Exploring the Americas' first great city-states
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Guatemala.
It's not easy to reach the most massive pyramid in the world, said Doug Hansen at The San Diego Union-Tribune. La Danta, an ancient stone structure covered in trees, sits a three-day hike from the nearest road in the middle of Central America's largest protected tropical forest. But the group I was touring Guatemala with had flown in by helicopter, and as I stood atop the 2,000-year-old pyramid, I learned from archaeologist Richard Hansen (no relation) that we were overlooking the ruins of a city, El Mirador, that had been part of the first state-level society in the Americas. Not long ago, Hansen's team discovered a network of 150 miles of elevated highway that once connected El Mirador to several other Mayan cities. Wandering the ruins with him, "I felt more like Indiana Jones than a tourist."
Two "remarkable" guides were also on hand to explain the region's mysteries. Over the course of our 10-day "Lost Kingdoms" tour, we would also visit the less ancient ruins at Tikal and Copán — centers of a Mayan civilization that flourished from the third to ninth centuries, when its achievements in art, architecture, and science placed it among the most advanced cultures in the world. At Copán, which lies east of Guatemala in Honduras, I was awed by the temples, ball courts, and elaborate sculptures, and the museum there proved "a place not to be missed." Its centerpiece, a full-size replica of a Mayan temple, is painted in the same colors — red, yellow, green, and white — that we saw in the scarlet macaws that soared among the ruins.
We stayed in luxury hotels throughout the trip, but one of our most unforgettable experiences occurred during a detour to a small town on Lake Atitlán. At a local Catholic church, we had seen how religious statues incorporated some of the symbols of the ancient Maya. Now we watched as a team of shamans made offerings to an image of Maximón, a mustachioed Mayan deity whose likeness is not allowed in a church. The pre-Columbian past suddenly seemed not so distant.