Pre-departure Checklist

  • Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date
  • Check visa requirements
  • Arrange for appropriate travel insurance
  • Inform your debit-/credit-card company that you’ll be making foreign transactions
  • Organize necessary immunizations
  • Read up on your government’s Guatemala travel advisories

What to Take

  • International plug adapter (for non-US appliances)
  • Spanish phrasebook
  • Small medical kit
  • Flashlight (torch)
  • Money belt
  • Good walking shoes
  • Warm clothes if going to the highlands
  • Padlock (if staying in dorms)
  • Driver’s license (if driving)
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Sunglasses
  • Pocketknife
  • Antibacterial hand gel

What to Wear

Regardless of their economic status, Guatemalans do their best to look neat at all times, and you should do the same. This goes double when dealing with officialdom. The general look is neat-casual – pants and jeans are fine for both sexes, skirts should be (at least) below the knee. The only places you’re really going to want to dress up for are fancy restaurants or Guatemala City discotecas.

Shorts and sleeveless tops are OK for the beach and coastal towns. In the highlands people tend to cover up more – a sensible move, considering the climate.

Dress conservatively when entering churches and visiting rural communities.

Guatemala's Ancient Ruins

Stretching at its peak from northern El Salvador to the Gulf of Mexico, the Maya empire during its Classic period was arguably pre-Hispanic America's most brilliant civilization. The huge ceremonial center of Tikal is undoubtedly Guatemala's greatest visitor attraction, but there are plenty of lesser known sites worth exploring.

Need to Know

  • Where

The majority of Maya sites are in El Petén region, in the country’s flat north. The other major grouping is in the southwest, roughly centered on Lago de Atitlán.

  • When

The ideal months to visit archaeological sites are outside of the rainy season. In El Petén you want to avoid the heat, while in the highlands seriously cold nighttime temperatures can make travel uncomfortable. Roughly speaking, the better times to visit El Petén are from November to April, while the highlands are best from February to May.

  • Opening Hours

Most sites are open from 8am to 4pm daily, but check times ahead of your visit. For the more popular sites, the best time to go is soon after opening time, thereby beating the tour bus crowds and the midday sun.

Visiting the Ruins

Maya achievement during this period rivaled anything that was going on in Europe at the time, boasting an advanced writing system, awe-inspiring engineering feats, advanced mathematics and astrology, and stone-working skills that remain impressive to this day.

Many legacies of the Maya have disappeared over time. Archaeological pieces have been carried off either by tomb raiders or foreign governments and much cultural heritage has been lost over the centuries due to government and church campaigns to assimilate the Maya into mainstream Hispanic culture. However, the current use of the revolutionary LIDAR ground survey technique (think radar, but with lasers) is currently revealing thousands of previously unknown Maya structures otherwise hidden by jungle or other vegetation, making today an exciting and radical time for Mayan archaeology.

Outside of Guatemala City’s fantastic selection of museums, the best way to get a feel for the amazing achievements of this unique culture is to visit archaeological sites.

Visiting a Maya ruin can be a powerful experience, a true step back in time. While some sites are little more than a pile of rubble or some grassy mounds, others (such as Tikal and Copán) have been extensively restored, and the temples, plazas and ballcourts give an excellent insight into what life must have been like in these places.

The most famous sites are generally thronged with visitors. Others are hidden away in thick jungle, reachable only by multiday treks or helicopter – for those with a sense of adventure, these can be the most exciting and rewarding to visit.

Site Practicalities

  • Admission to sites costs between nothing (rare) and Q150 (also rare; generally reserved for top sites such as Tikal and Copán). Most sites charge around Q80.
  • Protect yourself against the sun and, at jungle sites, mosquitoes.
  • Sites such as Tikal and Copán have restaurants, bookstores, toilets and authorized guides.
  • Little-visited sites may have no food or water available.
  • Guided tours to many sites are usually available from nearby towns, although most (but not all) are accessible independently.
  • Explanatory signs may be in Spanish only; Spanish and English; Spanish, English and the local Maya dialect; or completely nonexistent.
  • Many sites are still used for traditional Maya religious ceremonies such as burning offerings to the deities. Look for signs indicating sacrificial areas and behave in a respectful manner around them.

Resources

  • Mesoweb (www.mesoweb.com) A great, diverse resource on ancient Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Maya.
  • The Maya by Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston. Currently the best history and guide to ancient Maya civilization, including the latest scholarship.
  • Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, by Susan Toby Evans and David L Webster. A bit big for a backpack, but this encyclopedia is an essential resource.
  • Maya Art and Architecture, by Mary Ellen Miller. Gorgeously illustrated and paints the full picture, from gigantic temples to intricately painted ceramics.

Top Museums

Some sites have their own museums – the ones at Tikal and Copán are well worth the extra admission fee – but there are also important city and regional museums that hold many of the most valuable and impressive pre-Hispanic artifacts.

  • Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City. By far the most impressive collection of ancient Maya artifacts, with pieces from all the important ceremonial areas, including an impressive throne from the Piedras Negras site.
  • Museo Popol Vuh Guatemala City. A wealth of smaller pieces, including figurines, wooden masks, textiles and a faithful copy of the Dresden Codex.
  • Colección Dr Juan Antonio Valdés, Uaxactún. Housed in the Hotel El Chiclero, this private collection holds a remarkable wealth of Maya pottery from Uaxactún, Yaxhá, and as far away as Oaxaca, Mexico.

Don't Miss Sites

  • Tikal – Guatemala's most famous – and spectacular – Maya ruins.
  • Copán – Across the border in Honduras, one of the most outstanding achievements of the Maya.
  • El Mirador – Late-Preclassic metropolis buried in the deepest jungle.
  • Ceibal – Memorable river journey to low, ruined temples.
  • Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa – Great stone heads carved with grotesque faces and fine relief scenes.

