By Maggie Farrand

In the small Guatemalan village of Uaxactún, situated within an archaeological site dating back to 700BC, hundreds of visitors gathered to watch the vernal equinox this past March.

From Uaxactun’s Maya Astronomical Observatory – formed by a pyramid standing in front of a long structure topped by three temples – one can observe the sun rising directly above the central temple during the equinox and behind the side temples during the solstices.

Counterpart has been supporting Uaxactun’s tourism commission in an internal strengthening process which has led to better preparation for accommodating tourists and improved marketing activities, including the Equinox Festival which, during the past 2 years has brought hundreds of tourists to the village.

Uaxactún is located in northeastern Guatemala, 50 miles from Tikal National Park.  March 18th through 22nd marked the 2nd annual Vernal Equinox Festival celebrated at the Uaxactun archeological site.

This year, approximately 600 visitors traveled to Uaxactún to participate in the festival. Festival-goers sampled local cuisine, listened to marimba music, participated in guided tours, listened to cultural presentations and observed Maya cultural practices, such as the Maya Ball game. At the time of the equinox, the crowd gathered by the Astronomical Observatory to witness the sun’s rising above the central temple.

Since 2008, Counterpart International, in collaboration with the local tourism commission, USAID and local partner Asociación Balam, has been supporting the communities surrounding Uaxactun by bolstering their tourism sector. Counterpart helped identify potential tourist sites and hosted workshops to introduce Counterpart’s newly-developed Sustainable Tourism Good Practices Manual to the communities. In addition, in 2009 and 2010, working with the National Technical Training Institute (INTECAP) and the Ministry of Tourism (INGUAT), Counterpart formally trained and certified area tour guides—some of the first such guides in the country.

The Equinox Festival arose as a way for the local tourism commission to attract new visitors and generate buzz about Uaxactún’s beautiful view of the vernal equinox. Last year’s inaugural event was a huge success, bringing new visitors and revenue to the area. In 2011, the event was expanded from three to five days, and several improvements were introduced based on the experience of the previous year. Counterpart supported the general organization of the event as well as the production of promotional materials.