South of Sayaxché, Lago de Petexbatún is a spectacular expanse of water ringed by dense forest and containing plentiful supplies of snook, bass, alligator and freshwater turtle. The shores of the lake abound with birdlife and howler monkeys, and there are a number of Maya ruins – the most impressive of which is the partially restored Aguateca, suggesting the lake was an important trading centre for the Maya.
Aguateca, perched on a high outcrop at the southern tip of the lake, is the site that’s furthest away from Sayaxché but the most easily reached, as a boat can get you to within twenty minutes’ walk of the ruins. This intriguing site (split in two by a natural chasm) was only rediscovered in 1957 and has undergone recent restoration work. The atmosphere is magical, surrounded by dense tropical forest and with superb views of the lake from two miradores. There’s a visitor centre close to the entrance, where Aguateca’s guards are based. The guards always welcome company, and if you want to stay they’ll find some space for you to sling a hammock or pitch a tent. Bring a mosquito net and food if you wish to stay.
A brief history
Throughout the Late Classic period, Aguateca was closely aligned with (or controlled by) nearby Dos Pilas, the dominant city in the southern Petén, and reached its peak in the eighth century, when Dos Pilas was developing an aggressive policy of expansion. Indeed, Aguateca may have been a twin capital of an ambitious Petexbatún state. Military successes, including a conclusive victory over Ceibal in 735 AD, were celebrated at both sites with remarkably similar stelae – Aguateca’s Stela 3 shows Dos Pilas ruler Master Sun Jaguar in full battle regalia, including a Teotihuacán-style face mask. After 761 AD, however, Dos Pilas began to lose control of its empire and the members of the elite moved their headquarters to Aguateca, attracted by its strong defensive position. But despite the construction of 5km of walls around the citadel and its agricultural land, their enemies soon caught up with them, and sometime after 790 AD Aguateca itself was overrun.
The resident guards will provide you with stout walking sticks – essential as the slippery paths here can be treacherous – before escorting you around the site’s steep trails. The tour, which takes a little more than an hour, takes in the palisade defences, temples and palaces (including the residence of Aguateca’s last ruler, Tante K’inich) and a barracks. The carving at Aguateca is superbly executed and includes images of hummingbirds, pineapples and pelicans. Its plazas are dotted with stelae, including one on the Plaza Principal depicting Tante K’inich lording it over a ruler from Ceibal, who is shown cowering at his feet, and another that has been shattered by looters who hoped to sell the fragments. Aguateca is also the site of the Maya World’s only known bridge, which crosses a narrow gash in the hillside, but it’s not that impressive in itself.