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Story and photos by Vicki Hoefling Andersen

High on Adventure, May 2019



Seems impossible that tens of thousands of structures could lie hidden within an 800-square-mile piece of real estate for more than a millennia, so imagine the astonishment in the archaeological community when LiDAR (“Light Detection And Ranging”) technology made that actually happen. Millions of laser pulses shoot from the air and bounce off hard surfaces on the ground to produce a three-dimensional view without vegetation concealing man-made features. This technology has revolutionized the world of archeology.

El Peten
The El Petén covers 13,843 square miles, most of it blanketed beneath a thick jungle canopy.
Before 2018, about 100 ancient Maya sites had been identified in this region,
most still obscured by dense rainforest.


In 2018 a LiDAR project was initiated by PACUNAM, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development and cultural heritage preservation. Selecting portions of the Petén region of northern Guatemala, southern Mexico and western Belize – known location for hundreds of ancient Maya cities – the 3D laser map stripped away the canopy to reveal more than 60,000 previously unknown buildings, walls, ceremonial caves and road systems.


Chichen Itza Pyramid  
The Pyramid of Kukulkán is recognizable world-wide as the symbol of Chichén Itzá
and the Maya’s prowess with celestial alignments, yet few realize only a small
portion of the buildings at this Unesco World Heritage Site have been explored
and hundreds more await excavation.


Less than 150 years ago the Maya civilization was a total mystery. Heck, 200 years ago the very possibility of such a culture to have arisen in the Americas, let alone flourished, was considered impossible. When evidence of their achievements came to light, no one believed an indigenous culture could have developed such wisdom without outside influence. Areas of particular note include astronomy (knowledge of the Milky Way’s Black Hole, procession of the equinoxes, cycle of Venus, solar and lunar eclipse predictions), architecture (the corbel arch, many times more pyramids than the Egyptians), mathematics (possibly the first in the world to conceive of the concept of “zero”), calendar (theirs was as accurate as our modern version), and language (one of only five civilizations in the world to develop a written language).


Even 30+ years ago, refer to the “Maya” and most folks were clueless, at least until the “Maya Doomsday Prophecy” of Dec. 21, 2012 took the world by storm. Many recent television specials and series have aired about them but when did the discovery of marvelous civilization actually begin?




Among the first and arguably the most prolific of early Central American explorers were John Lloyd Stevens, a lawyer, diplomat, explorer and writer from America, and Frederick Catherwood, an architect and artist from England. Hearing rumors of an ancient civilization in the Americas, Stevens and Catherwood spent 1839 and 1840 uncovering, surveying and recording nearly four dozen sites across today’s Honduras, Guatemala and Yucatán Peninsula. Catherwood’s use of a camera Lucida to assist in his drawings produced wonderful images of intricately carved stela (freestanding monolithic stone monuments) and beautifully decorated buildings.


  Honduras Copan Stela A  



Honduras Copan Stela A

  Mexico, Chichen Itza Nunnery   Mexico Dhichen IOtza Nunnery  


  Mexico Sayil Grand Palace   Mexico Sayil's Grand Palace  

Three of Frederick Catherwood’s renderings compared to what can be seen today: Copán’s elaborately-carved Stela A, the ornate 50-foot-tall Nunnery at Chichén Itzá, and Sayil’s massive 90-bedroom Grand Palace.
(Catherwood’s images from “The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The life, art and discoveries of Frederick Catherwood”)


Stevens published two books about their discoveries including more than 200 of Catherwood’s drawings: 1841’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, which sold more than 20,000 copies in the first three months, and 1843’s Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán. Catherwood’s own 1844 publication, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, featured hand-colored panels. The world was stunned, and puzzled.


In the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, trained archaeologists, engineers and architects including American Sylvanus Morley, German Teobert Maler, and Englishman Alfred Maudslay spent years furthering the discovery, excavation and recording of ancient Maya sites across the region.


