Ever since the release of Star Wars in 1977, fans have been dreaming about living in that galaxy far, far away. While that may be just a little difficult, there are still the real-world locations that served as various worlds during filming, and they can be visited. In Galactic Backpacking, we explore these locations by country, looking at their histories and current attractions.
In this installment of Galactic Backpacking, we take a look at Guatemala, the country that was used in A New Hope for the scenes of Yavin 4, as well as for Kashyyyk in the infamous Holiday Special.
Guatemala (República de Guatemala in Spanish) is a Central American country spanning an area of 108,890 km2 (42,043 square miles) and is the most populous state in that region, with an estimated population of 15,806,675. Most live in the capital of Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.
Guatemala shares its borders Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the southeast. A country with a rocky past, it is still a relatively unexplored country that offers a lot to the traveler who visits thanks to a fascinating nature with lush jungles, big lakes, high mountains and spectacular volcanoes. The jungles still can be very impenetrable, causing the descendants of the Maya people to still live in isolation and by their ancient traditions. There are still undiscovered and mostly unexplored temples left to be found.
Capital: Guatemala City
Official languages: Spanish, outside the main tourist spots few people speak English
Government: Unitary presidential constitutional republic
Currency: Quetzal, divided into 100 centavos
Time zone: CST (UTC-6) in summer CST (UTC-5)
Roads: Drive on the right
Climate: Much of the country maintains a warm climate year round, though it is largely determined by altitude, and there are regional variations. The rainy season runs roughly from May to October, with the worst of the rain falling in September and October.
Visas and immigration: A valid passport is required for citizens of all Western European countries, USA, Canada, Mexico, all Central American countries, Australia, Israel, Japan and New Zealand. The majority of visitors get 90 days on arrival.
Safety: While the vast majority of the tourists who come every year experience no problems at all, general crime levels are high, and it’s not unknown for criminals to target visitors, including tourist shuttle buses. So it is important to try to minimize the chance of becoming a victim by keeping your money hidden and to avoid wearing flashy jewellery.
Best time to visit the shooting locations: November – April is the best time to visit the country. Shooting took place in March.
How to get there and other useful links
Guatemala: Most people will arrive by plane, landing in the capital, Guatemala City, at La Aurora International Airport (IATA: GUA). For visitors from the US and Canada most flights to Guatemala are routed through a few US hub cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. For European visitors it is only possible to fly directly to Guatemala from Madrid, in a flight that stops also in Miami.
Tikal: You could fly from Guatemala City to the Mundo Maya international airport in Flores, but while this is much quicker than a drive from the capital, it also more expensive. For those deciding to drive from Guatemala City, it will take between seven to eight hours to reach Tikal, but you drive through a stunning scenery. From Flores to Tikal is a distance of 60 km, so Flores would make a good alternative to the three hotels and camping site that the Tikal National Park offers. Especially considering that there is no electricity in the park, nor ATMs or banks.
Maya Expeditions – For guided expeditions in the Petén
Tikal – Temple IV
Tikal is a large archaeological site and was the largest of Maya cities during the “Classic Era” over 1000 years ago. Today it’s one of the most fascinating and enjoyable of the Mayan sites to visit, largely due to its remoteness, but also its jungle setting. While many tourists come each year to visit the many temples, it never feels crowded.
Make sure you have the time for a full hike around the park. This could take three to four hours, or 10 km (six miles), but brings you to all the sites that are must-sees like the Twin Complexes Q & R, Complex P, Temple IV (also called Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent), the Great Plaza & Mundo Perdido (The Lost World).
If you come early in the morning (the park opens at 6.00 a.m. and closes at 6.00 p.m.), you can watch the spider monkeys disperse into the jungle from their sleeping places inside the park. Other animals like howler monkeys or coatimundi can be seen or heard as well. The park also holds a well-deserved reputation for exotic bird watching like toucans.
Adult tickets for foreigners are Q150 ($20 US dollars ) and children under 12 are free. There are various tours available like a sunrise tour or a canopy tour in which you soar along zip lines above the jungle.
In March 1977, Richard Edlund, Richard Alexander, and Pepi Lenzi set out to find a jungle in Guatemala where they could shoot the plates they needed to create in Yavin 4. They found what they were looking for in Tikal, and spend five days of shooting at Temple IV, filming from the entranceway of the comb structure looking eastward back towards the Tikal Plaza.
In the first shot of Yavin 4 you see the Millennium Falcon coming toward the camera and you can spot Temple II and III sticking out of the jungle canopy. Funny enough, the next shot has the Falcon flying from left to right, but in the same location. They only altered the angle slightly so that you can now see a Rebel guard scanning the ship next to a piece of wall from Temple IV. The Millennium Falcon turns and lowers itself above Temple III.
While the top of the Great Temple on Yavin 4 has not always been consistent within various sources, Temple IV, the temple that they filmed from, seemed to have been the inspiration for Al Williamson when he had to draw the Great Temple for Classic Star Wars #8.
The next shot of Yavin 4 that we see is that of the heroes standing in front of the entrance of the Great Temple. However, this was not filmed in Guatemala. The background is a matte painting and the live-action part was filmed in front of a hangar at a Royal Air Force base: Cardington Air Establishment in Bedfordshire, England.
Visual effects artist Lorne Peterson joined the crew on the third day of shooting, and they immediately coaxed the model maker into donning Rebel fatigues and entering the lookout nest. The previous day the crew had found chinks in the stones to put the poles of the lookout nest in, stabilizing it for a person to get in the glued-on trashcans. Yet due to the height and the peril of being on the border of the summit, it was scary to climb in. So when Lorne Peterson arrived to join the crew on the next day, they immediately coaxed him into the lookout nest, and he became the Rebel we see in these shots.
The misty jungle shot that follows after the first time we see the lookout nest, was filmed early in the morning from Temple IV on the second day of filming.
The above image may come from A New Hope, but this very same shot was re-used in the Holiday Special to depict the Millennium Falcon flying over Chewbacca’s house on Kashyyyk. Thanks to pan and scan, a technique used to adjust widescreen images from movies to fit on a TV screen, the image loses Temple II as seen on the left of the image.
What else to do in Guatemala?
Besides Tikal it is well worth it to visit:
Guatemala City: The National Archeological Museum features a rich collection of Maya related items from the Petén region.
Flores: A beautiful colonial-style lake town in the Petén region. The region is littered with Maya ruins, both discovered and undiscovered.
Antigua: Former capital city with a large legacy of colonial architecture.
Atitlan Lake: This lake is surrounded with three volcanoes and little Maya villages.
Chichicastenango: A traditional K’iche’ Maya culture town with a twice weekly market (on Thursdays and Sundays) that is ideal for souvenir shopping and emerging yourself in the local daily life.
Volcán de Pacaya: This active volcano erupts on a regular basis, offering a very spectacular view of the lava and ash clouds.
Copán & Quiriguá: If you like the Maya ruins of Tikal, you will find more here.
Join us next time for a trip to Tatooine — which is closer to a bright center of your universe than you may expect!
Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, adapted by Stefan Pfister.
Temple IV image courtesy from CyArk
Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands does research for the Rogues Gallery feature in Star Wars Insider under the supervision of Leland Chee. He is an editor for TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub, he’s an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook and has written the backstory for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?”. Recently he finished his Tourism Management study and he cannot wait to work in the tourism industry.