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Mayan ruins Guatemala and Belize

Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Best Mayan Ruins in Guatemala and Belize (with Maps)

One of the main draws of Guatemala and Belize is their breathtaking Mayan ruins, which are essential stops on any trip to these destinations. However, it’s worth noting that accessing most of the impressive archaeological sites in both countries can be a bit tricky, adding a potential challenge to trip planning.

In this post, I’ll outline how to reach some of the most notable archaeological sites and provide tips for organizing your visits to ensure you make the most of your time in Guatemala and Belize without missing out on anything.

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Must-See Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

Although Guatemala boasts various archaeological sites spread throughout its territory, the most impressive ones are found in the vicinity of the city of Flores, specifically on the island of Flores. This area serves as a convenient base for exploring, as many agencies offering transportation and guides operate from here. It’s also a convenient starting point for crossing into Belize and visiting ruins like Caracol, Cahal Pech, and Xunantunich, which I’ll discuss further below.

Of course, you could also opt to rent a car and visit the archaeological sites on your own. However, I personally don’t recommend it due to the poor road conditions, often requiring travel on dirt and mud paths.

How to Get to Tikal

Tikal stands as Guatemala’s most significant archaeological site and, I dare say, one of the most impressive in the world, second perhaps only to Chichén Itzá in Mexico. Consequently, it’s one of the most accessible to tourists. Shuttle services operate from the island of Flores, providing early morning access to the archaeological site, particularly popular for witnessing the sunrise from the famous Temple IV. These shuttles also offer convenient return trips to Flores after your visit.

If you opt to drive there yourself (a journey of about 1 to 1.5 hours), bear in mind that before entering the site (approximately 30 minutes prior), you’ll need to pass through a police checkpoint where you can purchase tickets. Remember to bring your ID!

Tikal Guatemala

How to Get to Uaxactun

Uaxactun is a small indigenous community committed to preserving the Maya Biosphere. It’s within this community that you’ll discover the ruins of Uaxactun, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the area.

In order to reach Uaxactun, you’ll need to have your own vehicle or arrange transportation through a tour agency in advance. The journey begins from Tikal, along a dirt road that’s generally easy to navigate. Covering about 25km in just under an hour, the route winds through the Maya Biosphere forest, making it quite an enjoyable trip. Upon arrival in the village, locals are more than willing to guide you to any of the archaeological groups (sections within the site). Among these, Group E stands out for housing the astronomical complex.

I suggest combining a visit to Tikal and Uaxactun in a single day. Exploring Tikal’s major sites typically takes about 4-5 hours. It’s highly recommended to catch either the sunrise or sunset from Temple IV (with a separate entrance fee). Allotting one or two hours is usually sufficient to appreciate the highlights of Uaxactun.

Uaxactun Guatemala

How to Get to Yaxha

Yaxha is Guatemala’s second most significant archaeological site, although regrettably, it’s much less renowned and visited by tourists. However, there’s a bright side to this: you’ll practically have the place to yourself.

You can reach Yaxha either by renting a car or joining an organized excursion. It’s located roughly the same distance from Flores as Tikal (about 1 hour and a half), but it’s important to note that half of the journey is once again on a medium-quality dirt road.

I highly recommend visiting Yaxha because it’s a lesser-visited gem yet just as impressive as Tikal. Plus, here you can truly witness how nature has reclaimed the city. Watching the sunset from one of the pyramids is an absolute must.

How to Get to Topoxte

Topoxte is a small island very close to Yaxha, where you’ll find a ceremonial complex used by the elite of Yaxha.

To reach it, you’ll need to take a boat. We arranged our trip using the boat service provided by Ecolodge El Sombrero, where we stayed for the night. If you haven’t booked a tour in advance and want to go independently, I suggest asking the hotel about transportation to Topoxte. The site is quite small and can be explored in under an hour.

I recommend exploring both Yaxha and Topoxte on the same day.

How to Get to Nakum

Nakum is another site situated near Yaxha, within the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. If you’re up for a visit to Nakum, you’re definitely in for an adventure.

During the rainy season (June-November), reaching Nakum by car is out of the question. Your only option during this period is to embark on a 5-6 hour hike with a local guide from Yaxha. Get ready to get muddy and even cross a river. In the dry season (December-May), you can opt for a 4×4 tour with a travel agency to reach Nakum more easily.

