All posts in Mayan Ruins Guatemala

  • El Mirador

    El Mirador, located within the furthest reaches of the Peten jungle in Guatemala, just 4 miles (7 km) south of the Mexican border, was one of the first large cities in the Americas. Raised causeways spread out from the city to some of the other Mayan cities in the lowlands, including Nakbé and Wakná, all of which may have been dominated by El Mirador. The construction of these causeways would have involved a massive number of Mayans to build: The causeway to Nakbé alone was 8 miles (13 km) long. But these constructions are peanuts compared to the size of the Danta pyramid complex at El Mirador, which is the largest structure ever constructed by the ancient Maya. And the Danta complex was even joined by other massive pyramids, such as El Tigre.

    El Mirador was virtually abandoned by 150 AD, its power taken over most likely by Tikal and nearby Calakmul. In the seventh and eighth century AD it was re-occupied although never approaching the levels seen during the Late Preclassic heydays. It wasn’t until 1926 before El Mirador was sighted again. Four years later its jungle covered temples were photographed from the air by Percy Madeira Jr. as part of an aerial reconnaissance of Maya sites. In 1962, Ian Graham surveyed and mapped El Mirador Guatemala.

    La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. Photo credit: Dennis

    La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. Photo credit: Dennis


    El Mirador flourished from about the 6th century BC, reaching its height from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, with a peak population of perhaps more than a hundred thousand people. The difference in sheer size between El Mirador and its neighbours is a clear sign to its greater power. El Mirador almost certainly represents the earliest emergence of a powerful state in the Maya lowlands. Its rapid growth and unprecedented size have changed previous theories about the origins and development of the Maya civilization.

    The scale of architectural planning and construction at El Mirador indicates the presence of a powerful elite. Without surviving royal portraits on carved monuments there is no direct evidence for individual rulers. A possible clue regarding the rulers at El Mirador however may be found on a series of vases with the names and inauguration dates for a sequence of 19 rulers, beginning with a founder nicknamed ‘Skyraiser’. Although they are identified as rulers of the ‘snake’ (Kan or Kaan), the name associated with the Mayan site of Calakmul to the north, the dates of their reigns do not correspond to the reigns of Calakmul’s known kings. But these dates do match a late preclassic chronology beginning in 396 BC and extending into the 1st century AD. The identity of the city ruled by these kings remains a mystery but the most likely possibility is El Mirador. In fact these vases were manufactured in the El Mirador basin.

    Map of El Mirador, Guatemala

    The map shows the location of El Mirador. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    There are hundreds of structures at El Mirador, but a major ongoing excavation has never been undertaken, so almost everything is still hidden beneath the jungle. Visitors have to use their imagination to picture the city at its height of its power.

    The Western Group of structures at El Mirador is dominated by the El Tigre temple. This pyramid measures 18 stories high (more than 196 ft or 60 meter) and its base covers an area six times the area of Tikal’s biggest pyramid, Temple IV.

    The Western Group is linked by a causeway to the Eastern, or Danta Group. The Danta Group is the largest complex at El Mirador, although it incorporated a low natural hill. The Danta Group rises above a basal terrace in three stages. The lowest platform is about 23 ft (7 m) high and support a series of buildings. The second smaller platform rises about another 23 ft and in turn support a third platform, some 69 ft (21 m) high. Crowning this third stage is a monumental triadic pyramid at its eastern apex know as Danta, rising about 230 ft (70 m) above the forest floor.

    Visit El Mirador

    Visiting El Mirador, Guatemala is not for the faint of heart. Conditions at the site are rudimentary: there are no toilets, beds, cold beverages or bathrooms. The village of Carmelita is the nearest point to the El Mirador ruins that you can go by car. From there it takes a grueling trek of at least five days and four nights through the jungle with ants, ticks and mosquitoes that never relent. That said, people who make this journey will never forget it.

  • Zaculeu Guatemala

    Located in the highlands of western Guatemala, Zaculeu was the capital of the Mam, one of the principal highland tribes before the Spanish conquest. The site contains several large temples, plazas and a ball court, but unfortunately it has been restored with a shocking lack of refinement and accuracy.

    Knowledge of the Mayan ruins was never lost and it was visited by American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and English architect Frederick Catherwood in 1840. The two excavated one of the mounds and recovered some ceramic vessels. The ruins were reconstructed in 1946 under the auspices of the United Fruit Company, a company notorious for its heavy-handed practices throughout Central America. The reconstruction included re-coating of the walls with white plaster leaving them stark and undecorated while the original stonework shows through in only a few places. Still Zaculeu has a peculiar atmosphere and is definitely worth a visit.