Sadly, their methods were not always the best even under the “guidance” of institutions that should have known better. Carnegie Institute-sponsored archaeologists used dynamite in attempts to locate tombs at Uaxactún, also a tool of choice for late 19th/early 20th century excavations at Xunantunich. Part of the façade on Chichén Itzá’s Nunnery was blasted away by a 19th century explorer. Kerosene was used to clean the murals at Bonampak.





Mexico, Palenque Palace

  Mexico, Palenque Palace column  

  Palenque’s massive Palace complex was the victim of horrific carnage during Del Rio’s search
for valuables and souvenirs. Among other damage and theft, he chopped off a head and leg
from figures on a stucco pier lining the façade of the Palace.


A century earlier, in 1786, the Palace at Palenque was the focus of unbelievable damage when Captain Antonia Del Rio searched for treasure. He hired 79 local Maya, equipped them with axes and billhooks, set fire to this enormous complex to allow easier access, then hacked away pieces to send back to his monarch in Spain as proof of the ancient city they had plundered. To quote from Del Río’s report, "Ultimately there remained neither a window nor a doorway blocked up; a partition that was not thrown down, nor a room, corridor, court, tower, nor subterranean passage in which excavations were not effected from two to three yards in depth, for such was the object of my mission."


To add further insult, his report was lost in the Spanish archives. Just a year prior another group had made the first real examination of the site and sent their findings to Antigua, Guatemala, seat of Spanish colonial government in Central America. Where it was lost in the Royal Archives for a hundred years.


Mexico, Palenque Temple of the Count

  During his 1831-32 visit to Palenque, Count Frederick Waldeck set up residence
in the temple atop this pyramid, resulting in its moniker “Temple of the Count.” 
One of the first Westerners to document the site, he didn’t do any damage
but his sketches incorporated a lot of imagination, to put it politely.


Guatemala, Tikal Central Acropolis, Court 2, Structure 5D-65

Teobert Maler hung his Mi Casa sign in Structure 5D-65 of Tikal’s Central Acropolis,
an immense complex stretching nearly 700 feet long across four acres.
Maler’s abode during his 1895 and 1904 visits dominates Court 2
and is commonly referred to as “Maler’s Palace”.


Imagine actually living inside one of these 1,000-plus-year-old structures while spending the day excavating a long-lost city.




Early visitors had to go by horseback, trek for days over and through unforgiving terrain, or take on wild rivers. Today’s choices are much less challenging but can still be an adventure in itself, even on what seems should be an easy drive on established routes.


  Guatemala Mixco Viejo access road   Guatemala Ceibal Road with cattle  

  Perched atop a plateau surrounded by deep ravines in the Motagua River Valley of Guatemala,
the road to Mixco Viejo twists and snakes it way up the high ridge, and feels like the tail end
of a cattle call on the way to Ceibal in Guatemala’s Petén region.


Guatemala, Naranjo enroute   Guatemala Naranjo departing

“Sure, we can fit!” Venturing into the less-traveled regions of the Petén, our drivers knew the route to Naranjo but the prolific jungle vegetation made clearance and choice of path sometimes questionable. Taking a different route upon our departure proved equally challenging, expending about an hour and one tow chain.


Belize, Xunantunich River Ferry

Or it can be as simple as driving onto the hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River
to reach Xunantunich, near the Belize-Guatemala border. Built on a limestone ridge
above the river, the site enjoys a panoramic view of the upper Belize River Valley
and across a huge swath of Guatemala.


So if you have to cross a river, why not just start with a boat? Zipping up foliage-festooned waterways and spotting wildlife is a huge perk. Other than the hum of an outboard motor, you might think you were joining some early voyager checking out rumors of long-lost cities in the rainforest.


  Guatemala, Usumacinta Piedras Negras boat unload   Guatemala, Usumacinta Piedras Negras gear schlep   Guatemala, Usumacinta Piedras Negras boat launch  

Normally the boat is in the water and ready to go, but in the case of Piedras Negras you transport your watercraft to the launch site on the Usumacinta River and schlep boat and motor to the water,
hopefully with some able-bodied assistance.


