The mere mention of Guatemala is enough to get many a traveller’s imaginations in full flight, and rightly so too.
On the one hand, it’s home to a beguiling ancient culture – Guatemala has still managed to retain a strong Mayan identity despite colonization by the Spaniards in 1524, however on the other hand, you’ve got some of the most active volcanos in the world (and a relatively high crime rate) which would concern even the most intrepid of travellers.
This being said, as long as enough precaution is taken and adequate planning is done in advance, Guatemala’s alluring and intriguing ancient culture far outweighs those downsides, making it one of the most amazing countries to visit in Latin America.
Up to date travel advice on safety, where to go and where to avoid is available on the official FCO website here. It’s by the British government but most of the advice applies regardless of whatever country you’re travelling from.
Most people might associate Mexico with the Mayan but Guatemala is where you really want to visit if you’d like to see a wealth of brilliantly preserved and varied Mayan sights!
Guatemala is home of the historic artefacts, buildings and so much more from this highly sophisticated civilization (The Mayans) that were adept in astronomy, architecture and weaving, with modern-day Guatemala seamlessly fusing the ancient with the modern making for quite a fascinating and unique place to visit.
When you’re here you can snorkel in the sapphire-tinted waters of the Caribbean, take in the breathtaking sights of the Mayan civilization (and get your hands on some souvenirs while you’re at it) and then head into the steamy inland jungles and explore one of the plethoras of ancient temples that lie dotted around the country.
To help you on your merry way, here are 13 absolutely amazing Mayan ruins you have to visit.
*I’m gonna keep this more “show you” than “tell you” as there’s a whole lotta history behind each site.
Plus, a good part of what you’ll really enjoy when you visit is uncovering a lot about the history yourself (and by yourself, I mean with a local guide, of course).
Guatemala’s primary attraction has easily got to be Tikal – the impressive ruins of an ancient Mayan city (you’ll see exactly when you visit – if you can’t already tell from the photo above 😁😁).
Set amidst the lush jungles of northeastern Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site features staggering Mayan step pyramids and relief sculptures as well as being a great place to spot wildlife and walk through jungle trails.
2.) Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa
The jade-green fields and farms provide a lush backdrop for Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, great stone heads carved with rather intricate faces and delicate relief sculptures that shows off the fine craftsmanship of the Pipil people who flourished here from about AD 600.
Standing on a hill between two large sapphire lakes, the astonishingly large site and the masterfully restored monuments make Yaxha a must-see on any temple enthusiasts must-do list.
The jungle setting makes this Guatemalan beauty all that more exciting! Yaxha is actually smaller than Tikal but more than makes up for it with hundreds of structures worth checking out here.
Mammoth-sized brown sandstone monoliths rise as high as 10.5m and are as intricately carved as anything you see in Tikal.
The well-kept tropical gardens that they sit in are beautiful, too so be sure to set aside some time to explore that too.
The Mam capital once stood at Zaculeu and once an active Mayan religious centre, the pyramids, ball courts and ceremonial platforms have been artfully restored and are well worth a visit.
It’s so impressive to think of how this was built so many years ago without half the technology we have now, isn’t it? I know that’s stating the obvious but I find it so fascinating every time!
This ancient ceremonial centre and Mayan city is flanked by bright green swathes of tropical plans and features an abundance of restored architecture, making it one of the best-preserved ruins in Guatemala.
It’s also about 18km away from Yaxha (see above) and Naranjo (see below), making it perfect to visit all three around the same time (pack some comfy walking shoes though – you’ll need it)
23km north of Tikal in the Peten basin of the Mayan lowlands, Uaxactun is located in the heart of the jungle, miles away from any paved roads and functioned as Tikal’s political and military rival. The site features many step pyramids set inside jungle clearings.
8.) El Mirador
Just 7km south of the Mexican border lies El Mirador, home to the largest conglomeration of buildings of any single Mayan site including the biggest pyramid built in the entire Mayan world. Archaeologists believe that they have only scratched the surface, with many secrets still believed to be buried underground.
El Mirador is easily one of the hardest one to get to and perhaps the one most people tend to leave off their list of places to visit in Guatemala. No without reason too – getting here involves a 3-hour ride, swiftly followed by a 2-day hike!
Don’t let that stop you though – if you’re still intrigued and are looking to see a part of Guatemala most people haven’t, El Mirador is worth it as it’s actually home to some stunning pre-classic Mayan architecture.
Standing on a high hilltop at the south end of Laguna Petexbatun lie the ruins of Aguateca. Flanked by cliffs and split by a ravine, the city is believed that have prospered and enjoyed military successes until about 700 AD.
Located along the left bank of the Rio de la Pasion, the kingdom of Seibal once controlled commerce along this strategically placed waterway.
Although this site is not as architecturally impressive as other sites, the river journey there alone is worth the visit.
As the closest Mayan ruin to the beautiful Lake Atitlan, the ruins include royal palaces, ball courts, pyramid-temples and an informative museum.
Built over 1000 years ago, this site fuses the modern and the ancient as Mayan rituals are still performed here, making it one of the most interesting Mayan ruins to visit in Guatemala.
12.) Takalik Abaj
A sprawling 6.5sq km park, Takalik Abaj features nine natural terraces, which were slowly adapted by the ancient Mayans and forms an important historical location where the Olmecs and the Mayans once did trade together.
With coffee, sugarcane and rubber plantations flanking the park, it is both absolutely gorgeous to visit as it is a fascinating cultural hotspot to check out while you’re in Guatemala.
Naranjo is another beautiful ancient (Pre-Columbian) Mayan city, occupied for over 1,400 years (500BC till around 950AD.
Although not as brilliantly preserved as some of the above (until the past couple of decades it’s been the victim of looting – we’re talking even as far back as the 1910s) but is still beautiful to visit till this day.
This, of course, is a testament to the incredible beauty and architectural wealth the city once had. As mentioned above, a visit here is best done with Nakum and Yaxha as all three of them make up the Cultural Triangle Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park.