Maya or Mayan? An Explanation

After seeing a Maya hotel sign while visiting Palenque, and after hearing friends refer to their MAYA ancestors that we began to think…something does not sound right.

Maya vs. Mayan sign at Best Western Palenque Hotel

Was it a single versus plural thing?  One is Maya and 2+ are Mayans?  Or was the Creole dialect that chops off letters in words creeping into my speech patterns after living in Belize for several years?

As it turns out, Maya refers to everything Maya, except when referring to a Mayan language. For example, it’s Maya culture. Not Mayan culture.  It’s Maya archaeology, not Mayan archaeology.

Conversely, people speak Mayan, not Maya. So unless you are talking about a Mayan language, ALWAYS say Maya.


Bird Watching in Belize: Black-Headed Saltator

Black-Headed Saltator seen while bird watching at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge

One of the best parts of hiking near the unexcavated Mayan site of Lower Dover in Belize is the surrounding wildlife. The jungle lodge at Lower Dover contains some of the last remaining bush area along the Belize River in the Cayo District. This vital habitat provides ample opportunity to see birds, all while getting a tour of the Maya ceremonial center in the backyard.

Black Headed Saltator - Bird Photography in Belize

We stumbled upon this group of Black Headed Saltators making a scene in the trees over one of the larger Mayan temples. Most of the time multiple Saltators will be seen traveling together and blasting their bird calls in unison. Luckily for our bird watching friends, we were able to see both the male and female together in the same tree.

Male and Female Black-Headed Saltator on Lower Dover Mayan Temple

Foto Friday: Full Moon Pictures from the Jungle

Guests at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge in Belize are often surprised to see how vivid the light can be from a full moon here in the jungle. It is even more striking because the full moon always rises in the east over the library (on top of a Mayan temple), making for excellent views (and photos if you have the right filter). When the full moon is directly overhead, flashlights are almost unnecessary, due to the extreme brightness the sun’s reflection.

The full moon is the best time to turn into half woman half snake ;)

During the winter solstice of 2010, the moon was in total lunar eclipse for the first time in 372 years! We only assume the Maya knew this was going to happen when they built their settlement at Lower Dover, especially the temple where the library sits. Dust particles in the atmosphere gives the moon it’s reddish tint. The next total lunar eclipse can be seen in Belize on April 15, 2014 so if your calendar is longer than the Mayan’s mark the date!

2010 Winter Socstice Lunar Eclipse

Getting to Tikal by Plane, Rental Car, Tour Operator, or Chicken Bus from Belize

Main Maya Temple at Tikal National Park in Guatemala

There are four ways Belize travelers can get to Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

Tropic Air in Belize.

Maya Island Air in Belize

The easiest and most expensive way to Tikal is to fly from Belize City International Airport on Maya Island Air or Tropic Air. Flights generally cost around $120 USD one-way plus the Belize departure tax of near $40 USD for international flights. Two flights leave daily in the morning and afternoon to Flores, Guatemala and take less than 1 hour total.  This option works for tourists on a short holiday with disposable income traveling between San Pedro and Tikal.

Crystal Auto Rental- Belize

The second most expensive way is to rent a car at the Belize City International Airport. Only CRYSTAL, a local car rental agency, will allow you to take their vehicles to Tikal. Rates are about $100 USD a day plus tax. This is obviously more economical if there are 3 or 4 in the travel group. This option allows for more flexibility for sightseeing opportunities, but punishes the driver. Many unmarked speed bumps exist in the villages along the Western Highway that are sure to keep driving interesting. It’s not exactly smooth sailing, and drivers must pay attention to the road, and potentially miss out on the small sightseeing opportunities that make Western Belize unique.

Pacz Tours on Burns Ave San Ignacio, Belize.

The third way is to take an organized day tour to Tikal arranged though a tour operator in San Ignacio. Many operators exist in San Ignacio which will all be trying to sell you a tour to Tikal, ATM cave, and everything else in the book. Most trips leave around 7:30 AM from the tour operator office in San Ignacio.  Tours generally range in price from $115 to $145 depending on the operator and include park entrance fees, transportation, guide, and Belize border crossing fees. On the way back, the tour guide will likely stop in Melchor, Guatemala on the border to allow for the cheapest and most traditional Maya craft shopping available.

