Tour Tikal and the Mayan ruins in Guatemala

An Short Archeological History of the Mayan People

Mayan Ruins - El Mirador, Copan, Yaxchilan, Seibal, Quirigua, Uaxactun, Tikal

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Mayan Ruins

Guatemala map with Mayan Ruins


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The jungles of the Peten are the second largest in the hemisphere, and for centuries they easily hid the remains of a vast Mayan civilization that prospered for five centuries and stretched across what are today parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. Archaeologists have since explored the region, excavating jungle-clad mounds that led to the discovery of a complex network of ancient cities.

tikal artist rendering

The most spectacular of all the Classic Maya sites, of course, is Tikal, with its tall temples poking above the forest canopy. The highest, at 65 meters, is the Temple of the Two Headed Snake (Temple IV), which was built by King Yaxkin Caan Chac around 470 AD.

A steady stream of tourists from all over the world, young and old, bodies dripping with sweat, struggle up this monolithsnakeman daily. Panting, they admire the views, study their guide books and take photographs before continuing upwards. Climbing the final 8 meters up a vertical iron ladder one is greeted with a view of the jungle tops stretching off to the horizon. From here you can see the tops of four other temples two built by the ruler Ah Cacao (King Chocolate), the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) and the Temple of the Great Jaguar (Temple I), his burial site, ca 700 AD.


Tikal was an important Mayan center for over 1500 years, starting about 700 BC. During the Classic Period 300 - 900 AD, the city prospered through trade and military conquest when the population peaked at 100,000. This period began with King Yax Moch Xoc, followed by King Great Jaguar Paw, Lord Water, General Smoking Frog, Lord Chocolate all playing their part. Lord Chocolate (682-734 AD) was the 26th successor to the throne after Yax Moch Xoc and he and others were responsible for building the two temples on the great plaza.</p> tikal broad view

This civilization suffered a mysterious collapse after 900 AD when the cities became deserted and the jungle took over. Remnant Maya settled around Lake Peten Itza and on the island now occupied by Flores. While the Spanish conquered the entire area in the 1500's, they remained generally ignorant of the former kingdoms hidden therein for more than three centuries.

The lost world of the Maya was rediscovered by European explorers in the 1840's and it rapidly became a focus for the archeological research which is continuing today. The tourist boom is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Today the 576 sq km Tikal National Park with its thousands of preserved stone structures is there for all to explore and enjoy.

Tikal has once again become a major Mayan center... but this time one of tourism. In it's day one of the greatest cities in the world, Tikal is now one of Guatemala's premier tourist attractions. Its pristine jungle setting makes it a very special place for discerning travelers of all types and interests... particularly naturalists and bird watchers.



uaxactun ruin

Uaxactun, which means "eight-stone" in Yucatec Maya and is named for the earliest stele found there (dated to A.D. 328), is one of the most intensively studied Maya sites. The ceramic sequence that came out of early work there provided the basis for the entire Maya lowland chronology. One of the most notable series of buildings at the site is that formed by Structures E-1, E-2, and E-3, which are aligned north-south and form an astronomical observatory, the first found in the Maya world. From a observation point on a nearby pyramid, the early Maya could watch the sun rise behind these buildings and mark the summer and winter solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) as well as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length).




Quirigua (Key-ree-gua, accent on the last a) is known for its many finely sculptured stone monuments. The site boasts the largest carved Maya stele, a 65-ton behemoth known as Monument 5. Dating to A.D. 771, Monument 5 stands 35 feet tall, with fully eight feet underground. Its sculptors worked in the local sandstone, which has a close and even grain that allows for highly intricate carvings.

Beginning Seibal in 725, Quirigua came under the power of Copan; in that year, Copan ruler 18 Rabbit named Cauac Sky as ruler of Quirigua. But 13 years later, Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit in battle and sacrificed him, bringing Quirigua independence and a rise to prominence that lasted until at least 810, the city's last recorded date.



Spanish for "place of the ceiba tree" Seibal (also known as Ceibal) has a checkered history. First inhabited in the Middle Preclassic Period around 800 B.C., the city grew until about the time of Christ, when it began a long decline. It was apparently abandoned between roughly A.D. 500 and 690, when it was reoccupied. In 735, Ruler 3 from the Maya city known today as Dos Pilas captured the ruler of Seibal, Yich'ak Balam, and his city, leading to about 60 years of foreign rule. Around 830, a non-Classic Maya group settled in Seibal, which witnessed its greatest florescence over the next century, its population reaching about 10,000. The city was permanently abandoned in 930 and not rediscovered until about 1890. Today, it is noted for its beautiful carved stele e sculpted from high-quality limestone.


Yaxchilan Yaxchilan

Perched on the western bank of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan ("the place of green stones") lay along the trade route between the two great Maya sites of Palenque and Tikal. But today it stands in a remote, little-visited jungle setting.

Known for its handsome temples and striking carvings, this white-stoned city reached its peak during the Late Classic Period, from about A.D. 680 to 770. Two acropolises with temples, grand staircases, and a palace dominate the site.

