Ancient Guatemala

The Maya were some of the most advanced ancient people

By: By Vicki Anderson


Information on Guatemala’s UNESCO sites, where to stay and travel tips to navigate your way through Guatemala.
By Vicki Anderson

Tikal National Park
Tikal National Park is perhaps one of Guatemala’s most well-known sites, surrounded by tropical vegetation in the heart of the jungle. Tikal National Park was created in May 1955 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

UNESCO notes, "The ceremonial center contains superb temples and palaces and public squares accessed by means of ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside."

Currently, the mapped area covers approximately 16 miles and there are known to be more than 4,000 different kinds of structures. As one of the major sites of Maya civilization, it is assumed that the site was inhabited in the 6th century B.C. until the 10th century A.D.

At the center of the site is the impressive Great Plaza, which is surrounded by stelae and carved altars; a set of ceremonial buildings called the North Acropolis, which also served as a mausoleum of families rulers; to the south, the Acropolis Central features residential and administrative structures; the east side is occupied by the Temple I, or the Great Jaguar; and to the west is the Temple of the Masks.

Antigua Guatemala
Antigua, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century and declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Built almost 5,000 feet above sea level in an earthquake-prone region, it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. However, its principal monuments are still preserved in visible ruins.

Located in a valley surrounded by volcanoes, the area boasts coffee farms and craftspeople including wood carvers, candy manufacturers, pottery makers and famed jade workshops. One of the most famed, and largest, Guatemalan celebrations is held here; the Celebration of Lent.

Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua
Inhabited since the 2nd century, Quirigua dates back to the reign of Cauac Sky as the capital of an autonomous and prosperous state, according to UNESCO. The ruins of Quirigua contain some outstanding 8th-century monuments and an impressive series of carved sandstone stelae and sculpted calendars that constitute an essential source for the study of Maya civilization — including the largest known Maya stela. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Casa Santo Domingo: A short walk from the center of town, within the partially restored convent of Santo Domingo, the Casa Santa Domingo is well-deserving of its five-star status. The 125 rooms — some with balconies or patios — include private baths, cable TV, phones and wood-burning fireplaces. A large collection of Colonial-era sculpture and religious objects are on display. Other amenities include a swimming pool, restaurant, business center, cigar store and open-air chapel.

Posada del Angel: The hotel is set within the Panchoy Valley in historic Antigua with a view of two volcanoes from the terrace. In 1999 President Bill Clinton stayed at Posada Del Angel in the Rose Suite — the first time a U.S. president spent a night on Guatemalan soil. Nightly rates include taxes and breakfast.

Tikal Inn: The Tikal Inn is located within Tikal National Park, about a 15-minute walk from the Great Plaza. A few rooms are located in a two-story building, but walk through the restaurant’s dining room and you’ll find landscaped grounds with a pool surrounded on two sides by individual bungalows which feature private porches. A total of 17 rooms are available, all with private baths. There is limited electricity (none during the night), but the incomparable atmosphere of staying in the jungle, adjacent to the ruins, is worth it.

Peten Esplendido Hotel: The four-star hotel is 45 minutes from Tikal, on the banks of Lago Peten Itza next to the causeway leading to the island on which Flores is located. It offers 62 rooms with A/C, cable TV, phone, pool, bar, restaurant, elevator and business center.

Hotel Banana Palms Resort & Marina: Located about an hour from Quirigua on the Rio Dulce, the Hotel Banana Palms Resort & Marina offers 33 rooms located in small waterfront bungalows. Guestrooms include private bathrooms, A/C, Direct TV, restaurant, bar and swimming pool.

Hotel Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge & Marina: Tijax is part of the Hacienda Tijax Project, a large farm at Rio Dulce. Dedicated to conservation, ecotourism, light adventure tourism and sustainable farming, the hotel boasts an on-site rubber plantation and a nature reserve with trails. Accommodations include mosquito nets and fans and optional air conditioning in single-, double- and triple-occupancy cabins with a private or shared bathroom. Bungalows can accommodate up to eight persons.

