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GeTecpán Guatemala IXIMICHE - THE LAST CAPITAL OF THE MAYA CIVILZATION

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Tecpán Guatemala (or Tecpang), located about 35 miles (55 kms) northwest of Antigua Guatemala, is best known as the main town right next to Iximche, site of the last capital of the Maya civilization. The Iximche ruins have been dated circa 1493 to 1524. Though relatively junior in the scheme of Maya history, these ruins have their own majesty.

Most tourists seek out Tecpán Guatemala as a mere launch pad to get to nearby Iximche, a pre-Columbian archeological site, somewhat overshadowed in allure and reputation by the mighty, more imposing and highly excavated Tikal. Yokobsens got on a series of Saturday chicken buses and headed out with two goals: to explore both Tecpán and the ruins.

TECPÁN GUATEMALA - Getting there from Antigua Guatemala

You can go with a chartered tour company who will take you there for the day, mostly looking at the ruins, and for the dreaded local "souvenir buying opportunities" and lunch, out of both the tour operators get a kick back. But you know this, of course.

Far preferable is the DIY approach. To get to Tecpán Guatemala from Antigua Guatemala, allow at least an hour and a half. Total cost of return fare is about 45Q (about $5.50 US). Catch the bus to Chimeltenango (affectionately known and shouted out as "Chimel") and tell the chicken bus wing man when you pay to let you off in Chimel where you can hop the bus to Tecpán Guatemala. Be warned that Chimel is a dusty and diesel-fumed environment and you'll be on a main thoroughfare as you wait for your connection. However, buses come every few minutes so you won't be standing in the less-than-ideal spot for very long.

Another thing to know is the bus from Chimel will pass Tecpán Guatemala and not let you off until about three to five minutes up the highway. Don't panic; they have not forgotten you. It is very dangerous to pass the busy four-lane Pan American highway at what seems clearly marked as Tecpán Guatemala and the Iximche site. Further up the highway, the traffic flow permits travelers to cross the road in relative safety, and from there, head back via southward bound chicken bus.

When the bus lets you off at the bottom of the hill that leads to Tecpán Guatemala you can walk up the hill in about ten minutes or you can take a Tuc-Tuck for 5Q.

EXPLORING TECPÁN GUATEMALA

First, let's look at Tecpán itself. Yolkobsens like to share our experiences with of-the-beaten-path destinations. Our advice is not to overlook this pueblo town, population 22,000, 90 percent of which is Maya. I don't understand when people say to us, "why would you want to go to yet another Guatemalan pueblo?" Our answer is that each is inherently interesting, with unique characteristics. Tecpán is no exception.

With an altitude of nearly 7,400 feet (2,260 meters), it has a strange climate even for this highland this part of the world, especially if you've become used to the temperate weather of Antigua Guatemala. Yolkobsens quickly learned on arrival that warnings of its "cold" climate were true. Okay, not exactly cold, but I would compare the weather to Toronto in late April, a bit of a brisk wind blowing with sun coming through the clouds to warm your bones. It felt like about 48 degrees F (9 degrees C) with the wind chill factor. Mr. Yolkobsen, who dressed for the day in his usual t-shirt, jeans and baseball cap (a sartorial wonder, I know) was seen shortly after arrival buying a second-hand fleece-lined windbreaker in the marketplace. It's important to know the climate is more or less like this all year round so if you're going, pack layers. It's very pleasant, but dress for an American northern state or Ontario spring, rather than full summer. By the way, the windbreaker, which looked like it had been favored for some time by a husky Nebraskan, came in at 15 Q (about $1.80 US).

Though Tecpán Guatemala was once a colonial city, there is no trace of the old Spanish rule and style. It's mainstay for many years has been agriculture, with dottings of tourist amenities (hotels, pizza and hamburger joints) only slightly interfering with the streetscape.

The main plaza in front of the principle church will find a clown operation going on any given Saturday when it draws a sizeable and appreciative crowd. The nearby marketplace is much alive and animated with whirls of flowers, Maya-style cloth, sausages, cabbage, baskets, bicycle pumps, you name it. Yolkobsens went in mid-December and found very few tourist trappings. No one followed us around saying, "good price," etc. while proffering machine made Guatemalan cloth or wooden flutes. In the main, this is a relatively unspoiled place from a visitor's point of view. It's a chance to look at life in a medium smallish Maya town (not really a village or city, somewhere in the middle) and see a different style and pace.

IXIMICHE - THE LAST CAPITAL OF THE MAYA CIVILZATION

It's easy to get to the Iximche site. Just hop in a tuc-tuc and 5Q will take you for the five- to eight-minute ride to the archeological site. It's 50Q to get in if you are a gringo. Now, here is where the Do-It-Yourself approach wasn't quite perfect. We expected to find at least one or two English-speaking guides who, for a fee, would take us through the compelling site. Nada. Nobody. A Saturday afternoon found the museum doors locked. And all of the explanations on panels throughout the site are, naturally, in Spanish and Kaqchikel. Our advice is to do your homework before you go.

Unfortunately, there is surprisingly little to be found about this site online. It's relatively unresearched and excavated compared to its flashier cousin sites elsewhere in the country and so doesn't get a lot of online profile. Here are two sites that are helpful to have read or print off and bring with you.

At its height, Iximche had a population of 10,000 and it was not all one homogenous group, but rather a number of clans within the city. The site was chosen for its strategic advantage: a high plateau more or less surrounded by ravines, which still are much in evidence. The palaces, six plazas, temples, stone relics where sacrifice is theorized to have taken place, are there in traces, and though some restoration has take place, the visitor requires some exercise of the imagination to envisage the former glory.

But make no mistake; this is a very spiritual place. The Maya use an area adjacent to the ancient site to perform ritual ceremonies and apparently, on a regular basis. You kind of have to luck out to be there at a time when the ceremonies take place. I've been told it's usually in the mornings, but there is no set time, at least in a way that a gringo can understand it.

A last word about getting back to town. The best thing to do (and actually the ONLY thing) is wait for an enterprising van to come into the roadway that leads to the site. We didn't have to wait long. For 2 Q the van, designed to transport 10 passengers, will pick you and 17 others up along the way. It's a bumpy, cheek to cheek ride with a set of Mayans who know how to make the best of a fun ride back from a spectacular ancient monument.

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