The Mayans’ impressive achievements included a calendar system, knowledge of astronomy, the creation of agricultural terraces and intricate metalwork, including gold, silver and copper. Curiously, despite these skills, they never invented the wheel or used animals for transportation or load bearing, preferring instead to travel by canoe or simply to walk. Many of the largest Mayan sites appear to have been abandoned by around 150 AD; while the cause is unknown, archaeologists have speculated that their advanced agricultural systems and love of stucco plastering could have resulted in their demise. The deforestation and “paving” over of lowland swamps with clay altered water courses and degraded the soil to such an extent that crops failed and large cities were no longer viable.
Following the collapse of the larger cities, smaller kingdoms were established, particularly in the southern lowlands. This so-called “Classical Period” lasted for almost eight centuries. Tikal was the center of one such kingdom, as were Copán and Calakmul in the Petén Basin. But once again, in the 9th century AD, the Maya abandoned their cities, possibly moving into the Yucatán Peninsula and up into the highlands. As before, no one knows the true reason for their departure, but environmental degradation, persistent drought and ongoing conflicts between these small kingdoms may have been to blame.
The Central American jungle all but swallowed the remains of these great kingdoms, but many have now been partially uncovered, and impressive details such as carved glyphs and mighty stelae remain virtually intact. Just as interestingly, Mayan people still make up the majority of Guatemala’s population, so visitors can learn about the links between past and present, understanding both the ancient and modern Mayan cultures all the better as they explore.
Top Mayan sites in Guatemala
Be transported through the centuries
There are estimated to be up to around 4,000 Mayan sites in Mesoamerica, giving a sense of the vast scale of this civilisation, and the extended period of time that they dominated this region.
One of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms, Tikal was founded in the 4th century BCE, with most of its most iconic structures being built during the Classic Period from around 200-900 AD, after which the city’s inhabitants mysteriously disappeared. Tikal is one of the largest – and consequently most popular – Mayan sites, with some 3,000 structures in an area of around 16km2. These once housed a huge population; some estimates suggest up to 90,000 people. Some of the best examples of Mayan architecture can be found here, with temple remains towering up to 70m above the surrounding rainforest, vast palaces and stelae displaying examples of complex Mayan glyphs, most of which have been deciphered by archaeologists, offering a unique glimpse into this ancient world.
In Guatemala’s west central highlands, Iximché is a popular Mayan site as it can be explored as an easy day trip from Antigua. Founded in 1470 as the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan Kingdom, this rule was cut abruptly short with the arrival of the Spanish. While relations were initially civil, the Kaqchikel later rebelled against the conquistadores’ constant demands for gold, and the Spanish burned the city to the ground in 1526. It was slowly consumed by the jungle and remained hidden for centuries until excavation work began in the 1960s.
In the jungle-clad, Mayan heartland of El Petén, Aguateca is perched atop a 90m-high cliff overlooking a lagoon, and must be reached by boat. This vertiginous position gave its inhabitants a huge advantage over any would-be invaders, and it became the joint capital of one of the many Mayan dynasties for just over a century before being burned in around 810 AD, and rapidly abandoned. A causeway connects the two main clusters of ruins, which include a palace, main plaza and stelae. The swift departure of its inhabitants resulted in many ornaments, ceramics and beads being left behind, hidden in amongst Aguateca’s structures.
While much less famous than many other sites along the Ruta Maya, Yaxha was the third largest city with over 40,000 inhabitants. Although it has been suggested that this region was inhabited for some 1,600 years, Yaxha was at the height of its power from 250-600 AD, during the Early Classic period. Yaxha means “blue-green water”, and references its position beside Lake Yaxha, in the Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. There are around 500 structures here, including the remains of a royal palace, an acropolis, an astronomical complex and nine pyramids; these are all connected by paved walkways.
This is the oldest complete astronomical complex to have been discovered, and was inhabited for over 1,800 years, making it the longest inhabited Mayan site. Uaxactún’s heyday, though, was during the Classical Period, from 500-900 AD. The site contains examples of coloured murals, including human forms, which are being studied as rare examples of pre-Colombian painting. Uaxactún is also known for its community of “gum collectors”, or chicleros, who have been here for over a century. The chicleros gather the chicle gum from the forest, to be made into chewing gum, as well as spices and ornamental palm leaves; these are all exported as far afield as the US and Japan. Tours of Uaxactún often include a visit to the community.
Founded at the crossroads of various trade routes across Central America, Quiriguá is a relatively small Mayan site in the department of Izabal, near Guatemala’s tiny stretch of Caribbean coast. Its strategic location enables it to control the regional trade in jade and obsidian, in particular, as well as cocoa – a key part of the Mayan diet. Initially occupied around 200 AD, Quiriguá was developed over the course of around 1,000 years and shares architectural styles with the nearby site of Copán, just over the border in Honduras. The most impressive structures here are the stelae, which are the tallest stone monuments to have been constructed in the Americas.