Autumn Equinox in Petén: Mayan temples, howling monkeys and hunting nighthawks

Guatemala Autumn Equinox Rowland Griffin

Autumn Equinox in Petén with nigel marven

It’s 4 am and I am fumbling around in the darkness attempting to find the flask of coffee on the table in front of me as I try and wake up and prepare for the day ahead. We are in the restaurant area of our hotel, El Sombrero in Yaxha-Nakum-El Naranjo National Park, in the warm yellow light of a burning oil lamp. There is no electricity here at this time of day. It feels like we have travelled back in time to some distant era of exploration.

We are here to film for ‘Wild Guatemala’ and as Nigel Marven and his team prepare their gear, it hits me. I am about to do something very few people get to do – experience sunrise in Yaxha, a little visited Mayan city ruin. Unlike its more famous neighbour, Tikal, there are no sunrise tours here, and the park doesn’t open to the public until 8am, well after the sun is in the sky. We have been given special permission to enter the park at 4.30am for this film.

With everything packed we clamber aboard the pickup and drive up the hill to the main temple complex at Yaxha (pronounced yash-ha). Like all Mayan temples its steep climb to the top, made all the more challenging by the fact that we are carrying ton’s of gear, lenses, cameras, tripods, the kitchen sink, and all in the dark.

The temple faces west towards the setting sun, so once at the top of the huge stone structure we head round to the back side and face the east. I let the pro’s set up their gear and rest my back against the cold stone wall and watch the spectacle of daybreak unfurl itself. The stone is a comforting support and I feel my chest relax as I a draw a deep breathe and exhale slowly. And then it dawns on me – I am here on Autumn equinox, watching the sunrise. This is special, like really special!

As the sun comes up we start to make out the horizon and some of the features of the forest that stands between it and us. there are pockets of mist hanging over the trees, the sky changes colour constantly, deep reds, pinks, oranges, and blues. The sun comes up behind the magical dance of the clouds. As it does so the howler monkeys start up their morning calls. As one troop quietens down, a neighbouring one starts up, and so the howlings roll around the forest below us. It stirs something quite primordial and ancient in the soul.

Our next stop today is Nakum, another Mayan city ruin deep in the jungle, its a 30 minute drive from Yaxha down a bumpy mud track, and by the time we get there the sun is burning bright in the blue sky above us. We walk through the sprawling complexes of palaces and temples, most of which are still covered with, or surrounded by, forest. It reminds me that nature will reclaim the land after we leave, and somehow that gives me a sense of hope for the future.

The Mayans were master skywatchers who tracked the movements of sun, stars, and planets with amazing accuracy, and built their cities and structures with them to align with the movements of celestial bodies they felt were important to understand. The most obvious of these alignments are the observatory complexes that are found in many cities, and Nakum is no exception to this. An observatory complex consists of four temples. From the main temple, one observes the sunrise as it moves from north to south and back again through the year. Facing you are three other temples in a line, the two outside ones mark the solstices while the central one marks the two equinoxes. If we had been standing on Nakum’s observatory temple at dawn, we would have seen the sun rise directly behind the middle temple in front of us.

After exploring Nakum for a few hours we returned to our hotel for lunch and a rest, before heading back to Yaxha to witness the equinox sunset. We climbed back up the temple lugging all our gear with us once more to join the groups of tourists gathering there to watch the equinox sunset. The sun was now at the other end of its daily arc as it descended towards the western horizon. As I stood there looking out over the plaza below, I could see Yaxha lagoon spread out in a break in the forest. Spider monkeys and howler monkeys were settling down for the night in the trees around us, and while we couldn’t see them, we could see the telltale movements of the branches as the animals moved around and got themselves comfortable. And as the sun shone its rich dusk light show we were treated to the spectacular air display of nine lesser nighthawks hunting insects in the air all around us.

It has to be one of the most amazing Autumn equinox experiences I have ever had, and it will stay with me for a long long time!

Sunset at Yaxha

Nakum observatory

Sunrise at Yaxha

Sunrise at Yaxha


Published : 11th September 2019


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