    The Mam called their capital Chinabajul . K’iche conquerors changed the name to Zaculeu, meaning “White Earth” which refers to the white limestone plaster used by the Mam on all their buildings.

    Structures I, the largest pyramid at Zaculeu. Photo credit: HJPD

    Structures I, the largest pyramid at Zaculeu. Photo credit: HJPD

    History of Zaculeu

    The Mam first settled here during the Early Classic Period from 250–600 AD. Protected by two ravines and a river, the area quickly became their capital. The largest constructions at Zaculeu date from the Classic Period (AD 250–900).

    According to the Popul Vuh book of the K’iche’, a more powerful neighboring tribe, Zaculeu was brought under their rule between 1400 and 1475. Recent radiocarbon dating however has pushed back the date of the K’iche’ invasion by three centuries, and their conquest may have taken place as early as the 12th century. The K’iche’ rebuilt over earlier Mam structures in a distinctively K’iche’ style.

    When the Spanish showed up in 1525 the K’iche’ were still the dominant force in the highlands. For the first few months the Spaniards, led by Gonzalo de Alvarado, cousin of Pedro de Alvarado, dedicated themselves to conquering the K’iche’. Once they had achieved this they turned their attention to the Mam. The main Mam population was situated in Xinabahul at the time but they quickly withdrew to Zaculeu under the leadership of Caibal Balam. The Spanish army settled outside the city and Gonzalo offered the Maya a simple choice: become Christian or face death. Attracted by neither option the Mam held out for six weeks. But the natural fortifications of Zaculeu meant they were boxed in and the Maya started to starve. Caibal Balam finally surrendered the city to the Spanish in October of 1525. When the Spanish entered the city they found dead bodies everywhere, with the survivors eating the corpses of the dead. After this Zaculeu was abandoned.

    Map of Zaculeu

    The map shows the location of Zaculeu. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.

    Zaculeu Highlights

    There are more than 40 structures here, some of which are nothing more than grass covered mounds. The buildings are grouped around small plazas and were generally built from masonry coated with a thick layer of plaster. Most of the restored structures border Plazas 1 and 2. On the southeast side of Plaza 1 sits Structure 1, a 39 foot (12 m) high pyramid. It has eight terraces and the temple on top is entered through three doorways. The temple is approached via a double stairway rising from the plaza below. The pyramid was built in seven construction stages with the visible remains dating to the early Postclassic period.

    There is a small museum on the site with examples of some of the burial techniques used and some interesting artifacts found during excavation. The artifacts include items fashioned from turquoise and metal artifacts that were either influenced by or imported from Mexico and southern Central America.

    Visit Zaculeu

    Zaculeu is located about 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometres) outside of the modern city of Huehuetenango. Buses to Zaculeu leave about every 30 minutes from Huehuetenango. The entrance fee is US$4.50.

  • Yaxha Guatemala

    One of the largest Maya sites in Guatemala, Yaxha is located approximately 18 miles (30 km) southeast from Tikal between Lake Yaxha and Lake Sacnab. Spread out over nine plazas the site contains over 500 structures, including 40 stelae, several pyramid temples and ball courts. Yaxha is one of the few Maya cities to retain its traditional Maya name, which translates as “green waters”.

    The complex was discovered in 1904 by Austrian explorer Teobert Maler, who was rowing across lake Yaxha and became aware of an extended chain of elevations in the jungle. Convinced that these were Mayan ruins, he began explorations immediately. The site became only popular recently after the TV reality show Survivor: Guatemala – The Mayan Empire was filmed here in 2005.

    Structure 216 at Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo credit: Whirling Phoenix

    Structure 216 at Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo credit: Whirling Phoenix


    The relative lack of inscribed monuments found at Yaxhá has made tracking its history difficult, though it appears it was a major player during the Classic period supporting a population of more than 20,000 people. It is believed that Yaxhá was locked into an ongoing power struggle during much of this time with its smaller neighbor, Naranjo, about 12 miles (20 km) northeast. Naranjo eventually overran Yaxhá in 799 AD.

    Map of Yaxha

    The map shows the location of Yaxha. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    Yaxhá’s highest structure is Structure 216 that has a total height of over 100 feet if the remains of a temple on top is included. The pyramid offers wonderful views of the lakes and forests from its summit.

    On Plaza C stands a twin-pyramid complex, the only one known outside Tikal. The pyramid commemorates the end of a Katun, a 20 years period.

