Considering the highlands…
The Guatemala Highlands portion of this wonderful, epic trip began with Antigua’s marvelous climate and colonial architecture framing this very special start to the trip. The bookend to this start was PreClassic Maya El Mirador with its massive architecture set in the jungles of the Peten.
The plan for this return trip to Guatemala was really centered around things we missed on the first trip in 2014 which focused on the Maya Lowlands. First and foremost was the colonial Capital of Central America, next the Maya Highlands at the time of the Conquest, followed by the archaeologically important Pacific Piedmont and South Coastal Plain. This area had early Formative populations, important PreClassic monumental construction, the confluence of Olmec and Maya cultural interactions and extensive contact with Central Mexico related to cotton and cacao production.
This portion of the trip was led by Francisco (Paco) Casteñeda. Much of the content was laid out by Dr. Brent Woodfill, including our first speaker, Dr. Ruud Van Akkeren, our host to the Cofradia visits in Santiago Atitlan, Dr. Arthur Demarest’s presentations in Iximche and San Andres Semetabaj, and Director Dr. Christa Schieber discussing her research at the important site of Takalik Abaj. Stops along the transit of the South Coast included a stop at the airport in Retalhuleu (where the US launched the attack on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs), Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa (Museum/El Baul/Bilbao) one of the most the important sites of southern Guatemala and the “Fat Boy” monuments in the plaza of La Democracia. Returning to Guatemala City we visited the marvelous Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, the Museo Popol Vuh and Kaminaljuyu.
Considering the lowlands…
This portion of the trip was designed to get us to El Mirador. But we made a few stops along the way (Quirigua to stretch our legs enroute) and Tikal (because you simply have to…). At Tikal our guide, Dr. Brent Woodfill, focused on the Mundo Perdido and Plaza of the Seven Temples sections of the site and took us a side trip to Uaxactun (another bucket list priority)
Our off-the-grid experience on this trip took us to the Estacion Biologica Las Guacamayas, a former Scarlet Macaw research station overlooking the Rio San Pedro and marshlands (spectacular ecosystem including some of the very few remaining macaws in the Peten). From there we transited to El Peru-Waka where MSM Board Consultant, Dr. Michelle Rich (who helped us frame this site visit) did seminal research including excavation of the Ritual Resurrection Scene related to the ritual life of the Ancient Maya. The ride into the site via four-wheel drive vehicles was rough, but a good example of how research teams accessed remote locations. El Peru is a spectacular site located between the warring Kingdoms of Tikal and Calamul. Waka played a key role with each of these entities including La Entrada references to Tikal, and later Calakmul’s political dominance documenting the rulership of Lady Kabal (whose tomb was excavated by MSM speaker Dr. Oliva Navarro-Farr). On the boat ride out we saw a truly massive Cayman measuring well in excess of 4 meters in length.
Returning to Flores we split into two groups for visits to Yaxha and El Mirador. After a short boat ride on the beautiful Laguna Yaxha we arrived at the site and climbed the causeway to the third largest reconstructed ancient city in Guatemala with its beautifully reconstructed plazas, causeways, and over 500 structures. Both the setting and architecture of the site are beautiful.
The visit to El Mirador started with an early morning helicopter flight from Flores, passing over the similarly impressive PreClassic cities of Tintal and Nakbe. Highlights of the visit were the sheer immensity of construction and the restored friezes. Climbing the La Danta Pyramid allowed for special views during our picnic lunch. As tall as this building is, it is only the building on top of a man-made platform that measures approximately 180,000 square meters and has a volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters. The construction of this plaza complex is staggering to comprehend. And this is only one of three major plazas on the site. The political organization, engineering, and labor to build this city in the Early PreClassic period was very complex. While we did not enter the bajo agricultural areas surrounding the monumental construction, they were “visible” from the helicopter and the top of La Danta. The bajos sustained this city and the environmental collapse of this agricultural system is probably linked to the decline of El Mirador.
(Please note that the Maya Society MN has hosted lectures by Dr. Bruce Dahlin, the first site director beginning in 1978 and Dr. Richard Hansen, site director since 2003.)
On the return trip to Guatemala City we stopped at the Spanish fortress of the Castillo de San Felipe at the entrance of Lago Izabal into the Rio Dulce. We also briefly stopped at the El Chayal obsidian deposit near Guatemala City. El Chayal was the principal obsidian mine for Kaminaljuyu (my nicest rocks were confiscated by Guatemalan Customs agents at the La Aurora Airport as I was leaving the country).