You might pull up to a dock and saunter into the site, or there may be some stairs to ascend. Or you may be confronted with an uphill climb that never seems to end…do not forget your trekking staff.





Guatemala, Ceibal Rio la Pasion boat landing


Guatemala, Aguateca access trail





Guatemala, Ceibal path to site


Ceibal is accessible via two routes – a sometimes cattle-clogged road (see above) or up the Río la Pasión.
The only drawback to the river route is a rocky hike into the site beneath the towering ceiba trees
gave the site its name. And then there’s Aguateca and the 200 very steep steps up the
300-foot-tall ridge from its landing site on the Río la Pasión.






Guatemala, Piedras Negras Usumacinta boat landing



Guatemala, Piedras Negras access trail




Guatemala, Piedras Negras Peen U 1930s tractor


Ascent from the landing spot on the Usumacinta River to the site of Piedras Negras entails an hour’s uphill hike into one of the most remote parts of Guatemala. As if to tease, near the top is an abandoned Fordson tractor left by the University of Pennsylvania 1930's expedition.


  Guatemala, Naranjo Central Acropolis climb   Mexico, Coba Nohock Mul climb  

Even once you reach a site, exploring some of the structures may take a bit of huffing-and-puffing. Naranjo’s Central Acropolis, cleared enough to ascend, still awaits excavation. The 138-foot climb up Cobá’s
Nohoch Mul pyramid, with a wire cable assist, rewards with a panorama of the surrounding jungle
punctuated by three small lakes.


  Guatemala, El Mirador helicopter   Mexico, Coba bicycles and pedicabs  

A whirly-bird is the easiest way to access El Mirador, which is about an hour’s flight north of Flores in the Petén, versus a two-day journey on horseback. Easiest way to see the five main but sprawling (about a 5-mile walk) groups of structures at Cobá is by bicycle or pedi-cab, both available for rent at the entrance, with easy pedaling along the raised roadways criss-crossing Cobá. Often 10-15 feet wide and elevated a couple of feet, these sacbé (pl. sacbeob) connected ancient Maya cities and some are so massive they have been seen from space. Cobá itself is the hub of a nearly 100-mile network, one road plunging in a nearly straight line for 62 miles through the Yucatán forest to a city near Chichén Itzá.


Here is a much easier way to get to some of Mexico's historic sites, via a two-week tour that includes cities and beaches with Bookmundi's Mexico Unplugged.



Pyramids are often associated with tombs and it’s no different with the Maya, although not all pyramids contained tombs nor were all tombs placed inside pyramids or temples.


Guatemala, Tikal North Acropolis

It is estimated that 70% of Tikal’s temples were burial monuments.
The North Acropolis is a collection of nearly 100 buildings
sprawling across a 2.5 acre base. Built over many earlier versions,
one includes eight funerary temples constructed a millennia-and-a-half ago.



Belize, Caracol Caana structure B19     Mexico, Tenam Puente structure 42, burial niche

Caracol’s 140-foot Caana, tallest building in Belize, has three respectably-sized pyramids adorning its summit but not visible from ground level. The tallest of these held the ornate burial of a woman, and remnants of red paint on the back wall above her tomb can still be seen (above left). The large pyramidal Structure 42 at Tenám Puente included several burials, some in niches built of rubble (above right), others in circular graves,
and those whose cremated remains were placed in clay pots.



Mexico, Palenque Temple 13, Tomb of Red Queen

The Temple of the Red Queen contained the second-richest burial at Palenque, exceeded only by Pakal,
even though early looters removed much of the offerings. Everything inside the tomb was covered
in a heavy layer of cinnabar (mercury sulfide), which to the Maya represented death and rebirth.



