Heading east of the border you pass a succession of dull, incessantly hot, purely commercial towns. Retalhuleu is slightly more attractive than most, close to which are the intriguing Maya-Olmec ruins of Takalik Abaj. North of Retalhuleu you’re within easy reach of the terrific theme parks of Parque Acuático Xocomil and Parque Xetulul.
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The archeological site of Takalik Abaj has cast fresh light on the development of early Maya civilization, particularly the influence of Olmec culture. The city presided over trade routes along the Pacific littoral, controlling the movement of jade, cacao and obsidian. An unlooted Maya royal grave was uncovered in 2002, and excavations are ongoing. First settled around 1800 BC, early ceremonial buildings and monuments were executed in Olmec style between 800 and 400 BC, including the characteristic pot-bellied humans with swollen eyelids. But by the late Preclassic period, Maya-style carvings of standing rulers were beginning to replace Olmec art. Later in the Classic era some of the Maya World’s most exquisite jade masks were created here – they now reside in Guatemala City’s Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.
Parque Acuático Xocomil
On the main road to Quetzaltenango, Parque Acuático Xocomil is a superb theme park landscaped into the foothills of the highlands. It’s a vast complex containing 1.2km of water slides, wave pools and artificial rivers amidst grounds replete with Maya temples and copious greenery.
Neighbouring Parque Acuático Xocomil, Parque Xetulul is divided into different zones, with the Plaza Chapina having re-creations of famous Guatemalan buildings, the Plaza España showcasing a galleon, and Plaza Francia boasting replicas of Parisian structures such as the Gare de France. The park has some terrific rides, including the thrilling La Avalancha rollercoaster and, like its sister complex, is clean, well run and extremely popular with Guatemalan families.