To Flores, Sayaxche, Ceibal, and the Petexbatun Lodge

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Maya Info

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SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2000. The next morning, the alarm rang awfully early. Bea, who has no intention of being mistaken for a “morning” person, let me stumble around first, as would be our habit. When we arrived at the breakfast table, Greg was there, and we swapped big hugs all around. Greg’s luggage, however, was someplace else. Fortunately, Al loaned Greg enough t-shirts and socks to permit him to be tolerable company until he was reunited with his suitcase.

Our flight out was delayed a bit, not a particularly uncommon event. The flight to Flores, near Tikal, was uneventful. Most of the ground was hidden by cloud cover until we were very near Flores. This was my fifth trip to the Tikal area. Landing at the small airport alongside the Laguna Peten Itza was a bit of a homecoming. At the airport, we loaded onto a comfortable bus to make the trip to Sayaxche and the Rio Pasion. Along the way, we were stopped at a police check-point. There was some comment that I overheard that the police had only had one day to prepare for our arrival – a comment I didn’t understand at the time. Since my last visit in January, a substantial portion of the road between Santa Elena and Sayaxche had been paved. In what seemed like no time, we were on the banks of the Rio Pasion preparing to take a boat across to the town on the other side.

There, we climbed into big 4-wheel drive open utility trucks to ride into Ceibal by the rough back road. When I had visited Ceibal in January, we had taken the small boats up and down the Rio Pasion – a beautiful trip, but one that took all day. We wanted to visit the site of Ceibal, return to Sayaxche, then take a boat up the Petexbatun River to our rooms at the Petexbatun Lodge. So the trucks made more sense. We picked up a police escort – three young men with their own 4-wheel drive vehicle. After a bit of bouncing and jostling, we arrived at the Ceibal visitor center near the main part of the site. (Arriving by boat, you hike in about a mile uphill before you reach the most remote portion of the site. The trek is beautiful, but tiring). At the entrance were replicas of some of the stelae, so our “glyphing” practice started immediately. Kathryn and Marco Antonio unpacked a wonderful picnic lunch for us. Then it was off to explore the site!

Ceibal was the site that I had raved about so because of its jungly atmosphere, huge palm leaves, and enormous ceiba trees, for which the site was named. Nick and Kathryn’s tour book offered good maps of the site and drawings of some of the more important stelae. Although Ceibal was occupied as early as 900 B.C., it peaked in about 200 B.C. and was abandoned around 300 A.D. It was then repopulated in the Late Classic period, around 650 A.D. The buildings and stelae that are now visible are quite late in relative history, mostly dating after 800 A.D. The inscriptions have square cartouches, speech scrolls, and other style features more reminiscent of Central Mexico than the typical Late-Classic Maya.

As we arrived at the main plaza area, a group of Maya were there conducting a shamanistic ceremony. They were burning copal incense and deliberately-placed, colored candles. Someone noted that all of the women involved in the ceremony were pregnant. After their ceremony, they had lunch near-by, then began collecting leaves of the native cilantro that was growing all over the plaza. We explored the site. Kathryn and Nick worked through the dates and basic texts of a number of the stelae. At one, Nick was showing the Maya families how to see the image in the eroded stone using the pictures he had in his book to aid his explanation. It was a delightful exchange.

From there, we ventured down some steep steps, past some other stelae, down a long causeway through the jungle to the ballcourt and on to the round pyramid. The round pyramid again echoed Central Mexican themes, where the round temples are usually attributed to the Wind God. I’m not clear whether this structure was as late as the stelae in Group A or not. From there, we headed back to the visitor center.

For our return trip, our police escorts invited some of us to ride back with them. I did, and had an interesting chat with the three young men. Apparently there had been recent assaults on tourists in the area, so small groups of armed federal police were being assigned to accompany tourists into the more vulnerable areas. That was why there had been the distress that they had only received one day notice that we were coming. I had a map of Guatemala with me and got each of the young men to show me where their homes were. Ronald Osberto Ramirez Monton was from the Highlands, El Carmen, Melacantan, San Marcos, not far from Huehuetenango. Alberto Antonio Nova, the driver and senior member of the squad, was from Aguablanca, near Esquipulas. The young man in the front seat, Leonel Enrique Garcia Luna, was the only Petenero, from Santa Ana, just south of Flores. Though I did not get further details, they apparently serve two-year tours of duty and only get home a couple times a year. On the way back, they had to stop by the station. It was almost a half hour before I was reunited with my travel comrades. I was having a fine time, but they were a bit worried about me.

We loaded into our little thatch-roofed boat, then, and headed up the Rio Petexbatun to the Petexbatun Lodge. The river trip was lovely. My new set of binoculars got plenty of use! Much of the shoreline had been cleared and developed for cattle-raising. The magnificent jungle was long gone here, but there were still plenty of waterbirds, parrots, and hawks. Along the way, we passed the camp-like Posada Carribe where I had stayed in January. Then the river widened out into the vast Laguna Petexbatun. It was wonderfully quiet and serene. Almost too quickly, we arrived at the steps up to the Petexbatun Lodge, hidden in the jungle foliage on a high knoll overlooking the lake. The dining area was a lovely thatch-roof open structure with an efficient kitchen off to one side. The native landscaping made the walk from the rooms to the dining area seem like an exotic adventure. Our rooms were spacious thatch-roof cottages with lots of windows, beautiful wood floors, and elaborate bathrooms with sunken tubs. A covered porch with inviting hammocks was surprisingly close to the gently lapping waves of the Laguna. The only minus was the lack of hot water. Oh, well. Otherwise, it was quite close to paradise.

I managed a hasty cold-water shower. Dinner was delicious! – and artfully served. After beer and wine, full bellies and a very full day, we headed for bed.