The Ruins of Takalik Abaj, Guatemala

The site of Takalik Abaj (7am-5pm daily, $3.50), meaning “standing stones,” is particularly interesting because it reveals elements of Olmec influence in early Mayan culture. It made headlines as recently as 2002 with the discovery of an intact royal burial tomb thought to be that of the site’s last Mayan ruler, a discovery featured in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic.

It made headlines as recently as 2002 with the discovery of an intact royal burial tomb thought to be that of the site’s last Mayan ruler.Formerly known as Abaj Takalik because of an error in translation, the site is spread out over 6.5 square kilometers along nine terraces. Its ceremonial center, at the city’s core, is open to visitors but the remains of the city’s outskirts are now on lands occupied by five coffee farms. One of these, on the ninth terrace, is home to an ecolodge.

The ruins of Takalik Abaj. Photo © nmarritz [<a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>.

The ruins of Takalik Abaj. Photo © nmarritz [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In its heyday, between 800 BC and AD 200, Takalik Abaj was an important commercial and political center at the heart of a far-ranging trade network in which cacao and salt were exchanged for obsidian, quetzal feathers, pyrite, and jade.

More than 275 structures have been unearthed here. Now being restored in an area once belonging to a private coffee and banana plantation is Structure 5, the tallest structure at 16 meters high. It occupies Terrace 3. East of here is Structure 7, thought to have been an astronomical observatory. Structure 4 contains some very clear engraving in Mayan style. There are many sculptures scattered throughout the site. Among them are smaller versions of the giant Olmecoid heads seen elsewhere, as well as the potbellied barrigones that are also typical of Olmec influence. Also noteworthy is Structure 12, the largest structure with a base measuring 56 by 42 meters and dating to AD 300. Standing before it are seven carved monuments, including Altar 8, and Stela 5, which shows two kings presiding over bound captives. Olmecoid heads and zoomorphs compose the other finely carved monuments at this structure. Structure 11 is similar, also with seven monuments before it.

Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj. Photo © Simon Burchell (Own work) [<a href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj. Photo © Simon Burchell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Takalik Abaj was sacked sometime around AD 300 and its Mayan-style monuments were ritualistically defaced. Some were rebuilt after AD 600. The location is still an important ceremonial site and many highland Maya perform ceremonies there.

To get to Takalik Abaj, drive or take a bus heading out from Retalhuleu to the town of El Asintal, 12 kilometers northwest of Reu and 5 kilometers north of the Carretera al Pacífico (Pacific Coast Highway, CA-2). The turnoff is at Km. 190.5. Buses leave from 5a Avenida “A” southwest of the town plaza about every half hour during daylight hours. From El Asintal, pickups cover the remaining four kilometers to the site. You can also take a taxi from Reu’s main plaza for about $30 round-trip, including waiting time.

Takalik Maya Lodge

Just two kilometers up the road, on the site’s ninth terrace, is the exquisite Takalik Maya Lodge (Terraza 9 del Sitio Arqueologico Takalik Abaj, Km. 190.5 Carretera al Pacífico, tel. 4055-9831 or 2506-4716, $32-62), where you have your choice between two different concepts, both on lands occupied by the working Montes Eliseos coffee farm. The Kacike Maya concept is built in a heavily forested area near the lodge’s restaurant. There are two beautiful and comfortable rooms, each with unique interior paint and decor. Both have a winding staircase leading to a second-floor balcony, where you can lounge away soothed by the sounds of the surrounding jungle. The rooms are truly a work of art, and the walls are painted with motifs inspired by the natural beauty all around. Indigenous bedspreads, gas lamps, and tile floors complete the ambiance. You can stay at the Kacike Maya for $47-62 per person, including breakfast.

At the Paseo del Café, just up the road, you can stay in the heart of a 19th-century coffee farm in comfortable wooden buildings with charming red tin roofs centered around a small plaza. The seven rooms here have electricity and share a bathroom. They are also just steps from a refreshing swimming pool surrounded by lush jungle and coffee bushes. Rooms here range from $32-42 per person and include breakfast. The restaurant, on the Kacike side of the lodge, serves a somewhat limited menu, though the food is quite good, with entrées in the $6-9 range that include kebabs and salads. The homemade lemonade is particularly thirst-quenching after a visit to the ruins.

Numerous nature trails wind their way through the farm and there is a small but refreshing waterfall just a 10-minute hike away. In addition to Takalik Abaj tours, the lodge can also arrange bird-watching, horseback riding, and visits to the Manchón Guamuchal Wetland Preserve and Chicabal Lagoon.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

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