and spent almost two hours there, just sitting and admiring.


This however meant that the final part of our hike ended up being a bit short. The hike, as we had organised it, started and ended at the geysers. (You can walk to the geysers from town, but this adds another 7km each way to your hike) The geysers are really just pods of boiling water appearing in the ground. They flow into a nearby river making for some lovely temperated pools in the river where one can bath. In a country that has chronic difficulties with providing hot showers, this soaking hot bath was an absolute dream. We didn’t want to leave. Luckily our driver was very understanding and didn’t even comment on the fact that we made him wait 45min just to take a bath.

 

And of course in the evening, I tried for the mandatory night time pictures. This time with moon!