Ancient Maya Sites

El Petén

SITE

Tikal

DESCRIPTION

Most famous of all Guatemalan Maya sites, with as many as 10,000 structures

HIGHLIGHTS

Towering temples, including the 65m-high Templo IV

LOCATION

60km northeast of Flores

TRANSPORTATION

Public transport or tour

El Petén

SITE

El Mirador

DESCRIPTION

Late Preclassic site with the largest cluster of buildings in the Maya world

HIGHLIGHTS

La Danta, the largest Maya pyramid yet discovered

LOCATION

7km south of Mexican border

TRANSPORTATION

82km by bus from Carmelita, Guatemala, plus two days' walking (or direct helicopter)

El Petén

DESCRIPTION

Over 100 structures in 1 sq km 'discovered' in 2003 after looters began sacking the site

HIGHLIGHTS

Features one of the best-preserved Maya murals with a depiction of the creation myth from the Popol Vuh

LOCATION

Approximately 40km northeast of Uaxactún

TRANSPORTATION

Tours from Uaxactún or Flores

El Petén

DESCRIPTION

One of Guatemala’s most extensive, least-accessible sites

HIGHLIGHTS

Impressive carvings and a sizable acropolis complex

LOCATION

40km downstream from Yaxchilán

TRANSPORTATION

Tours from Flores or river cruises from Bethel

El Petén

SITE

La Blanca

DESCRIPTION

Late Classic period trading center with impressively preserved walls

HIGHLIGHTS

'Graffiti' dating back to the Early Postclassic era

LOCATION

On the Río Mopan near the Belize border

TRANSPORTATION

Tours from Flores or Melchor de Mencos

El Petén

SITE

El Zotz

DESCRIPTION

A sprawling, largely unexcavated site occupying its own biotopo abutting Tikal National Park

HIGHLIGHTS

Views all the way to Tikal from the top of the Pirámide del Diablo

LOCATION

25km southwest of Uaxactún

TRANSPORTATION

Tours from Uaxactún or Flores; guide cooperative leads walks from Cruce de Dos Aguadas

El Petén

SITE

Río Azul

DESCRIPTION

Key trading post for cacao from the Caribbean in the early Classic period

HIGHLIGHTS

Tombs featuring vibrant painted glyphs

LOCATION

Near the corner where the Belize, Guatemala and Mexico borders meet

TRANSPORTATION

Tours from Uaxactún

El Petén

SITE

Ceibal

DESCRIPTION

Ceremonial site featuring impressive stelae

HIGHLIGHTS

Intricate carvings, atmospheric riverboat ride to get there

LOCATION

17km from Sayaxché

TRANSPORTATION

Boat tour or bus from Sayaxché to 8km from site, then walk or hitch

El Petén

SITE

Aguateca

DESCRIPTION

Easily accessible lakeside walled city

HIGHLIGHTS

Maya world’s only bridge, intricate carvings

LOCATION

Southern tip of Laguna Petexbatún

TRANSPORTATION

Boat tour from Sayaxché

El Petén

SITE

Dos Pilas

DESCRIPTION

Breakaway city from the Tikal group

HIGHLIGHTS

Heiroglyphic stairway, impressive carvings

LOCATION

16km from Sayaxché

TRANSPORTATION

Pick-up truck to Nacimiento followed by 20-minute hike

Guatemala City

DESCRIPTION

Important Preclassic site a few kilometers from downtown area

HIGHLIGHTS

Ongoing excavations open to public

LOCATION

Guatemala City suburbs

TRANSPORTATION

Bus or taxi

Highlands

SITE

Iximché

DESCRIPTION

Naturally fortified ex-Kaqchiquel capital

HIGHLIGHTS

Important ceremonial site for modern Maya

LOCATION

1km from Tecpán

TRANSPORTATION

Walk, bus or tours from Panajachel/Antigua

Highlands

DESCRIPTION

Former K’iche' capital surrounded by ravines

HIGHLIGHTS

Sacred tunnel still used for Maya ceremonies

LOCATION

3km west of Santa Cruz del Quiché

TRANSPORTATION

Minibus

Highlands

SITE

Zaculeu

DESCRIPTION

Postclassic Mam religious center

HIGHLIGHTS

Spectacular restored setting, parklike grounds

LOCATION

4km west of Huehuetenango

TRANSPORTATION

Bus or taxi

Pacific Slope

DESCRIPTION

Important late Preclassic trading center

HIGHLIGHTS

Sculptures, ceremonial baths and broad stone causeway

LOCATION

19km north of Retalhuleu

TRANSPORTATION

Bus, taxi and pick-up

Pacific Slope

DESCRIPTION

Various small sites dotted around a modest town

HIGHLIGHTS

Stone sculptures, links with Mexican Olmec culture

LOCATION

29km west of Escuintla

TRANSPORTATION

Frequent buses

Eastern Guatemala

SITE

Quiriguá

DESCRIPTION

Important ceremonial center with strong links to nearby Copán

HIGHLIGHTS

10m-plus stelae

LOCATION

45km south of Río Dulce

TRANSPORTATION

Frequent buses

Honduras

SITE

Copán

DESCRIPTION

Religious and political capital rivaling Tikal for importance

HIGHLIGHTS

Excellent sculpture museum, hieroglyphic staircase with longest-known Maya hieroglyphic carving

LOCATION

5km from the Guatemala–Honduras border, in Honduras

TRANSPORTATION

Bus; tours from Antigua