Ceibal National Park
Ceibal (or Seibal) was a medium-size Maya city, inhabited about same time as Tikal. The Maya name for the city means "white heron"; the name Ceibal was given by an archeologist because of three great ceiba trees in the site. In 830 AD, the new king of Ceibal built a four-sided pyramid, adorned with stelae (stone rectangles) at each stairway to the temple. On the stelae, the king is dressed with different costumes and wigs, representing his god-like position. More than a millennium later, these delicately carved stelae still stand in the pristine rain forest.
Boat ride down the Rio Pasion
Take a boat ride from Sayaxche down the Pasion River to the ruins of Ceibal. The ride in a flat-bottomed launch is part of the fun (takes about an hour). The wide green smooth-flowing Pasion River is flanked by dense trees, covered with vines in fantastic shapes. Turtles and crocodiles live in the river - you might see a small "croc" slip off a log into the water. Flowering plants and birds abound - cormorants, blue herons, parrots, vultures, eagles, kingfishers. Thatched houses dot the river banks and local people fish from canoes.
From the river, you walk up a rocky trail to the ruins, about 20 minutes. Here the jungle is just magical - iridescent blue butterflies in the air, termite houses on the ground, piercing sounds of birds and monkeys. It's hard to imagine that this was once a busy city; our own voices seemed to break the silence for the first time.
Only a small portion of Ceibal has been excavated and restored - an astronomical observatory, a small ball court, and the Grand Plaza. At the caretaker's house and road entrance to the ruins, check out the model of what Ceibal looked like in the 9th century. As you walk through the jungle, you'll see rocks poking up through forest plants and trees; these are ruins waiting to be restored.
In the Grand Plaza, the four-sided pyramid is low and compact, and the stelae are stellar. Look for King Ah-Bolon-Abta Wat'ul-Chatel decked out in ceremonial regalia, wearing a big elaborate feather headdresses and mosaic mask, or a jade collar and belt, plus jaguar tail, or a heron wig with flames sprouting out the back, jaguar mittens and socks, a shell beard and Sun God shield.
Ask your guide to take you on a longer trail to an unrestored residence - two bedrooms and a patio. The original stonework has lasted all these centuries. In the center of the patio is a young ceiba tree (sacred to the Maya).
A trip to Ceibal is a journey to a lost civilization, where there's no avenue of souvenir shops, no cold drinks, no theme park adaptations, only the rain forest and an amazing culture that left these ruins.
Tip: If you're doing Ceibal as a day trip from Flores, get an early start to beat the heat and other tourists. Also, be sure to bring mosquito repellent, and slather it on, the mosquitos can be thick.