For our last big adventure in Guatemala (sniff), Julia and I visited the very earliest remnants of Mayan civilization at Takalik Abaj, formerly a commercial and spiritual center. We went left the mountains and headed down near the coast, where the climate is more tropical and the vegetation is more jungly.
Takalik Abaj means standing stone, one of the primary remains of the ten thousand year old city. Only ten percent of the site has been unearthed; the rest remains buried under farms. The primary remains are steps, which would have once led up to houses and temples, statues, altars, and steles. Some carvings have survived thousands of years of wind and rain. Julia and I were very proud to recognize and decode a Mayan number. I was even more exciting to see Mayan hieroglyphs in person! We also got to sit on the steps where the governor would have addressed the people of the town.
Due to Olmec influence, many of the statues at Takalik Abaj are very rounded, a signature characteristic of Olmec sculpture. Several of the most well-preserved were located around the steps of a temple to the goddess of fertility. In the Mayan worldview, east is associated with life, birth, and beginnings. For this reason, the nine statues on the east side represented the nine months of gestation. Because we come into life with nothing, the majority were blank – except for a female frog, a symbol of fertility. West is associated with darkness, death, and the underworld. The six statues on this side included a owl, whose song is considered a harbinger of death, a male frog, whose song heralds the coming of rain and winter, and a crocodile, which comes out at night.
To our surprise, in the middle of the park was a small zoo. We saw small crocodiles, wild pigs and deer, parrots, monkeys, and some others whose names I am unsure of. The animals and birds were really lovely.
After finishing a version of the Popol Vuh, the bible of the Quiche Maya, I found that visiting Takalik Abaj brought some of the story to life. For example, the owl serves as a messenger for the underworld, Xibalba. I also got to see the tree from which the skull of Hun-Hunahpu spat into the hand of a young, which led to the birth of Hunahpu and Ixbalanque. Doesn’t that make you want to read it? Actually, I really liked Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, who were represented on an altar that we saw. One side of a ballfield had been unearthed, and the other was in the process of being excavated. A ballgame was at the center of the brothers’ fight against the lords of Xibalba. In fact, Hunahpu played headless, and (spoiler) survived. I’m telling you, it’s quite an adventurous story.
I really enjoyed visiting Takalik Abaj, which gave a glimpse into the origins of Mayan civilization. However, that was our last Saturday in Guatemala. Today, Julia and I headed to the capital, and tomorrow we fly home. I am sad to be leaving the people at the school and the family we stayed with, all of whom have been so kind to us during our stay. I cannot express how glad I am to have gotten to know them, and through them some of the language, culture, and life of Guatemala, and I am very grateful for their friendship.