Sightseeing: El Zotz

It was in 2005 when I first visited El Zotz. During my first trip to Guatemala, I was living in San José, Petén, studying medicinal plants and their uses at the Institute for Maya-Ethnobotany and Maya research Playa Diana field station. Curious about Mayan history and archaeology, after just one month I had already visited El Motúl of San José and the popular archaeological sites Tikal and Yaxhá. I was looking for something “off the tourist trail” when I found El Zotz. Since then, I’ve been back various times and its history and legends, covered by the thick rainforest of Petén, yet to be revived, have never lost their magic.

The biotope El Zotz, today officially named San Miguel La Palotada-El Zotz, is a protected area in the municipality of San José, in the department of Petén, and borders the Tikal National Park. To visit the site, experienced tour guides will lead you there from the village Cruce a Dos Aguadas through the thick and vivid rainforest. You can stay for one or more nights, and real adventurers can walk the 23km with your guide through the jungle to Tikal (about an 8-hour journey).

San Miguel La Palotada-El Zotz was declared a national monument in 1970 and houses the archaeological site also named El Zotz, which gained popularity in 2010 with the discovery and excavation of the royal tomb of King Chak’ Ahk in the El Diablo (The Devil) pyramid, which is El Zotz’s tallest temple structure at approximately 45m (148ft) high. The name El Diablo not only refers to an ancient mask found at the site that resembles the face of a devil, but also to the challenging climb up to the top of the pyramid; it is so high that you can see past the trees of the jungle to the temples of Tikal. An active archaeological site, El Zotz made the news again in July 2012 when archeologists announced the discovery of another temple, the Templo del Sol Nocturno.

The monumental architecture of the site’s core contains 49 buildings divided into 4 main groups. It features various pyramids, palaces, plazas, a ball court, and 4 large chultuns (bottle-shaped, underground, storage chambers possibly used as water reservoirs). Conservation work has been carried out there, particularly since 2006, by the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala together with Brown University of the United States.

The society that left behind the archaeological site of El Zotz had its peak during the Classic period of Maya civilization (300 BC to AD 600), but the site remained inhabited until the Post-Classic period (AD 900). It was a kingdom that was flanked by other, more powerful dynasties, and according to inscriptions, it allied itself with the enemies of Tikal.

The site, as well as the biotope, is called El Zotz (“The City of Bats”) because of the large number of bats living in caves in the nearby cliffs. There are 43 bat species here: while 3 of them are “vampire” bats that feed on the blood of animals, the rest of these nocturnal mammals, perhaps unjustly feared by many, have an assorted diet of insects, fruit, nectar, and some small animals. They are also responsible for the pollination and propagation of hundreds of species of plants throughout the jungle. To see the spectacle of thousands of bats leaving the darkness of their caves at sunset for the night sky, you must enter a “secret garden” and walk down a mystical path that leads to the huge rock enclosure which houses these creatures doomed to darkness. Once there, be prepared to witness one of the most wonderful manifestations of nature that human senses can admire. While the sound of the wings of the uncountable number of bats leaving their cave starts to rise they flutter out and into the dark jungle forming a black stream in the dark blue night sky, you’ll be immersed in the magical energy of this unique place, which is home to thousands of years of Mayan history and legend. It will take you to another world.

Because of the scenic beauty, the jungle and the caves, El Zotz is the perfect place for those who are interested not only in the history of ancient stones, but also in witnessing the grace of nature from which our stories are drawn.

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