By Amy E. Robertson
I took a deep breath, and concentrated on steadying myself. A seemingly endless expanse of jungle spread before me, punctuated by two immense stone structures jutting out of the treetops in the distance. I tightened my death grip on the wrist of my lively nine-year-old. We were some 200 feet above the ground, at the altar of Tikal’s Temple IV. No kind of safety rail between us and a precipitous drop to the ground. What a high.
Spring break 2012, and we had followed the stream of cars out of our normally-congested hometown of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A few hours later, we had abandoned the stream of cars headed to Honduras’s beaches and jungles, and set off west instead, toward Guatemala. My husband, kids and I are leaving Honduras next month after nearly five years. We had struggled to figure out what vacation destination merited our final hurrah. My seven-year-old daughter was fine anywhere with a swimming pool. My son had studied the ancient Maya at school during the month of March, and his enthusiasm for the Maya sealed the deal. We would visit one of my bucket list destinations: Tikal .
Round-trip air tickets Tegucigalpa-Tikal were US$450 each. Ouch. Would two days at Tikal be worth four days in the car with two young kids?
We arrived at the entrance to Tikal National Park at 8:30 in the morning on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, with what seemed like half of the population of Guatemala, not to mention a good chunk of international tourists (Good Friday is a national holiday throughout Central America). Touts tapped at our car window. One was a guide (look for the large visible badges that show the guide is certified), and we negotiated a rate of US$45 for a private tour. After twenty minutes of checking water bottles, applying sunscreen, and picking up souvenirs, we were ready to enter the Mundo Maya–the Mayan World.
While the main paths of Tikal were packed with people, our guide Nidia often pulled us off to secondary trails between the clusters of ruins. Their leafy pathways provided a welcome respite from the hundred-degree weather, as well as the crowds. We climbed up and down awe-inspiring temples, built by rulers with nicknames like Señor Chocolate (his glyph, or carved symbol, is a split cocoa pod; his real name was Hasaw Chan Kawil) and for women with names like Lady Twelve Macaw. Nidia regaled us with tales of rival cities, descriptions of ballgames that preceded sacrifices to the gods, and explanations of Mayan astronomy. We left Tikal six hours later, having skipped lunch, but sated with Mayan imagery and stories.
That evening back at our hotel in the village of El Remate, we consulted our pocket guide Moon Maya 2012  by my fellow Moon author, Joshua Berman, and decided to strike out the following morning to the lesser-known site of Yaxhá . Roughly the same distance from El Remate or Flores as Tikal, Yaxhá is far less visited, but just about as impressive, with more than 500 structures spread over two square miles. Towering temples, a ball court, an acropolis. Unlike Tikal, Yaxhá is set along a lake (the kids loved taking a dip after climbing all those temples under the hot sun!), and boats can be hired to take visitors to a burial site on the tiny island of Topoxté. Most unlike Tikal, there were no crowds. What we saw instead were modern Maya performing a religious ceremony at the “Maler Group” of temples, and families of howler monkeys napping in the treetops. Those with more time can stay at a covered campsite (bring your own tent, there are bathrooms and showers) and head to the farther-flung sites of Nakum  or Naranjo, which are within the same park and covered by the same admission fee.
For us, it was time to turn around and head back to the hotel for one last swim and a good night’s rest, before hitting the road the next morning for our return to Honduras. Moon Maya 2012had tempted us to take the long road home, so that we could stop at the Mayan ruins of Quiriguá (Guatemala), and Copán (Honduras) on our way.
We had been in the car for more than four hours, trading iPods, napping and occasionally squabbling, when we reached Quiriguá . A kilometer or two off the highway, an enormous grassy plaza opened before us, its dimensions matched by the stelae, or carved Mayan statues, that rose up from it. What Quiriguá lacks in temples, it makes up for with grandeur. Its 1,066-foot long plaza, and the 35-foot, 65-ton Stela E, are the largest plaza and stela of the Mayan world. A detour well worth making, before we pressed on to reach Copán before nightfall.
A few more hours in the car, a hassle-free border crossing, and we reached Copán in time for dinner at Hacienda San Lucas , a hotel that has revived traditional Mayan recipes in its four-course dinners. In the morning, we glimpsed the ruins of Copán from the grassy knoll in front of the hacienda’s patio. We hopped in the car, and minutes later the kids were scrambling up a temple in Copan’s Great Plaza, while my husband studied a sacrificial altar, and I snapped pictures of one of Copan’s intricately-carved stelae.
We got back home to Tegucigalpa that evening after seven long hours on the road. Was our immersion in the Mundo Maya worth all that time in the car?
I’d known the answer as soon as I had summited Temple IV. For each and every one of us, it was a resounding yes.
Amy E. Robertson is the co-author of the fifth edition of Moon Honduras and the Bay Islands , and author of the sixth edition, due on shelves October 2012. She currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and will be relocating to Beirut, Lebanon in May 2012.
For trip inspiration, take a look at Moon Maya 2012 . For in-depth information on the history of Mayan sites, as well as restaurant and accommodation tips, check out Moon Guatemala  and Moon Honduras .
Photo © Amy E. Robertson