Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
The Maya were among the most advanced civilizations of their time. Remnants of this fascinating culture can be found all the way from Chiapas in Mexico down to the south of Guatemala. Especially in Guatemala, a true paradise on earth, you can explore well-preserved Mayan temples, villages and sites hidden in deep forests, in valleys or on plateaus. The Mayan culture dates back to 2,000 BC. In the 10th and 11th century, the Maya were affected by long-lasting droughts and their fate was sealed when the Spanish colonized Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. At the peak of Mayan culture, the city of Tikal in Guatemala became one of the civilization’s most influential cities. Guatemala is one of the most fascinating places to learn more about their stunning limestone cities. Read on to learn more about the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Guatemala.
Imagine that it’s early in the morning, the Guatemalan rainforest is still covered in a gentle mist, and you watch, awestruck, as the sun slowly begins to rise behind the monumental temples of Tikal. In the treetops above you, the resident howling monkeys start off their day with almost deafening screams. This isn’t a scene taken straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, no, this is Tikal in Guatemala. The Maya first settled in this city, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in around 900 BC. As the years passed, it turned into one of the most significant sites of Mayan culture. During its golden age, the powerful empire had roughly 100,000 inhabitants. Nowadays, Tikal is a park and a popular tourist destination. If you are eager to see stunning limestone temples, Mayan palaces, residential buildings and public squares, this is the place where you will find them. By the way, only 15 % of the original Tikal has been restored and, knowing this, you will quickly come to realize just how enormous the city truly used to be. Tikal National Park as a whole covers an area of 575 square kilometers and is one of the most remarkable places in all of Central America. As Tikal is very popular with tourists, we recommend getting there early in the day. The city closest to Tikal is Flores: From there, you can easily take a shuttle bus or taxi to the pyramid-like temples.
Zaculeu means something like “white earth”. The ruins got their name from the white rock that they were made of. The way in which the white rock was used is entirely unique. In 1940, the pyramids were restored in order to once again let them be seen in their original splendor. The magnificent ruins are located not far from the city of Huehuetenango and the entrance fee is easily affordable. Don’t forget to bring some sunscreen, though. Unlike many other Mayan temples, these ruins are not hidden away in the jungle, but rather are situated on a plateau and remain fully exposed to the sun.
Yaxhá National Park
Yaxhá National Park is located close to the Guatemalan border with Belize and is a truly paradisaical place in the midst of green jungle. Situated by the shore of a beautiful lake that the Maya used as a fresh water source, you will find an abandoned Mayan city. Surrounded by howling monkeys and exotic birds, there are still around 500 monuments for you to discover in the national park. You might also spot some toucans while exploring the ruins. The pyramids are the heart of the national park and visitors are even allowed to climb them. Once you have reached the top, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view over the jungle.
In addition to Yaxhá, you can also visit the cities of Nakum and Naranjo in the national park. Naranjo was, by the way, one of the longest-existing Mayan cities in Guatemala. There are also boat tours to the island of the city of Topoxté that is located in the lagoon. Once you have entered the national park, you can either walk, ride a bike or take the shuttle service from one place to the next. For overnight stays, the area offers something for everyone. There are eco-lodges, hostels, hotels and camping facilities close to the park.
Would you like an insider’s tip? Visit the National Park El Mirador that is located close to the Mexican border. Due to the region’s lacking infrastructure, the park is not as crowded as Tikal and Yaxhá. You should know, though, that you are not allowed to enter the park without a guide.
Once you have left the park’s gates behind you, you are headed deeper into the jungle. Be careful, the lush nature that surrounds you is also the natural habitat of many wild animals and venomous snakes! These Mayan ruins in Guatemala are covered in jungle plants, and you will find that the ground beneath your feet is often muddy. The pyramid of El Tigre is the highlight of your multi-day trip through the jungle. At a height of 55 meters, it towers over its surroundings and, once you reach its top, you are guaranteed to have a fantastic view over the pristine, seemingly endless rainforest. Around the Danta Complex, you will find several other impressive pyramids. Don’t forget to bring good hiking boots, effective bug spray and a rain jacket to be fully prepared for your unforgettable jungle adventure to the lost Mayan cities!
