4 Must Visit Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

I recently traveled through Guatemala for two weeks and visited several historical locations along the way. What really attracted me to Guatemala this year was that 2012 is the year of the Mayans. There are more then 1,500 Mayan ruins in Guatemala, most of which are located in the northern region of the Petén Basin.

There are hundreds of ruins, however, hundreds more are still buried under dense forest. It is extremely costly to excavate, restore, and maintain the ruins. Here are four Mayan ruins in Guatemala that you cannot miss!

Zaculeu

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This is considered to be the the white city of the Mayans and unlike most of the Mayan ruins most people visit, Zaculeo is located on the outskirts of the little-known city of Huehuetenango in western Guatemala, which is about a 1-hour drive from Mexico. The site dates back to the Classic period of the Mayans and is a must visit if you want to experience a different type of Mayan structure. It served as the capital of the Mam Kingdom from AD 250-600. The word Zaculeu means “white earth in Mam. What sets it apart is the the material the Mam used to construct their city- a white stone completely different than any other Mayan site. The site is no where as big as Tikal or Yaxha but it’s a beautiful place nonetheless.

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This was the first Mayan ruin I visited and I was literally blown away by its beauty. It should not take more then 1 hour to see this site unless your going trigger happy with your camera. Tip: climb structure number 6, which is the tallest, and from there you get great views of the entire site.

Quirigua

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Is completely different from what most people would consider to be a Mayan site. Instead of the iconic tall pyramids, Quirigua has stelas, or tall stone carvings that have stood for over 1,300 years. The area has been inhabited since approximately 400 BC, which is considered the late pre-classic age of the Mayans. The people who settled in Quirigua are believed to have come from Tikal. Quirigua is located in the southeastern part of Guatemala, about a 1-hour drive to Honduras and about 2 hours from Guatemala City.

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The must see here is Stela D. It is the most intact stela because it was found toppled on the ground. The figure depicted in Stela D is King K’ak Tilw Chan, who was the “kings of kings” in Quirigua. His claim to fame was his defeat of the rival city of Copan (in Honduras). Within the site you can see the acropolis, which is perfectly intact and right across from it you can see the sleeping quarters of the city’s rulers.

Book a 2 Day Tour of Copan and Quirigua here!

Yaxha

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Was first introduced to the mainstream public in 2005 when it was selected as the location to host the American TV series “Survivor: Guatemala- The Mayan Empire”. It has now become a popular attraction for those traveling through the Petén Basin and also for tourists in Belize as it is only 30 minutes from the Guatemala/Belize border. The name comes from the neighboring lake which provided the city its fresh water supply.

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This could be considered to be a smaller version of Tikal. Yaxha its a vast complex with more then 500 structures, but most of its pyramids are still covered by the forest. The two ball courts and the forty stelas are beautiful and should not be missed. There is a section with three pyramids. One can be climbed, however you need to be careful and walk in a zig-zag fashion.

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Most visitors come to Yaxha in the afternoon hours before the sun sets because from Temple 216 you can catch views of one the best sunsets over Lake Yaxha. If you’re visiting Tikal and you have time to visit another Mayan complex, then I recommend you visit Yaxha.

Tikal

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Needs no introduction. It is the heart and soul of the Mayan world in Guatemala. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for being both a natural wonder and man-made wonder. Most people only visit the northern region of the Petén Basin to pay a visit to Tikal. Tikal was a giant city that dates back to the year 200 AD. It was later abandoned in the year 900 AD, which falls under the classic period of the Mayans. They say the city was abandoned because of a multi-decade drought that drove the people of Tikal to leave and seek water supplies elsewhere. Tikal is now a monumental complex that takes at least one day to see in its entirety.

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There are a few thousand structures in Tikal, but only a fraction have been excavated. Every time you see a hill in Tikal  this means there is a pyramid underneath that has yet to be uncovered. The most notable Temples are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Check out the Best Hotels to Stay near Tikal, Guatemala

Temple 1 and 2 face one another and are the most iconic. You can climb Temple 2 and from there get awesome photos of Temple 1 and the acropolis. Temple 5 is a beauty, but when I visited the stairs were under construction. Temple 3 is also stunning but they are still removing overgrown plants from its base. Temple 4 is also still covered in forest but they have built a stairway that takes you to the top of it, and from there you can get the best picture of Temples 1, 2, 3 and 5 as well as the dense forest surrounding them.

