The Majestic, Mighty, Magical Ceiba

We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this majestic, mighty, and possibly magical tree. Here are a few of our favorites.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.

Ceiba Tree

A mature ceiba tree.

A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.

All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200 feet tall or more.

The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.

Young Ceiba tree spikes

A young ceiba tree–it loses these spikes as it matures.

Cieba El Mirador National Park

Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.

Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.

Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree

Ceiba tree at Hacienda Uayamon, Mexico

This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.

The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestrial realm in which we live, and the underworld (xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.

Giant ceiba tree in Costa Rica

This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica’s Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.

Ceiba tree painted on a school in Belize

A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.

Bathroom built around Ceiba tree at Hacienda San Jose, Mexico

A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.



  1. Jeff Dobbins March 7, 2012 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    Loved this! I was at Tikal in Dec, and marveled at that Ceiba. One I didn’t love, town of La Ceiba, Honduras. Rough and tough.

  2. Claire March 8, 2012 at 12:10 am - Reply

    Wow looks incredible! Love the young tree with the thorns, great photos!

  3. We have seen photos of this tree in books on Central America and have wanted to see it in person! Great post!

  4. Ali March 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    Ok those trees are really cool! The spikes are awesome!

  5. Andrew March 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    What a freaking awesome tree. The roots that spread out to support the weight are my favorite feature.

  6. dtravelsround March 9, 2012 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    What an interesting tree! I’ve never seen anything like it before!

  7. Red Hunt March 10, 2012 at 1:28 am - Reply

    Love the Ceiba trees… that spiky one is the best, although teh bathroom one is kind of interesting, haha!

  8. Erica March 10, 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Love that you’re shining a spotlight on the world’s trees. They really are such magnificent organisms.

  9. Thomas March 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Reminds me of the “Home Tree” in Avatar!

  10. cheryl April 1, 2012 at 5:36 am - Reply

    Wow, these trees are really incredible! Great photos.

  11. Angela April 29, 2012 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    Majestic indeed, nature is truly wonderful..

  12. Mary May 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    We love the Ceiba trees! They truly are magnificent. Thanks for clearing up the spikes/no spike issue for me. I wasn’t sure if it was the same tree or not, but now I know!

  13. Vicki August 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Very informative. Thanks so much. I love ceiba trees. It was great to learn about them and see your delightful photography.

  14. carl D September 25, 2012 at 10:18 am - Reply

    That sounds really cool. I have never been to Costa Rica but when I was younger I spent about four years in the Ivory Coast and there was a similar tree called the Baobab. Of all the different types of trees around it was also the most impressive, and the locals there held them sacred.

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