    Visit Yaxha

    Agencies in Flores and El Remate offer organized trips to Yaxha, some combined with Nakum and/or Tikal.

    The entrance fee is US$1.80.

  • Flores Guatemala

    Flores is the capital city of the Petén department of Guatemala. The old part of the city is located on an island on Lake Peten Itza, connected to the mainland by a short causeway. For many tourists, the main reason to visit Flores is its proximity to Tikal, the most famous Mayan ruins in Guatemala.

    In Pre-Columbian times, Flores was the Maya city of Tayasal. The Maya called it Noh Petén (City Island) or Tah Itzá (Place of the Itzá). No Maya buildings remain today but the site itself is of great importance in the heritage of the Maya. It was here on the island of Flores that the last independent state of the Maya civilization held out against the onslaught of the Spanish conquerors.

    The island city of Flores Guatemala. Photo credit: Javier Aroche

    The island city of Flores Guatemala. Photo credit: Javier Aroche

    History of Flores Guatemala

    After the collapse of Chichen Itza the Itza people left the Yucatan to built their capital Tayasal on a small island in Lake Petén Itzá in the southern Maya lowlands.

    In the 16th century the Spanish initiated several campaigns to subdue the Mayan cities in the Yucatán. As the Itza land was separated from Spanish Yucatán to the north and Spanish Guatemala to the south by thick jungles with little population it initially escaped the attention of the Spanish. But in 1541 Hernán Cortés came to Tayasal, on his way to Honduras. Due to island’s excellent defensive position he did not try to conquer it and instead moved on. As other Mayan cities were defeated one by one Taysal remained one of the last independent Maya states, together with other Maya cities in the region.

    Two Franciscan friars were sent to Tayasal in 1618 to convert the Itza to Christianity. They arrived in Tayasal to find the people uninfluenced by European ways and still worshiping the traditional Mayan gods. While the Itza lord received them politely, they made no progress and had to return empty handed. After this failure the Spanish began the first of several attempts to conquer the island but did not succeed. The Governor of Yucatán decided his energies were best spent elsewhere, and the Itza continued in independence.

    From the late 1690s, the last Itza lord started a more open attitude towards the Spaniards, and when three Franciscan friars arrived at Tayasal in 1695 a number of the Itza consented to be baptized. The Itza King, however, refused to convert to Christianity or pledge loyalty to Spain.

    The final conquest of the independent Maya, the Itzá from Tayasal and the Ko’woj from Zacpetén and Queixil, occurred on March 13, 1697. Forces of Martin de Ursúa attacked Tayasal from a ship, invaded the island and destroyed the idols and Codices. Those who could fled and many Itzá people hid in the jungle for years. The stones of the Maya structures were used to built the Roman Catholic Church in the central plaza of the city, which was renamed to Flores.

    Map of Flores, Guatemala

    The map shows the location of Flores. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.

    Visit Flores

    Buses from Guatemala City and Belize City as well as various other destinations all over the country stop at the Fuente del Norte bus station in Santa Elena, a five minute ride across the causeway from Flores island.

  • Tikal Panorama

    Tikal Guatemala

    Situated in the heart of the jungle of northern Guatemala, the pyramid temples of Tikal rise above the tree tops of the rainforest giving a glimpse of the once powerful Jaguar clan of the Mayans. The temples signify one of the most important Mayan cities that dominated much of the Maya world politically, economically, and militarily for centuries.

    After Tikal was abandoned and swallowed by the jungle, the Mayan city remained unknown to outsiders for almost a millennium. In 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés passed within a few dozen miles of the place without learning of it. The first official expedition to the Tikal ruins wasn’t until 1848 while major excavation work started during the 1960’s. Today, many ruins are still covered by jungle, while the impressive temples lie scattered around the area. This, in combination with its remote location creates a mysterious atmosphere that few other Mayan sites possess.

    “Tikal” is a relatively recent name, derived from the Mayan word ti ak’al, meaning “at the water hole”. In ancient times the city state was called Mutal.

    Temple I and the Central Acropolis buildings in Tikal.

    Temple I and the Central Acropolis buildings in Tikal.


    Major construction at Tikal was already taking place in the Late Preclassic period, first appearing around 400–300 BC, including the building of major pyramids and platforms, although the city was still dwarfed by sites further north such as El Mirador and Nakbe. As these two cities declined in the 1st century AD, Tikal was rapidly developing into one of the most dynamic city in the Maya region.