Antigua: Famous for its Spanish language schools and jade workshops, don’t miss the Baroque majesty of La Merced, the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Convento de las Capucinas. Shop the Sunday Market in Parque Central for textiles, ceramics and wooden ceremonial masks. Guatemala’s biggest festival is Semana Santa, and processions along Antigua’s cobblestone streets covered in intricate patterns of colored sawdust and flowers is reputed to be the best. For safety reasons, avoid the inter-city bus from Guatemala City and use one of the tourist van services.

Tikal: Holding the unusual distinction of being designated both a Cultural and Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, a guide is recommended due to Tikal’s enormity and rich history. Day trips from Guatemala City, Belize and Cancun are available, but at least two days are needed to experience the site.

Tikal can be reached by land and by air. By land, the journey from Guatemala City to Tikal lasts eight hours. Or, clients can fly to Flores and hop a bus the 45 miles to Tikal. Three small eateries and a restaurant sit near the entrance to the site, while locals sell beverages near the Great Plaza and Temple IV. December-February is the best time to avoid rain, oppressive heat and relentless mosquitoes.

Quirigua: Although small, Quirigua is known for its abundance of enormous sculptured monuments, including the largest known Maya stela rising more than 26 feet. Many of them are protected by thatched roofs, making it a challenge to examine the intricate carvings or take photos. After spending about three hours at the site, tour one of the surrounding banana plantations. Accommodations can be found nearby on the Rio Dulce.

Guatemala Tourism Board

The Pillars of Civilization

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Their buildings, constructed with astronomical precision, marked the equinoxes and movements of celestial bodies. They charted the 365-day solar cycle, predicted solar and lunar eclipses thousands of years into the future and accurately tracked the complex orbit of Venus. Two interrelated calendars, one based upon a solar count and the other upon the cycles of the Pleiades constellation, produced the world’s most complex and accurate calendar, even more precise than our Gregorian calendar.

Their system of mathematics was among the first utilizing the concept of zero. Comprised of just three symbols — a dot, a bar and a shell — in various combinations, it was so simple even the uneducated could carry out trade and commerce. They invented rubberized rain garments and the string hammock, and bred barkless dogs and stingless honey bees.

They were the ancient Maya.

The Central Acropolis at Tikal is part of the sprawling ancient complex // (c) Jo Ann DeasyOriginating around 2600 B.C., the Maya rose to prominence in about 250 A.D. in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. For every pyramid put up by the Egyptians, the Maya erected more than 100. Every few years, another ancient city is being stumbled upon. Even those known and studied for decades are revealing astounding new discoveries. To visit these places is to be drawn into the hallowed world of an astonishing civilization.

Designated as both a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal sits in the midst of Tikal National Park, about 50 miles northwest of the Belize border. Surrounded by thick jungle and a wildlife preserve, archaeologists estimate that, at its peak, 100,000 people may have lived in this area, which covers more than 25 square miles. Over 3,000 separate constructions have been documented, dating as far back as 600 B.C.

Mahogany, zapote and ceiba trees climb 150 feet skyward, while troops of monkeys zip overhead, colorful birds flit from branch to branch and coatimundi browse the low brush. Five steep-sided pyramids, towering more than 125 feet, dominate the site, surrounded by smaller buildings and intricately carved stone stelae (freestanding monolithic monuments) and altars. Wander the maze of causeways, threading their way from one group to another, and attempt to comprehend what life must have been like when Tikal was at the pinnacle of its architectural and artistic development during the Classic Period (300-900 A.D.). Climb to the top of Temple IV, gaze across the thick canopy and struggle to grasp the enormity of this vast ceremonial center. And then wonder what occurred around 900 A.D., when, after ruling for hundreds of years as a regional capital, its inhabitants abandoned it.

Take time to visit the Tikal Museum and its artifacts from the burial tombs of Tikal’s rulers. Many original stelae and altars are housed in the Tikal Lithic Museum, which features a large-scale model of the site.

To truly savor Tikal requires more than one day. Three jungle lodges operate at the site itself (the Tikal Inn is my favorite) and a variety of accommodations are available in the Flores area, 45 miles away. (I recommend Peten Esplendido Hotel, on the banks of Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala’s second largest lake.) Day tours to Tikal are ubiquitous — they can even be arranged in Belize City, catering to cruise-ship passengers, and Cancun, which has daily flights into Flores.

