Wednesday, August 26, 2009


dleivathis photo courtesy of dleiva at flickr

I'm pretty sure this place, YaXha, will be at the top of my favorite ruins list no matter how many I end up visiting. A knowledgeable local sent us here. Our guide at Tikal reminded us that the 2005 TV series, Survivor Guatemala was filmed at YaXha, and that he was featured on Day 25, or was it 27. It's also in the area preserved as part of the Mayan Biosphere, although I was sorry to see a bulldozer flattening everything, possibly for cattle pasture, right up to the perimeter.

Getting to YaXha from Tikal via public transportation (collectivo) was looking complicated, time-consuming and not without hassle, so we ended up in a taxi-van straightaway. After 75 kms, 11 of which were up a side road, we were glad we did. From our 'eco-lodge' it was another 45 minutes of walking up the hill to the site. Chak, the lodge's black Lab, who was well-known at the admission gate ("un perro muy noble"), proudly showed us the way. But when we got to the actual ruins, we found that he was 'our' dog, but not allowed in (he might chase monkeys!) So we scrounged a piece of rope, tied him outside the bathrooms and collected him on the way home.

YaXha is atop a hill between two lakes, the green one and the blue one, from whence it derives its name. In its time, it was connected by road (and, sometimes, political alliance) to Tikal and to other ruins even further in the jungle (which of course wasn't necessarily jungle then), and to other small unexcavated sites around the lakes. With maybe 40,000 people and 500 structures, it might have lacked Tikal's cosmopolitan flavor, but it does have, to my mind, the superior location.
216 lake view 2

I read somewhere that the restoration is only two years old, and privately funded by Deutschebank. Can't say if this is why there were reader boards about the architecture, with pictures of what each area might have looked like and small explanations about cultural matters, helpful even in Spanish.
The stairways are so nicely built, with rounded handrails, framed edges, plugged screws and consistently even treads, that when we got to the top of Temple 216 - the big one in the North Acropolis with the east-west view - we commented to the guard. He replied that some of the tourists were "muy gorda"- very fat.

In fact each area had a guard/docent who was willing, even eager (it was a quiet day and not each guard brought a transistor radio!) to talk, although maybe not particularly knowledgeable. They changed areas every 8 days, from the top of the temple to the ballcourt to the viewing stand in the treetops with the monkeys. Some days there are a hundred tourists, other days ten - you can't say the place is overrun!
Another point in YaXha's favor was that a lot of the undergrowth had been cleared, leaving big canopy trees with open spaces between them for that most comforting of landscapes, the feeling of shelter without claustrophobia.
Plus when the monkeys swing through, they're easier to see.

The 'eco-lodge' El Sombrero, on the lakefront beneath YaXha, is the only place to stay for miles, but it's nice, so no hardship.
The owner was away, we were the only guests, and even the staff left after dinner so we had the hotel, and probably the lake and the ruins, to ourselves, except for a couple dogs.
I thought how nice a swim in the lake would be; the 'danger of crocodiles' sign was one thing, but a huge crocodile skull on the ledge put teeth into the sign, you could say.
All the drinking water comes from the lake too, 'filtered'.

We were offered a ride back down the 11 km road to the highway, one at a time on the back of a motorcycle, but decided to walk instead. And before too too long we'd hitched the ride in the back of a pickup with a couple guys on their way somewhere with bowls of soaked corn. They were glad to know we had appreciated YaXha, but said we really should go to Naranja, 25 km past YaXha. That, they said, is 'el capital del jungle'.