El Ceibal - History and Facts | History Hit

El Ceibal

Peten, Peten, Guatemala

Ceibal is an ancient Maya settlement site in northern Guatemala.

Image Credit: Odessa25 / Shutterstock.

About El Ceibal

El Ceibal or (sometimes spelt Seibal) in El Peten in Guatemala was an ancient Maya settlement probably mostly constructed and inhabited in the Preclassic Period and which is now represented by a set of ruins.

History of El Ceibal

El Ceibal was inhabited from roughly 400BC until the 10th century, although the city’s fortunes waxed and waned. It’s thought to have peaked in about 200AD and then again in the 9th century, with a maximum population of 10,000 people. It was abandoned later than many of its contemporaries, perhaps due to the arrival of a new elite from the eastern city of Ucanal.

However, much of El Ceibal’s history remains obscured: it suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Petexbatun kingdom (ruled by Dos Pilas), which led to many of the stelae created prior to the 8th century being destroyed as a result. The stelae that do survive date from after the collapse of many of the surrounding Maya kingdoms.

The ruins were rediscovered by loggers in the late 19th century, and major excavation work took place here in the 1960s.

Much of the decoration at El Ceibal is a cultural hybrid of traditional Maya with designs more commonly found in central Mexico, illustrating the amount of trade and intercultural interactions that were going on at this point. The city’s close proximity to the river meant it was a trading hub and would have controlled commerce along this stretch of the river.

Amongst the things to see at Ceibal are a ball court, several stelae (carved stones) which are renowned for being dated fairly late for the Maya civilisation and a few remaining structures such as an impressive round temple. It is quite a large site, although it has comparatively fewer attractions than others in the area.

El Ceibal today

It takes about two hours to explore the site. Only one pyramid has been fully restored: much of the rest of the site is still covered in jungle. The stelae are still in good condition, however.

Tourists are few and far between, so you may well get the site pretty much to yourself. Much of the city’s appeal is its atmosphere, so don’t come expecting the quality of ruins found at major sites like Tikal, for example.

If you want a guide, it’s best to come here on a guided tour – the local caretakers at the site are friendly and happy to help, but they only speak Spanish.

Bring mosquito repellent, snacks and water. The jungle heat can be draining so drink plenty of fluids and wear loose, light long clothing to help protect against mosquito bites. There are no facilities here.

Look out for the useful 3D map at the top of the trail / start of the ruins, which gives an idea of what the site would have looked like in its prime. The city is based on three hills, which are connected by walkways over plunging ravines – if you don’t like heights you might want to think about whether El Ceibal is for you.

Getting to El Ceibal

Part of El Ceibal’s attraction to many is its remoteness. Most people access the ruins by boat – it takes about one hour from the town of Sayaxché, and the river is a site in itself. Look out for crocodiles! Sayaxché itself is on the highway (PET-11) to Flores. Buses will be able to drop you here. From the landing point it’s a 30 minute steep uphill walk to the site, so bear this in mind.