How to Enjoy the 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala
UNESCO (United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization) has 3 World Heritage Sites in Guatemala.
- The Tikal ruins in Petén
- The Quiriguá ruins in Izabal
- Antigua Guatemala in Sacatepéquez
If you’ve ever had a conversation about Guatemala you’ve probably mentioned or heard of them, given they are the most renowned places in the country.
Join me as I explore the 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala!
FUN FACT! Guatemalans shorten the word Guatemala to “Guate” as a nickname for our country.
How Does Guatemala Have 3 Unesco World Heritage Sites?
If you would like to see the list of criteria UNESCO uses in order to determine if a site is a World Heritage Site, you can read them here.
In the case of Guatemala, I will dive into the three sites that fulfill most of UNESCO’s criteria.
Quiriguá Ruins in Izabal
Izabal is in North-eastern Guatemala, and it has beautiful beaches. You can find the Quiriguá ruins here, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 31st, 1981.
How to get there? After your landing in La Aurora international airport in Guatemala city, rent a car and drive eastbound through the CA-9 highway for 129 miles (208 km). You will pass through interesting places including Sanarate, Río Hondo, Gualán in El Progreso, and Zacapa. You will reach Los Amates municipality in about 3 hours and 20 minutes.
The Quiriguá ruins will surprise you with their exquisite Mayan steles—with carvings of the faces of Mayan kings.
Quiriguá is close to Copán (Honduras), another ancient Mayan city. While both cities coexisted in peace and harmony for a long time, in the year 738, Quiriguá’s governor captured Copán’s governor for unknown reasons.
Quiriguá’s governor challenged Copán’s governor to a match in the ancient Mayan ball game. Quiriguá’s governor won and claimed Copán’s governor head, sacrificing him in the Great Square. Consequently, Quiriguá became bigger than Copán and more prosperous.
Ever since, the inhabitants of Quiriguá would build a stele every five years to commemorate his governor’s victory over Copán—which you will see in the park.
The Ruins in Quiriguá
You will find 7 Maya steles with a different letter—organized by antiquity.
Quiriguá’s inhabitants built the H stele on May 9th 751, which shows Quiriguá’s governor with a jaguar-styled ornament over his face.
The J stele became a reality on April 12th 756. On its carvings, you’ll find the representation of the sacrifice Copán’s king suffered.
The F stele has a date of March 17th 761, and follows the same topic as its J counterpart.
The D stele is from February 19th 766, and commemorates Quiriguá’s governor’s 40 years of rule.
The E stele was born on January 24th 771 and is about Quiriguá’s and Copán’s governors, and the capture of the latter. It is the biggest stele in Central America—34 feet (10.6 meters) tall and weighing 65 tons.
C and A steles are the last ones. They saw the light on December 29th 775. The former is especially interesting since it mentions the date on which the Mayan culture was born: August 13th 3114 BC
If you want to visit Quiriguá, keep in mind that, as a foreigner, you’ll need to pay 10.34 USD (80 Quetzales) to visit the place and you can do so between Monday and Sunday between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
FUN FACT! Izabal is the only Guatemalan department that has access to the Atlantic Ocean—six departments (out of 22) have access to the Pacific Ocean.
The Tikal Ruins, Petén
Petén is the most northern department in Guatemala, and it borders with Izabal and Alta Verapaz. The ruins in Tikal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Landing in La Aurora international airport in Guatemala City gives you two choices. You can catch a one-hour plane ride to Tikal or take the scenic route for about 9 hours.
In this spectacular car ride, you’ll go through Guatemala’s highway CA-9. The first hour you’ll be driving towards Quiriguá, you’ll pass it and you’ll arrive in Morales, Izabal. From this point on, you’ll start driving northbound and pass Río Dulce—a place that locals and tourists visit very much due to its many natural wonders and beauties. From that point on you’ll still have a 5-hour-drive to reach your destination. In total, you’ll have driven 327 miles (527 km).
Inside the Tikal park, you’ll find the astonishing Temple V in Tikal, which belongs to an unknown governor from the Mayas. Its 187 feet (57 meters) spread across the base of the pyramid, seven different sections, a 30-feet (9-meter) sanctuary, and the 41-feet (12.5-meter) roof comb, which is full of art.
Temple V, despite its huge dimensions, isn’t the tallest pyramid. That title belongs to Temple IV, which might be the temple to Tikal’s 27th king—Yik’in Chan K’awiil. This temple stands 212 feet (65 meters) and just like temple V it has the base, 7 structures, the sanctuary, and the roof comb.