Guatemals Takalik Abaj Structure 11

Some tombs are so modest they were overlooked for decades. In 2012 at Takalik Abaj,
excavation of a 16-foot tall grassy platform such as this one (Structure 11)
revealed the 2,500-year-old tomb of the Vulture Lord beneath
an eight-foot mound of clay and cobblestones



  Guatemala, Piedras Negras Burial 5   Guatemala, Piedras Negras West Acropolis  

Piedras Negras burials include the affluent tomb of the third ruler who died in 729 CE, as well as Tatiana Proskouriakoff who is credited with “cracking the Maya code” and deciphering the intricacies of Maya politics. Although she died in 1985, her ashes couldn’t be interred in the West Acropolis until 1998 when Marxist guerrillas using the area during Guatemala’s civil war cleared out.


Ancient Maya cities were a stunning site with their white-plastered plazas surrounded by brightly painted buildings, many of which still carry traces of reds, blues and other hues. Murals, painted walls and carved friezes still convey the artistic skill of these skilled artisans.



  Mexico, Chicanna Structure ll, glyphs on stucco   Guatemala, Cancuen Palace, stucco and paint  

Near the doorway of Structure II at Chicanná, red glyphs painted on an earlier layer
were revealed when an over-layer of stucco fell off
(above left).
Huge sculptures of kings and gods adorned the walls of Cancuén’s Palace
(above right).


  Mexico, San Gervasio Temple of the Bats  





Mexico, San Gervasio Structure 25 Las Manitas paint


Colorful doorways and walls are still evident on the Temple of the Bats
and Structure 25 “Las Manitas” in San Gervasio on the island of Cozumel.


  Mexico, Yaxchilan Structure 33 mural  




Mexico, Mayapan Room of the Frescos


Murals are found across the Maya region including Yaxchilán’s Structure 33 (above left)
and Mayapán’s Room of the Frescos
(above right). Earlier, more elaborate
and history-breaking examples are being discovered all the time.


  Mexico, Becan Structure XII carved facade  




Mexico, Balamku Structure I, jaguar frieze


Applying a thick layer of stucco, the Maya carved facades and friezes of their gods and mythology.
Structure XIII at Becán contains a massive façade
(above left) protected by a pane of glass.
At nearby Balamkú, an earlier construction under Structure I, “House of the Four Kings,” was decorated
with a 55-foot-long, nearly 6-foot-tall frieze of the Maya cosmology, traces of original paint are still evident.



  Mexico,Tulum Temple of the Frescos, handprint   Mexico, Uxmal Nunnery quadrangle portal vault handprint   Mexico, San Gervasio Structure 25 Las Manitas handprints  

The significance of red handprints isn’t certain, perhaps a reference to the Maya god Itzamná who was also called Kabul, “divine or celestial hand.” Examples are found in the Temple of the Frescos at Tulúm (above left), the main corbel vaulted entry to the Nunnery at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Uxmal (center), and in Structure 25, “ Little Hands” (named for the handprints) at San Gervasio.


There isn’t much opportunity for regular folks of ordinary means and physical ability to experience an Indiana-Jones-type adventure, but visiting ancient Maya cities comes pretty darn close. While amazing, colossal structures can overshadow details like tombs, murals and larger-than-life-size carved façades, there is a mystery to walking the paths, climbing the stairs, and peering into rooms inhabited a thousand or more years ago.


This journey of discovery isn’t over - in next issue’s Part 2 we’ll look at some current excavation projects, some major discoveries, and the havoc wrought by looters and, sadly, the Catholic Church.  


Other Maya-related articles by Vicki Hoefling Andersen:


Belize: The Western Frontier 

Belize: The Eastern Edge 

Lords of the Petén, Guatemala 

Life Along the Rio La Pasión 

Highlands of Guatemala 

Palenque, Mexico 

Chiapas, Mexico 

Abandoned Cities of Chiapas, Mexico 

Ancient Cities of the Rio Bec 

Ancient Cities of  the Río Bec Part 2 

Roaming Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula 

Isla Mujeres: Island of Women 

The Maya & 2012: A New Beginning