Takalik Abaj: Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

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While Tikal represents the height of Mayan civilization, Takalik Abaj represents the source. One of the most ancient and significant of all Mayan sites in Guatemala, Takalik Abaj lies only five hours from Lake Atitlan and two hours from Xela.

An eagle altar at Takalik Abaj, a set of Mayan and Olmec ruins in Guatemala.

Takalik Abaj is the site of one of Mesoamerica’s largest ball courts, which was connected with wide streets to nearby areas where more than 83 structures and 300 sculpted monuments are found.

This well-kept archaeological park, in a secluded subtropical forest setting with mysterious Olmec and Mayan sculptures, stelae, pyramids and altars, is infrequently visited. With few tourists visiting the park, you will probably have the site to yourself most of the day.

Tak'alik Ab'aj, the site’s name in Ki’che’, means “standing stone." First inhabited as early as 1250 BC, it is one of few Mesoamerican communities that began as Olmec and transitioned to Maya. The oldest known Mayan royal tomb, that of the Vulture Lord, was discovered at Takalik Abaj in 2012. Another royal tomb had already been excavated.

At Takalik Abaj, this stone head depicts a snake on this side, a crocodile on the other.

Excavation and restoration continues seven days a week at Takalik Abaj, the only archaeological dig here that is funded solely by Guatemala, not universities from other countries. The work is overseen by Guatemalan archaeologists Miguel Orrego Corzo and Christa Schieber de Lavarreda, Directors of the Proyecto Nacional Tak'alik Ab'aj.

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Birthplace of Mayan Culture

An ancient stele and altar at the Mayan and Olmec ruins of akalik Abaj in Guatemala.A merchant-oriented city situated on a major trade route that ran from La Venta through Izapa in Mexico as far south as El Salvador and up to Lake Atitlan and Kaminalhuyu, Takalik Abaj is the home of the earliest known Mayan kings and queens.

The oldest known Mayan royal tomb – that of the Vulture Lord – which dates back 2,500 years, was discovered in 2013.

Another had already been found. And contemporary Maya still perform ceremonies at altars like the one shown here.

Scientists now say that Mayan art, hieroglyphs and even the pyramid may have originated in this area. The most stunning Mayan jade masks from Guatemala were made here and can be seen at a museum in the capital.

Guatemalan archaeologist Marion Popenoe-Hatch says that the astronomical observatory “… shows that this site played an important role in the development of the Maya calendar…it is evident that Takalik Abaj was in close contact with other Maya sites in order to compare lunar, stellar and solar movements for weather prediction and other calendrical purposes."

Animal Refuge

Kids will love the shaded animal refuge, with homes for exotic wildlife and birds native to the area.

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The Cave and River

Near the center of El Asintal, the closest town to the park, the entrance to a riverside cave leads to another attraction with a free guided tour. Bats flit between two tunnels in the back, and spring water trickles from the ceiling and out the entrance. This hike takes two hours round trip, with some time inside the cave.

Ten minutes down the hill, you can enjoy the gurgling Rio Nil, which means “the place where sacred things come down from.” It’s a wide stream with smooth boulders, and makes a great place to relax and truly get back to nature, far from the usual crowd of tourists.

Lodging

Hotel Suarez in El Asintal, close to the site, has huge rooms and beds, cable TV, ceiling fans and private bath. Singles cost Q80. There are no restaurants in town, just a few very cheap comedores.

For more upscale lodging and dining, stay in Reutahulheu, fifteen minutes from the park. Hotel Quinta is next to the park and includes free breakfast. There is regular bus service to the archaeological park from the market in Reu (RAY-oo) as it’s called. Colectivos are another option.

The site, just a four- or five-hour drive from Antigua or Panajachel, makes a good day trip. Tapachula, Mexico, an hour north, is home of the Olmec-Maya ruins of Izapa, so Takalik Abaj could be included at the end of three-night trip to Tapachula.

Hours and Entrance Fee

The park is open daily from 7 AM-4 or 5 PM. Cost: Q5 for nationals, Q50 for foreigners. Tour included (Spanish only).

Text by Shay Addams © 2014-2015
Photo Credits: Sherrie Locke © 2014-2015

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