    On January 31, 378 a lord from Teotihuacán named Siyah K’ak’ (Fire is Born), arrived at Tikal. It is probably no coincidence that the 14th king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ich’aak I, known as Jaguar Paw, died the same day. After this defeat, the next rulers of Tikal were foreign, vassals of Teotihuacán, although their descendants were rapidly Mayanised. Tikal became the key ally and trading partner of Teotihuacan in the Maya lowlands. Smaller towns in the region, were either absorbed or became vassals of the kingdom of Tikal. In 526 Tikal installed a Mayan ruler in Copán in the southeastern portion of the Maya region.

    As Tikal’s power grew it came into conflict with another Mayan superpower, Calakmul. Each of the two Mayan cities formed their own network of alliances directed against each other. Calakmul would attack first in 456 AD following a century long period of battles. In 562, Lord Water from Caracol teamed up with Calakmul, in a war against its arch-enemy. Tikal suffered a terrible defeat and its king, Double Bird, was captured and sacrificed. Although the city was not sacked, its power and influence were broken.

    In 648 Dos Pilas, a new military outpost of Tikal, was attacked by Calakmul and soundly defeated. The ruler of Dos Pillas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was captured but instead of being sacrificed, was re-instated as a vassal of his former enemy. B’alaj Chan K’awiil, probably still counting his blessing, attacked Tikal in 657, forcing the king of Tikal, Nuun Ujol Chaak, to temporarily abandon the city. To make things worse, Dos Pilas had the nerve to use Tikal’s emblem glyph, calling itself in effect “New Tikal”.

    In 682, Nuun Ujol Chaak son Jasaw Chan K’awiil erected the first dated monument at Tikal in 120 years, initiating a series of new constructions. Victory over arch-enemy Calakmul was finally achieved on August 5, 695. A drawing on a building in the Central Acropolis shows Jasaw carried in triumph into the city on a litter, leading his captive, perhaps the defeated lord of Calakmul, by a rope.

    After this Tikal reemerged as the most powerful Maya city and its population grew to about 90,000 Mayans. Calakmul never again erected a monument celebrating a military victory. Dos Pilas however continued to defy Tikal and maintained its presence in southwest Petén.

    The last dated stela at Tikal was put up in 869 AD. By that time, Tikal was already starting to lose the majority of its population and central authority seems to have collapsed rapidly. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted, although a remnant population may have survived among the ruins. After these last Mayans left the rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years and Tikal’s once great power was little more than a memory.

    Map of Tikal, Guatemala

    The map shows the location of Tikal. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    The Great Plaza is probably the most spectacular part of the Tikal ruins, surrounded by stelae, carved altars, ceremonial buildings, palaces and a ball court. It contains the famous twin pyramids, Temples I and II.

    Rising 154 feet (47 m) high Temple I or Temple of the Great Jaguar is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil (nicknamed Ah Cacao), who was entombed in the structure in 734 AD. The pyramid was completed about 10 years later. At the top of the pyramid is a temple with three rooms and a corbel arch. Temple I can no longer be climbed.

    Built around 700, Temple II or Temple of the Mask was the first temple to be completed by Jasaw Chan K’awil. It appears to be a monument to his wife, Lady Twelve Macaw, although no tomb was found. The pyramid stands 125 feet (38 m) high and faces the rising sun. Temple II can still be climbed for some impressive views of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.

    Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent, is Tikal’s tallest pyramid standing 230 feet (70 m) high. It was built in 740 AD by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son Yik’in Chan Kawil and is built to commemorate his father.

    Constructed around 810 AD, Temple III or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal. It stands 180 feet (55 m) tall and contained an elaborately sculpted but damaged roof lintel. Archeologist believe the temple may hold the remains of Lord Chi’taam, Tikal’s final ruler.

    The second largest pyramid at Tikal, Temple V was constructed around 750 AD and is 187 feet (57 m) high. It is the mortuary pyramid of an as yet unidentified ruler.

    Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, was dedicated in AD 766. It is notable for its 39 feet (12 m) high roof-comb, which contains one of the longest inscriptions found at Tikal with 186 glyphs each two feet (0.6 m) high and three feet (0.9 m) wide.

    Visit Tikal

    Flores is the nearest gateway city to Tikal. The San Juan Travel Agency has a virtual monopoly on the minibuses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores in the morning. The trip takes about 1¼ hours.

    Staying overnight is a great way to enjoy the sunrise at Tikal and the sounds of birds and nature of the park. Unfortunately the park options are not the cheapest, and demand often exceeds supply. Many stay in Flores and take an early shuttle bus to the park. There are also several cheap lodges lakeside in El Remate, where your hotel can arrange a shuttle pick up for you.

    The entrance fee is US$7.