Guatemala, Heart of the Maya World, is the country where the Maya civilisation reached its maximum splendour, and the ideal place to understand the Maya Cosmology and their concept of time. As we approach the end of the 13 Bak’tun and the start of a new era for humanity on 21 December 2012, the Guatemala Tourist Board celebrates the significance of the Maya calendar with the launch of The Bak’tun Route.
This new tourist route takes visitors to 11 Maya cities that witnessed important historical events in the Maya Long Count Calendar, the succession of 394.23-year cycles, known as Bak’tuns, which will culminate on 21 December 2012. In the Bak’tun Route visitors will find monuments, stelae and structures related to the Long Count and the Solar Calendar, as well as sites that are still considered sacred places for the Maya.
The ancient ceremonial plazas, impressive archaeological sites and complex texts carved in stone that can be found along this route are proof of how important calendars were for rulers in the heyday of the Maya civilisation. In addition, the huge Maya indigenous population that live in Guatemala today has kept alive its Cosmology and many religious manifestations and rituals are practiced daily in various regions and ceremonial sites.
The Guatemala Tourist Board has published a map with more details of the route, which can also be found online on www.visitguatemala.com/2012. The route may be followed independently or with organised tours, and the Guatemala Tourist Board is negotiating with British tour operators to incorporate it in their programmes.
Sites visited in The Bak’tun Route:
Ceibal: Deep in the Maya lowlands’ tropical rainforest in southern Peten, Ceibal is home to some of the finest and best preserved stelae from the Late Maya Classic Period (600-900 AD). Four of these point towards the cardinal points, with a fifth one in the centre, referencing the end of the 9 Bak’tun and the beginning of the 10 Bak’tun (829 AD).
Tikal: Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Tikal has the oldest Long Count date recorded in the Maya Lowlands (292 AD), indicating that this was amongst the first cities to establish a dynastic government where rulers were recorded with hieroglyphic inscriptions in stone stelae. One of the few commemorations of the beginning of 9 Bak’tun is found in Tikal.
Uaxactun: Meaning “eight stone”, Uaxactun, close to Tikal, was named after a stela with an inscription of the 8 Bak’tun in the Long Count Calendar. Its Astronomical Observation Complex is still very important for the celebration of Maya ceremonies and rituals, particularly at the equinoxes and solstices.
Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo: Evidence of the use of the Solar Calendar (or Haab) can be found in the architectural complexes of Yaxha. There is also a Twin Pyramids Complex, which was used to mark and celebrate K’atun cycles (approximately 20 years) in the Long Count Calendar. The Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park is also a wetland of global significance, home to a great variety of migratory birds.
Mirador-Rio Azul: A city 1000 years older than Tikal, found amidst miles of rainforest in northern Guatemala, El Mirador is the oldest and largest Maya city from the Preclassic Period (2000 BC-250 AD) known to date. Amongst its temples and monuments is the largest Maya pyramid in the world, astronomical observatories, and triadic groups of one main pyramid and two smaller ones, which symbolize creation according to Maya mythology and are associated with the beginning of the Long Count Calendar.
El Baul: A monument from the 7 Bak’tun and still an important site for Maya religious ceremonies. Its stela 1, dated to the year 36AD, shows one of the first records of the Long Count Calendar. El Baul Museum is located within the premises of a former sugar mill in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa.
Tak’alik Ab’aj: Set amongst volcanoes near the Pacific coast, Tak’alik Ab’aj was inhabited for a very long period, from the Mid Preclassic (800 BC) until the Late Classic Period (900 AD), its monuments, including several dynastic stelae, show evidence of the origins of the Maya Calendar and its relation to astronomy. It is still an important site for the Mam and K’iche Maya, who perform rituals and ceremonies here.
Iximche: The last Kaqchichel capital, founded in 1470 and set on fire by the Spanish during the conquest, it later became the first Spanish capital of the Mesoamerican region, and is still a place of pilgrimage and Maya rituals.
Q’umarka’aj: Set amidst the stunning beauty of the Maya Highlands, are three architectural complexes divided by ravines. Four temples commemorate the four founding gods (Tohil-the sky, Awilix-the moon, Q’uq’umatz-the feathered serpent, and Jakawitz-the god of the mountains) and a cave system found underneath is thought to represent the “Place of the Seven Caves” described in the Popol Vuh, the “Maya Bible”.
Kaminaljuyu: Located within Guatemala City, this was an important trading centre from the Preclassic (1200 BC) to the Postclassic period (900AD). The majesty and importance of this city is revealed by its complex water supply system, called “The Snake Mound”.
Quirigua: Close to the border with Honduras, Quirgua is recognized for having the largest and best preserved stelae of the Maya World, which gained it its status as UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. One of the stelae has Long Count inscriptions referring to 13 August 3114 BC, a date known in Maya culture as “year zero”, the date in which the gods set the stones of creation, and is used as the beginning of the Long Count Calendar, which will culminate on 21 December 2012.