Photograph by Sean Caffrey, Lonely Planet/Getty Images
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The Temple of the Great Jaguar sits in the Grand Plaza at the ruins of Tikal.

Photograph by Sean Caffrey, Lonely Planet/Getty Images

What to Do in Guatemala's Holy Cities

The rich Maya history of El Mirador and Tikal adds an extra dimension to a visit to Guatemala, where ancient sites and thriving cultures continue to draw modern-day visitors.

The ruins of El Mirador were initially discovered in 1926 but remained obscured by a tangle of jungle growth in northern Guatemala for another 36 years. What archaeologists finally found upon closer inspection turned what they knew about Preclassic Maya civilization on its head.

Built more than 2,000 years ago—long before archaeologists believed such a place could exist at that era in Maya history—El Mirador was a busy metropolis covering six square miles, home to tens of thousands of people, and filled with grand buildings and plazas. It’s now thought to be the cradle of Maya civilization.

About 40 miles to the south of El Mirador in Guatemala’s Petén region is Tikal, another major site of Maya civilization—its largest city during the Maya Classic period. A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Guatemala’s first protected sites (Tikal National Park was established in 1955), Tikal in its heyday comprised ceremonial platforms, palaces, residences of various sizes, roads, plazas, and towering temples shaped like pyramids, many of which can be safely climbed by visitors.

When to Go: From November to mid-February is the best time to visit El Mirador and Tikal, which lie in the humid Guatemalan lowlands.

Where to Stay: Trips to El Mirador start from the village of Carmelita. Most visitors hike or travel there by donkey over a few days, camping along the way. Helicopters can also be chartered for a short flight from the nearby town of Flores. Once there, an old landing strip serves as a campsite for visitors. Visitors to Tikal can take a day trip to see the site while staying in Flores. Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, close to the Tikal ruins, offers well-appointed suites overlooking a lagoon. There are also a few hotels just outside of Tikal: Hotel Jaguar Inn, Jungle Lodge Hotel, and Hotel Tikal Inn.

Cultural Tip: Hiring a local guide from Carmelita is highly recommended. Turismo Cooperativa Carmelita also arranges tours.

What to Watch Before You Go: Watch a Library of Congress talk by Richard Hansen, an archaeologist who has worked at El Mirador for decades, about what is known on the collapse of the Maya civilization in the Mirador Basin.