Tikal is just one of many amazing ancient cities scattered about the Peten region, home to the highest concentration of excavated and restored Maya cities. Situated in northern Guatemala, bordered by Belize on the east and Mexico on the north and west and mostly concealed by rainforest, the Peten ecosystem covers nearly 14,000 square miles and includes more than 800 species of trees, 500 species of birds and large populations of mammals. Center of the Classic Maya civilization, countless cities sprang up in two particular areas: the Mirador Basin and along the Rio la Pasion.

The Mirador Basin has some of the largest and earliest sites. Forty miles northwest of Tikal, El Mirador may have been the cradle of Maya civilization. Dominating an extensive region from at least 200 B.C. to 150 A.D., with a population upward of 80,000, it was North America’s first large city. Archaeological discoveries here have shattered much of what we thought we knew about the Maya.

Two enormous architectural complexes overshadow the site. La Danta pyramid is so huge that, while traipsing through the jungle, I was unaware I was actually ascending seven massive platforms and pyramids, each becoming progressively steeper. At the sixth platform, gazing up at the knotted rope dangling over the face of a nearly vertical wall, it took all my courage to make the final ascent to the summit. At 230 feet, with a base covering nearly 17 football fields, La Danta is the largest Maya structure yet discovered.

From the top, you can see the El Tigre complex rising 180 feet above a 14-acre base. The Monos Pyramid, at "just" 138 feet, seems puny by comparison. You can also make out the temples of Nakbe, eight miles to the east, and Calakmul in Mexico, about 26 miles north.

El Mirador receives few visitors due to its difficult access — trek 40 miles by horseback or foot through the jungle, or contact a Flores tour company for a 45-minute helicopter flight. But scrambling for the view atop La Danta makes the journey worth it.

Two sites closer to Tikal are also worth exploring. Uaxactun was one of the oldest and longest existing Maya cities. Inhabited as early as 900 B.C., this site may be where their culture merged, their exquisite and articulate hieroglyphic writing perfected and their calendar launched. The Temple of the Masks, among the earliest intact temples in this region, features four moss-encrusted stairways flanked by huge stucco masks. Across the plaza are three structures, aligned to form an astronomical observation complex that marks the solstices and equinoxes.

Eighteen miles southeast, Yaxha has the dubious distinction as the location of "Survivor: Guatemala." Situated on the edge of Lake Yaxha, it provided much of the food for the Peten. Beautifully restored, strolling its park-like setting almost transports me back 1,500 years to its heyday, the sounds of its citizens now replaced by howler monkeys and toucans. Mount the superbly fashioned staircase to the top of Structure 216, rising over 100 feet, for a splendid view of the lake, rainforest and some of Yaxha’s more than 500 known structures.

Flowing in a sinuous westward advance, the Rio la Pasion’s drainage system encompasses nearly 2,000 square miles. It was a major trade route for the Maya, whose rulers craved precious obsidian, jade, pyrite, feathers, seashells and stingray spines. About an hour southwest of Flores, Sayaxche is the only access onto the river, where boats can be hired to visit many of the sites along the waterway.

Strategically located where the Rio la Pasion is first navigable after emerging from the highlands, Cancuen’s control of the trade route made it an economic powerhouse. One of the few riverside cities accessible by road, 81 miles southwest of Tikal, Cancuen’s palace is a magnificent structure with three floors, 200 rooms with 20-foot vaulted ceilings and 11 stone-tile courtyards, covering five acres.

Ceibal, first settled around 900 B.C., is known as the Gallery of Maya Art for the number and magnificence of its carved stelae. Almost 200 structures are backdropped by jungle, the most unusual being Structure C-79, an uncommon three-tiered circular platform with two stairways.

The best part of visiting Aguateca may be the journey, traveling an hour south from Sayaxche on a tributary teeming with wildlife. After docking, I faced over 200 steep steps to reach the site, perched on a limestone ridge above the river. Over 700 structures have been identified, and all excavated elite residences include a workshop, indicating Aguateca’s artists and scribes were of noble descent.

Several dozen other ancient Maya sites can be found, including some barely distinguishable vegetation-covered mounds. Excavation, consolidation and restoration work is still underway at many, including the sites mentioned here. The opportunity to meet the archaeologists, talk with the workers and watch new discoveries unfold is a priceless experience.

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