Sayaxché is a Guatemalan city of close to 50,000, home to mainly forest workers and logging companies but famous as a tourist destination for its proximity to the ancient ruins of Ceibal and Dos Pilas. Sayaxché can be reached from Flores using a newly paved road. Described as river country, Sayaxché is located on the muddy southern banks of Rio de La Pasion near Lake Petexbatún. Sayaxché is often used as a base for exploring the southern regions of El Petén, which are full of obscure ruins and excavation sites.
Sayaxché does not have much of a history or at least not much is known. The city was founded very recently in 1874 when it was settled by forest workers employed by the Jamet Sastré lumber company. While Sayaxché was not a city until very recently, it belongs to a region that has been inhabited by the Mayans since 9th century BC, located near the ancient cities of Ceibal and Dos Pilas.
Sayaxché’s main attraction is the impressive ruins of the ancient city of Ceibal, accessible by boat or by an unpaved road. These ruins are located up the La Pasión River about eight miles from Sayaxché – the same river used by the logging companies to float their ply woods. Ceibal was first inhabited around 800 BC, expanding and flourishing until the 1st century AD ushered in a period of decline. The decline was slow and steady, spanning four hundred years. By 500AD, Ceibal was altogether abandoned. Around 600AD, the city was once again reoccupied, redeveloping into a major Mayan city. Unfortunately, it was conquered by the Maya city of Dos Pilas in 735 AD and subjected to foreign rule for six decades. Once Ceibal regained its independence around 800AD, it flourished for another hundred years or so reaching a population of 10,000 at its peak. But the city was once again abandoned by around 930AD.
Today, the Ceibal site consists of several restored temples, including the only circular Maya temple ever found. The ruins are most noted for its beautifully carved steles, which were sculpted using high quality limestone; there are a total of 56 steles to complement the city’s four plazas, 31 monuments, 22 altars, two Mesoamerican ball courts, and one astronomical observatory. The architecture of Ceibal is very much Toltec-influenced, characterized by square hieroglyphs and bone ornaments in the nose of figures.
Dos Pilas is the archaeological site of another ancient city and Sayaxché’s other main attraction. This ancient city is located about 12 miles or so southwest from Sayaxché and can be reached by hiking, driving, or horseback. It was founded as a secondary city to Tikal in 629 AD and did not last very long; it was abandoned altogether by 760AD. When the city was originally founded by Tikal, the king of Tikal handed the throne of Dos Pilas to his brother. Dos Pilas, however, was sacked soon afterwards by the rival city-state of Kalakmul, who reinstalled the king as a puppet ruler and forced him to launch a war against Tikal. Dos Pilas was eventually successful in sacking Tikal. The victory made the city an instant major power in the region. Dos Pilas then began launching campaigns in the region to expand its power. The ensuing years brought forth rivalries between Dos Pilas and its neighboring city-states, all of whom saw Dos Pilas as an important city because of its control over the trade route of La Pasíon River. Unfortunately, Dos Pilas and its Kalakmul allies were soundly defeated in 760 AD by Tikal and the city was abandoned as a result.
Today, the ruins of Dos Pilas consist of 500 mounds as well as pyramids, temples, palaces, and monuments. Among its structures includes the Duende Pyramid, which is the tallest pyramidal temple in the La Pasíon River region. The site’s most significant feature, however, is its hieroglyphic staircases recently uncovered in one of the city’s palaces. The hieroglyphs recount the story and history of the fighting between Dos Pilas, Tikal, and its neighbors. Almost all that is known about Dos Pilas is derived from these hieroglyphs.