How to Get to Naranjo

Naranjo is a must-visit site for any archaeology enthusiast. Once you’re there, you’ll find yourself completely alone, except for the archaeologists still working at the site.

Getting there is a challenge but not impossible. Once again, having a 4×4 vehicle is essential due to the poor condition of the dirt road, which often features flooded sections or fallen trees. That’s why I recommend arranging a tour with an agency and being accompanied by a professional guide. The journey to Naranjo begins from Melchor de Mencos, a town on the border with Belize. It typically takes about 2-2.5 hours from there.

How to Get to El Mirador

The archaeological site of El Mirador is famous for being home to the Pyramid of La Danta, the tallest in the Mayan world. Located deep within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, there are no roads leading to the site. The only way to reach the mirador is by embarking on a 5-day hike (round trip) through the jungle, accompanied by a guide. This is organized by Cooperativa Carmelita. If you’re short on time but still don’t want to miss out on this marvel, you can also opt for a helicopter tour (though be prepared to shell out around $500 per person).

Map of the main archaeological sites in Guatemala

The map below shows the location of all the above-mentioned Mayan sites.

Must-See Mayan Ruins in Belize

Getting from Guatemala to Belize is quite easy, especially if you’re starting from Flores. There are community buses and shuttles organized by some agencies that leave early in the morning and head to Belize City. Melchor de Mencos is the last Guatemalan town before crossing into Belize, about 1.5-2 hours away. Here, you’ll need to get off and complete the necessary paperwork to cross the border. But don’t worry, it’s pretty straightforward; you just need to fill out an entry form for Belize (there’s no entry fee). Your base in Belize will likely be the town of San Ignacio, which is about a 20-30 minute drive from the border.

How to Get to Caracol Archaeological Site

Caracol is Belize’s most significant archaeological site, and I’d argue it rivals Tikal in grandeur. To get there, it’s best to depart early (around 7-8am) from San Ignacio. You could also arrange the trip from Flores, Guatemala, but that means an early start at 4:30 to make it to the site on time. From San Ignacio, the journey takes about 2-2.5 hours. The first part of the road is well-paved, but the last 45 minutes can be challenging, requiring a 4×4 vehicle (luckily, a highway is under construction and might be ready by 2024). You can either book a tour with a local agency or use your own rental vehicle, but ensure it’s suitable for the terrain.

There’s a military checkpoint halfway through where you’ll need to register to continue. The site is also guarded by armed forces due to its proximity to the Guatemala border and smuggling activity. Despite this, there’s little to no danger reported, so you can relax. It’s worth noting that the military suggests leaving the site before 2pm, which is why an early start is necessary.

On the way back to San Ignacio, consider stopping at one of the numerous caves in the area, like the Rio Frio cave, where the Maya performed human sacrifices.

Caracol Belize
Caracol ruins Belize

How to Get to Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech is the oldest archaeological site in Belize and is very easy to access. It’s located right in the town of San Ignacio, so you can simply walk there.

Cahal Pech Belize

How to Get to Xunantunich

Xunantunich boasts the second tallest pyramid in Belize. Similar to Cahal Pech, reaching Xunantunich is quite simple. It’s just a 15-minute drive from San Ignacio, en route to the Guatemala border, and accessible by public bus from the town. From there, it’s about a 1.5 km walk. The only challenge is crossing a river via a footbridge, which may be not allowed if the water level is unusually high. Best of luck!

I suggest exploring both Xunantunich and Cahal Pech in a single day. Allotting two or three hours at each site should suffice.

Map of the main archaeological sites in Belize

The map below shows the location of all the above-mentioned Mayan sites.

Best Local Agency to Hire for Your Mayan Ruins Tours in Guatemala and Belize

We visited all the Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Belize with a local Guatemalan agency that did an excellent job, providing us with transportation and local guides for all the visits. By booking your customized itinerary, I can provide you with the contact information.

What to Wear in the Jungle

Since most of these archaeological sites are situated in the midst of the jungle, I suggest wearing lightweight, breathable clothing that covers your entire body. During the rainy season, temperatures range from 25-30ºC (77-86°F), and showers are likely, especially in the afternoon. Therefore, it’s wise to carry a waterproof poncho. In the dry season, temperatures can soar up to 40ºC (104°F), and rain is less frequent. Whether you opt for long or short sleeves, don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent—it’s essential as they’re everywhere and can be quite bothersome!

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