Temple III stands 180 feet tall (55-meters), Temple II has 125 feet (38 meters), and Temple I stands 180 feet (55 meters) as well.
The warm Petén jungle and the Maya pyramids standing there 2,600 years after the Maya started building them will surely make you feel a surreal experience. Additionally, archeologists have discovered only about 20% of this huge ancient city.
Tikal rose in 300 BC, and in 800 AD about 70,000 people lived there. Scientists, historians, and archeologists divide the Maya culture in 3 periods: preclassic, classic and postclassic.
During all of these years Tikal grew and expanded. It became one of the biggest cities in all of the Americas, until people started abandoning it around the 10th century—500 years before the Spaniards discovered the Americas.
Mayas built around 4,000 structures which archeologists haven’t been able to find yet.
Tikal is definitely the most attractive and iconic place you’ll find in Guatemala—full of history, hidden secrets, and abundant interesting fauna including monkeys, parrots, and jaguars.
Some sources recommend taking at least two days to be able to explore Tikal calmly and give it the time it deserves. You’ll have around 12 hours to visit it, since they open the park at 6 a.m. and close it at around 6:30 p.m. You’ll have to pay 19.4 USD (150 quetzales) in order to enter the archeological park and be able to visit it.
FUN FACT! Petén is the largest department in Guatemala and the one with fewer municipalities—only seven.
Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepéquez
Just like Tikal, UNESCO declared Antigua Guatemala a World Heritage Site in 1979. This city, however, it’s very far from being in the middle of the jungle or showing Maya ruins. When you visit Antigua you’ll time travel as well, but not 12 centuries, but rather 4.
From La Aurora international airport in Guatemala City, you won’t need a long time to arrive in Antigua. Take Guatemala’s CA-9 highway for about 40 minutes to 2 hours—depending on the traffic. It’s only a 21-mile (35-kilometer) drive.
Past Roosevelt boulevard, you will reach San Lucas, Sacatepéquez, and get to enjoy a couple of tortillas with chancol cheese, chuchitos, tamales, or any other Guatemalan traditional dish.
Antigua’s streets are cobblestone and offer an abundance of restaurants, churches, convents, ruins, parks, street vendors, the City Hall, the cathedral, and gorgeous streets as the iconic Street of the Arch (Calle del arco).
Your visit to Antigua Guatemala wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Water Volcano (El volcán de agua). It is possible to plan a hike.
As the name suggests, Antigua Guatemala used to be Guatemala’s capital (antigua means antique or old) between 1541 and 1776. Back then, the Santa Marta earthquakes had ruined the city for the third time in a row in the same century. In 1773, there were 8 earthquakes between July 29th and December 13th—4 of which on July 29th.
What To See in Antigua
In Antigua, you’ll be able to find Spanish baroque architecture in many of its buildings, especially in churches and convents, which populate the city.
Some of them are:
- Saint James’ Cathedral (La catedral de Santiago)
- Capuchinas church (La iglesia de las capuchinas)
- Saint Francis’ church (La iglesia de San Francisco)
- La Recolección church and convent (Iglesia y Convento La Recolección)
- La Merced church and convent (Iglesia y Convento de la Merced)
- Saint Dominique ‘s convent (El Convento de Santo Domingo)
- Saint Cross’ hermitage (La Ermita de la Santa Cruz)
Since Antigua is a highly visited place, you’ll find lots of souvenirs to buy—especially if you visit the Central Market (El mercado central). Entering the city is free, but you do need to pay for parking.
Could Guatemala Get a Fourth Unesco World Heritage Site?
According to this article, Guatemalan authorities presented an official document to nominate the Archeological National Park Tak’alik Ab’aj as a World Heritage Site.
Tak’alik Ab’aj rose in 800 BC, and stood until 1,400 AD. Some experts consider this place the birthplace of the Maya culture, and also where Maya and Olmeca cultures coexisted.
To visit Tak’alik Ab’aj you’ll need to go to El Asintal municipality in the southern department of Retalhulheu. Take the CA-9 highway and drive for 121 miles (196 km) through Escuintla and Santa Rosa.
FUN FACT! Homeschool Spanish Academy’s headquarters are in Antigua Guatemala.
Master Your Spanish Before Visiting Guatemala
Learning or mastering the Spanish language will definitely make your visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala flow easily and naturally.
Sign up today for a free class with one of our Guatemalan teachers who will, besides teaching you the language, share useful insights about Guatemala’s culture, traditions, and slang before your visit. In addition, learning Spanish might be a great source of income worth your consideration.
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