Finally, the most adventurous, and cheapest option is to take local public transit the entire way. Lower Dover is only 1/2 mile from the Western Highway at mile 59 in Unitedville. This will roughly cost you around $60 USD for entrance fees and transportation costs. Backpackers leaving Lower Dover can expect a 3 to 4 hour journey by bus and collectivo van to get to the park from our Jungle Lodge.

Bored Parking on the Benque - Belize Side

Taxi to the Guatemala Side of the Border.

Guests must first catch a chicken bus to Benque from Lower Dover. From Benque, a short taxi ride is necessary to the Guatemala border. It is also possible to walk or hitchhike (less than 1 mile). Once clearing customs, change your Belize dollars to Guatemalan Quetzals with the money-changers hanging out nearby. They all work together, offer rates comparable to the Bank, and will take US or Belize dollars, but they will give a better rate for the US Dollars.

Money Changers on the Border give better rates for US Dollars.

From Guatemala side it is necessary to take a collectivo van to the village of Ixlu / El Cruce with the final destination of Flores. At this point, one can continue on to Flores, Guatemala to find a hotel, or get off the van and catch different bus or van headed to Tikal via El Remate.

Welcome to Guatemala.

Melchor, Guatemala Collectivo Area.

Collective to Flores.

Hotels also exist with Tikal National Park, however they are more expensive than Flores. Regular bus service exists between Flores and Tikal so backpackers have options on where to stay. Staying overnight at Tikal or Flores allows for a full day of exploring the massive Maya temples of Tikal before the afternoon heat sets in, which is even more important in the heat of the dry season and Summertime months.

El cruce junction to Tikal or Flores/Santa Elena Guatemala.

Bus back to Belize from the Benque Border Crossing in Belize.

Special thanks to Frederick for the border crossing pictures!

Belize Day Tours: Tikal National Park

One of the main Maya temples at Tikal.

The ancient Maya city of Tikal is one of the great attractions on the Maya Trail. The Mayan Trail stretches from the Yucatan in Mexico, into Guatemala, and all throughout Belize.  It is a common stop for backpackers looking to see the best of the Mayan heartland. If you can only see one Maya site, Tikal National Park is our top pick for Maya travel destination in 2012.

Mayan Temple at Tikal National Park.

Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

Map of Tikal National Park

Located within the Peten Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers a huge portion of Northern Guatemala, Tikal is one of many archaeology sites in the area. It was once a great capital city during Classic Maya times. It remained extremely important until neighboring capital Caracol conquered the city in 556 AD. A 130 year hiatus of building ensued. Only after Tikal conquered Caracol’s closest ally, Calakmul, in 695 AD did Tikal regain it’s significance in the Maya world. It was after this time that the 5 largest Maya temples were built. Great Mayan monuments continued to be built until 869 AD, the last recorded date on Stela 24 at Tikal.

Tikal Stele.

Tikal Stelae in Guatemala.

Tikal Stelae

Amazingly, it is possible to climb to the top of these Mayan temples, though it requires using narrow ladders built along the side of the structures. It’s much easier up than down!

Another Mayan temple at Tikal National Park.

Stairs at Tikal National Park

The stairs at Tikal National Park

Watch your step! The long walk down at Tikal.

The temples stretch above the jungle canopy making for breathtaking views. In fact, the view was so perfect that George Lucas used it in the making of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The shot where a Rebel oversees the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin was taken on top of a building known as Temple IV looking east where Temple I, II and III can be seen on film.

The view at Tikal as seen in Star Wars IV: A New Hope.

Another amazing view at Tikal.

Tikal sits within a vast nature reserve, and wildlife sightings are very common. Expect to have photo opportunities of Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, Quash, and many different birds. Make sure you don’t hit any driving in!

Snake at Tikal National Park.

Quash aka Coatimundi at Tikal National Park

Tikal is a common travel destination for people vacationing in Belize. It’s close proximity ( about 2 hours) from San Ignacio in Western Belize, makes it a great day trip while in Belize. Tomorrow we will do a story on getting to Tikal from Lower Dover Jungle Lodge in Western Belize by organized tour, public transit, or rented vehicle.

Maya Temple at Tikal National Park.

Tikal National Park Guatemala.