Quiriguá is a special former Mayan city located in the southern part of Guatemala. Quiriguá is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is assumed that the city was founded by emigrants from the city of Tikal. In the city itself, you can find unique columns that are also known as stelas and which represent important events in the Mayan culture. Impressive pictures are carved into them. When paying the ruins a visit, you will also come across the enormous acropolis of Quiriguá. Particularly due to its incredible size, the building, which today lies in ruins, can only be considered as unique in its time. Setting off from Rio Dulce, you can reach Quiriguá with the help of private operators offering tours to the abandoned Mayan city.
What makes the ruins of Iximché so special is that, even today, they are still used for Mayan ceremonies. When traveling from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlán, close to the town of Tecapán, you can easily visit Iximché by car or bus. The ruins are not as well-preserved as the temples surrounding Tikal, but they still are a great place to have a picnic and enjoy the breathtaking views.
The Candelaria Caves
The Candelaria Caves are definitely a spiritual place. The Maya believed these mile-long caves close to Chisec to be the entrance to the underworld. You will see stalactites, hanging down from the ceiling of the deep, dark caves, and artistic cave paintings that the Maya carved into the stone walls during rituals and ceremonies. As the site is sacred to the Maya, tourists aren’t allowed to enter many parts of the caves. Only indigenous guides who are familiar with the spiritual caves are allowed to take tourists to some parts of the cave system. Some of the caves lead roughly 14 kilometers down into the ground or have chambers that are up to 200 meters high. Prepare yourself for an unforgettable, spiritual experience deep beneath the surface.
Lake Atitlán is, without the shadow of a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in all of Guatemala. The stunning lake is filled with crystal clear, blue fresh water and is located at the foot of the volcano Atitlán. In the background, the volcano rises majestically above the lake and creates a truly unforgettable sight. About 84,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption brought this stunning lake into existence. The same volcano is still active today and sometimes lets out a grumble. Around 300 BC, Maya populated the steep slopes of the volcano. While living their lives in small villages, they used the volcanic soil for agricultural purposes. Even today, spiritual rituals regularly take place in the area surrounding Lake Atitlán. It is definitely worth it to stay in the area for a few days. You can learn more about Mayan culture and, by going on exciting hiking trips, explore the volcanoes that surround the lake. You could also give into temptation and embark on a boat tour on this truly magical lake.
While Ceibal, another Mayan ruin in Guatemala, may be somewhat less visually impressive, it is of special historic significance. Ceibal was once one of the biggest cities in what is today known as southern Guatemala. On the site, you can find all kinds of monuments. Ranging from artistic columns to market squares and to temples that haven’t been restored and nature has taken over, there is a lot for you to see. You can get to Ceibal by either taking a long hike, or by getting on a boat in Sayaxché and crossing the Pasión River. The boat ride takes about an hour.
Dense stretches of rainforest cover the shores of Petexbatún Lagoon. Around 810 AD, the Mayan site was abandoned after a major fire. Since then, nature has reclaimed the site. The ruins were only rediscovered in 1957 and, since then, efforts have gone into restoring the place to its former glory. The combination of the light limestone and the lush, green rainforest that surrounds it creates a particularly spectacular picture. The city is surrounded by thick city walls. In the center of the Mayan site, you can find abandoned palaces.
Mixcu Viejo was one of the Mayan civilization’s more modern cities. It was taken over by the Spanish and burned down to the grounds. Today, only the stone city walls and some ruins of the city’s temples and palaces remain. The square-shaped temples stand on lush green hills and provide an incredibly beautiful view over the fertile, rolling countryside they are surrounded by. Mixcu Viejo is not too well known among tourists. As such, you can have a few quiet hours to yourself and explore the picturesque temple sites.