Newfound Maya artifacts attract history buffs

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GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- What's new from Guatemala is often very old, as travelers find in headlines that herald discoveries in one of the most important centers of the Maya Empire.

Guatemala is a country whose archaeological and cultural superlatives are custom-tailored to National Geographic, and, indeed, "when the magazine reported on the uncovering of Maya hieroglyphs at Dos Pilas [October 2002 issue], we got inquiries, and even some bookings, from agents whose clients wanted to go and see for themselves," said Annie Berk of Ladatco Tours in Miami.

When a hurricane ripped through the Maya ceremonial center of Dos Pilas, located in the rain forests of northern Guatemala, an uprooted tree at the base of the temple ruins exposed stones bearing one of the longest texts of Maya hieroglyphs ever found.

The inscribed stones recorded the triumphs and defeats of a city caught in the middle of protracted warfare between two superpowers -- the city-states of Tikal in Guatemala and Calakmul in Mexico -- that split much of the Maya civilization some 1,500 years ago.

Dos Pilas is part of the Petexbatun region of the tropical El Peten province, and in this corner of the rain forest are other "lost cities": Ceibal, a ceremonial center with unusual stelae, and Aguateca, whose boldly carved monuments are scattered throughout its ruins.

Arrangements for travel here -- overland, by boat, on foot -- should be made in advance for what will be a three-day trip, with overnights in comfortable lodgings on Lake Petexbatun. The recommended season includes the driest months, December to May.

Tikal, considered one of the greatest Maya cities, is accessible by air or car from Guatemala City. Clients less committed to following the rigorous parts of the route of the Maya will want to visit Tikal, reached by daily air service from Guatemala City to Flores, or a four-hour drive from the capital. Set amidst the thick jungle of El Peten, Tikal is considered one of the greatest of Maya cities.

Palaces and pyramid temples present visitors with a chance to survey the Maya world from the top of a temple or explore smaller structures and hieroglyph-covered stelae at ground level.

There are more temples to explore in the Central and North Acropolises and the Tikal Museum to visit for displays of the artifacts discovered during the excavations.

Clients need at least two days (and a good pair of binoculars) to tour the Tikal ruins, which are part of Tikal National Park, a wildlife refuge.

Other Maya sites in this corner of Guatemala, easy drives from Tikal, are: Yaxha, the third largest Maya city; and Uaxactun, which perfected the Maya culture's writing system and began the calendar.

Another must-see center is Quirigua, known for having the tallest and most intricately carved monuments in the Maya world. Quirigua is an easy drive east on the main road linking Guatemala City and the Caribbean, and travelers often overnight at little lodges on the shores of Lake Izabal nearby.

U.S. tour operators have packages or can make customized arrangements for clients. For those committed to in-depth discovery, Far Horizons in Albuquerque, N.M., offers several trips yearly, escorted by leading archaeologists.

More frequent departures to the most remote sites are part of the program of Guatemala-based Maya Expeditions; the company takes travelers by 4-wheel drive, mule-back and on foot to the remote Maya sites of Nakbe and El Mirador.

To contact Far Horizons, call (800) 552-4575 or visit www.farhorizons.com on the Web. For information on Maya Expeditions, call (800) 733-3350 or go to www.mayaexpeditions.com.

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