Legend has it that a headless sculpture of the god Yaxachtun at the site formerly terrified the local Lacandon people, who feared that the world would end when the head was replaced.



The Mayan rulers of Copan in Western Honduras make current royalty seem very boring and commonplace indeed... and what exotic names they had!! Smoke Shell, King Waterlily Jaguar, Moon Jaguar, Smoke Jaguar and Rising Sun... these Kings and others combined to build the great Mayan city of Copan... and hold it together for some 400 years.


Smoke Shell, the 15th king, had commissioned Copan's most famous edifice, the Hierographic Stairway which climbs up a massive pyramid. The final touches to this amazing Mayan city were done by Smoke Shell's successor, Yax Pac (Rising Sun), who reigned from 763 to 820 AD when the population peaked at 20,000. After the death of Yax Pac the city soon declined into oblivion; by 1200 AD the city was deserted and reclaimed by the jungle.

It was not until 1841 that an archeologist, John Stephens, brought the ruins of Copan to world attention. Prior to that, the first description of Copan to the western world appeared in a letter to Philip II, king of Spain, dated March 8, 1576. Since then, innumerable archeologists, tourists, and other visitors have descended on this spectacular Mayan city in northern Honduras.


Among a plethora of renowned buildings, stele e, and other artifacts, arguably the most famous is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. The longest text in Pre-Columbian America, the stairway provides a history of Copan written in stone. Each of 2,200 blocks that form the risers of more than 70 steps bears carved glyphs that record the history of the dynasty founded by Yax K'uk Mo', the king who founded the royal house that ruled Copan for sixteen successive generations.

Equally fascinating are the site's stele, carved in greenish andesite in strikingly high relief.. One of the most renowned, Altar Q, shows Yax K'uk Mo' passing the baton of office to Yax Pac, the 16th and last great ruler of Copan. Recently a treasure trove of pottery and jade ornaments was found in the tomb of King Yax Kuk Mo, dated 400 AD. The town of Copan itself is a lovely small town, and as small Honduran towns go, quite a treat. If you have time, take some here to recharge batteries, meet other travelers, swa lies and current myths, and just generally chill out.

El Mirador

A visit to El Mirador is only for the truly intrepid, as there are absolutely no Hotels near the area. If you'd like to visit, please click on a Tropichat button and we can give you information on guides and horseback trips into the area. Giddy' up, padna, y hasta luego!!

miradorbasin2 mirador basin

Just north of Tikal, the so-called Mirador Basin region is home to El Mirador, the largest ancient city of the Mayan world and the site of the two largest pyramids in the Americas. Twenty-five other sites have been identified in the basin, and there may be as many as 30 more waiting to be uncovered. There are no roads in the region and many sites are a two- or three-day hike from the nearest town. Excavation of El Mirador and other sites has begun only in recent decades, and because of the area's remoteness, its primary visitors are archaeologists working to uncover its ruins and looters seeking its buried riches. El Mirador, part national park and part multi-use area, is also a target for illegal forestry activities.

In 2001, a UCLA archaeologist initiated "El Mirador Project", which aims to gain permanent archaeological and environmental protection for the region while spurring economic growth through ecotourism development. The project gained the support of part of the Guatemalan government, and in 2002, President Alfonso Portillo agreed to create the Regional System for the Special Protection of Cultural Heritage as a means of protecting archaeological sites within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The president declared 600,000 acres of the reserve as a "special archaeological zone" and officially named it El Mirador. Much to the dismay of some local communities, the agreement nullified concessions that allowed sustainable logging and forest-product extraction in areas near the archaeological sites.

The Mirador Project has gained considerable international support in the past few years, and it is poised to transform El Mirador into the most-visited archaeological site and tourist attraction in Central America. The project aims to establish visitor centers and a park service team of rangers, administrators and law-enforcement personnel to provide nature, wildlife and archaeological conservation. It proposes a system of tourism lodges and hiking routes linking archaeological sites within Mirador Basin. Trails will also link to gateway communities which el mirador basin will provide tourist services just outside the preserve. Supporters of the Mirador project say it will integrate local communities into the wealth creation and development of sustainable tourism, which they say is far more lucrative than logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Critics, however, say that communities could receive greater economic benefit from sustainable forestry than from working as maids and waiters in tourist hotels and restaurants. The community of Uaxactun, home to an ancient Mayan astronomical observatory, has managed a successful sustainable forestry operation for decades. Critics also question just how "eco" the project's proposed tourism will be. Although the preserve itself will be roadless, new infrastructure would have to be built to bring tourists to the region. Experts say a highway in the Maya Biosphere Reserve would bring tremendous destruction through increased colonization and will provide easy access for illegal loggers and looters. Others criticize proposed plans to build two airstrips and a high-end wilderness lodge within the preserve, saying this would enable upscale tourists to fly in and out of El Mirador without providing much financial benefit to the local communities.