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As you walk around the complex you will hear Howler monkeys in the distance. They are the owners of the jungle nowadays. If you don’t visit Tikal it’s as if you never visited Guatemala. It’s truly a can’t-miss location and merits at least one full day.

Book your Tikal and Yaxha 2-Day Mayan Temple tour here!

I hope you enjoyed this post about a culture that I fell in love with while in Guatemala. The Mayans’ culture is an ancient one, but it is still alive and well. They are everywhere in Guatemala and are the true owners of the land. By the year 2020 the Guatemalan governments plans to have most of the lost pyramids of the Mayans uncovered. There will be more cities uncovered, more beautiful steles to behold, and hopefully more insight gained into the unique people that have lived here for thousands of years.

Check out some more Guatemala Tours here!

Did you find our Mayan Ruins in Guatemala post useful? Tell us about your experiences in Guatemala! Leave a comment below.

Special thanks to Guatemala Toursim Organization. 

11 Responses to “4 Must Visit Mayan Ruins in Guatemala”

  1. doug eibe

    i saw Zaculcu back in 77,i was very impressed with it ,we enjoyed crawling all over the ruins , i had lost my pictures thank you for letting me see it again

    Reply
  2. Rich Eggleston

    Visiting the Mayan ruins at Tikal, we stayed at a resort that Our was overrun with spider monkeys, friendly but furry creatures. While sitting at the outdoor bar, one jumped into my lap, like a warm hairy three-year old. But this monkey grabbed my glasses and dashed off toward the jungle, me in hot pursuit. The monkey climbed into the only tree before the jungle began, hung from the lowest branch and dangled my glasses to taunt me. I dangled my camera in response, which the monkey decided was even more fun, jumped down, dropped my glasses and reached for the camera, which I held firmly by its strap, while I retrieved my specs. The moral of the story: 35 million years of evolution was not for naught. Or, as my wife said, she has proof I’m smarter than a monkey.

    Reply
    • David

      Hi Rich, thank you for sharing your monkey story with us! I am glad your trip to Tikal was an exciting one and that you got your glasses back from the monkey 🙂

      Reply
  3. Ray

    I visited Tikal back in 2009 while I was based in San Ignacio, Belize. While you can pretty much climb any of the Mayan ruins in Belize, Tikal had some exceptions as they tried to restore some of the main temples. Needless to say, it remains one of my favourite travel highlights. Thanks for the info about the other three Mayan ruins. I want to properly visit Guatemala in the future and will certainly check these other ones out!

    Reply
  4. David Elsmore

    Thanks a great deal for sharing your travel experiences which I located during a google search about Quirigua in Guatamala which I intend to visit during my mega 3, perhaps now 4-5 month, tour of central America and this maya complex has been highly recommended, more so because of the intricate steale. Anyway I am now delighted after reading your post there are other sites I have on my travel schedule which I now will visit during my tour. I will post my blog and pics on my Facebook account.
    Thanks
    David

    Reply
  5. Ames

    Thank you. What a fantastic post. I really appreciate your recommendations and descriptions. But as a photographer, I particularly appreciated your notes on the different spots where the best views were to be had, and what shots could be taken. I learned from your post, so thank you again.

    Reply
    • David

      Hi Ames, I am glad you enjoyed the article! Wishing you a wonderful trip and gorgeous photos 🙂 Safe travels, David

      Reply
  6. Rob Berry

    David,
    I visited this site in 1976, and recall the experience as I write about our great adventure in those years. It was much less developed and many of the ruins were still covered with jungle. From the top of the main pyramid, you could make out the mounts that comprised the structures of the ancient city. Access was by a dirt road for some parts of the journey from Belize City to Lake Atitlan. Though we heard there were monkeys in the jungle we didn’t see any. Apparently that has changed.

    Reply
    • David

      Hi Rob, thanks for stopping by! So cool to hear about how it was back when you visited.

      Reply
  7. Erin

    David, my friend and I are planning on going to Tikal in just a few weeks. We are so excited! My friend is a little uneasy about the link you provided about the 2-day Mayan tour because of the lack of reviews on the service. It is quite a bit of money to do so. Did you actually go on this tour? If so, is it worth it?

    Thanks for this article.

    Reply

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