Sixteen or more castaways are split between two or more "Tribes", are taken to a remote isolated location and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for roughly 39 days. Frequent physical challenges are used to pit the tribes against each other for Rewards, such as food or luxuries, or for "Immunity", forcing the other tribe to attend "Tribal Council", where they must vote off one of their players. Once about half the players are remaining, the tribes are merged into a single tribe, and competitions are on an individual basis; winning Immunity prevents that player from being voted out, while several that are voted out at this stage form the game's "Jury". Once down to two or three people, a Final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members. The jury then votes for which player should be considered the "Sole Survivor" and win the $1 million prize. Survivor has introduced numerous modifications, or "twists", on the core rules in order to keep the players on their toes and to prevent players from relying on strategies that succeeded in prior seasons. These changes have included tribal switches, seasons starting with more than two tribes, the ability to exile a player from a tribe for a short time, Hidden Immunity Idols that players can use to save themselves at Tribal Council and a chance to return to regular gameplay after elimination through "Redemption Island".
Sixteen new castaways set off on an 11-mile hike through rugged Guatemalan jungle to arrive at ancient ruins of the Maya civilization. They also find a surprise that will help each tribe in the challenges to come.
One Survivor is appalled when a nest of ants are served up for dinner in a tribe desperate for protein. Lacking any sympathy for ailing tribemates, one Survivor starts complaining about the weak ones being lazy and getting pampered. The heat and rigors of the Guatemalan jungle have deteriorated many castaways, who must find the strength to get through a grueling physical competition. Leading into the second Tribal Council, one Survivor fights back when their work ethic is questioned by tribemates.
Smoldering heat forces some Survivors to cool off in the water, risking an encounter with crocodiles. As a tribe attempts to rebuild their shelter, one member takes matters into their own hands and irritates the others. Causing sleepless nights, an inconsiderate howler monkey drives one castaway crazy. A termite-infested log becomes a delicacy for some castaways desperate for a change in their diet.
In an unexpected twist, members of the two tribes are shuffled. While one Survivor dangles his feet in the crocodile-infested waters, something nibbles on his toes. A very close Immunity Challenge leads into a tense Tribal Council that could end with a tie or a major betrayal.
When pounding rain takes its toll on a tribe, one member voices frustrations by calling out some of the others. An incredible Reward is won after one castaway blazes through a Challenge. One self-absorbed Survivor annoys the tribe with endless stories of a glamorous life beyond Survivor.
After winning an arduous Reward Challenge, one tribe member ruins it for the rest by becoming intoxicated and obnoxious. A grueling physical challenge pushes two castaways to the breaking point, leading to a screaming match that comes close to exploding. In a Tribal Council first, one castaway bullies and insults a fellow tribe member despite attempts to keep the peace.
Fear threatens to ruin one castaway's ability to enjoy a reward. An unexpected visit from the opposing tribe makes some of the other castaways uncomfortable about being friendly with the enemy. A heart to heart ends with one Survivor telling another, "You can lie...But, I will track you down. I will find you!" After a difficult Tribal Council, the castaways are bombarded with another big surprise.
Survivors learn that there is an Immunity Idol hidden in the Guatemalan jungle, and the hunt begins. Given the choice to feast or challenge, several castaways choose to enjoy a large feast in front of the others instead of competing for Immunity. Is this a smart move, or will their hunger be their demise?
One Survivor deceives the others by giving them the wrong clues to where the hidden Immunity Idol rests. Several Survivors become angry after one overindulges in a Reward. One Survivor secretly follows a tribemate on a hunt for the hidden Immunity Idol and soon finds out that the tribemate is not to be trusted.
In a down-and-dirty struggle for Reward in the mud, a team is let down by the failure of one member. One tribemate's incessant paranoia drives another to the breaking point. Some feel vulnerable, and some feel sure of who should go, leading to an unpredictable Tribal Council. Will the strong survive, or will the weak slide by?
One Survivor's attempt to forge an alliance is overheard by a lurking tribemate. A castaway is livid after a tribemate targets her for elimination in a Reward Challenge, which leads to an eruption back at camp. Paranoia fills the air, leading one Survivor to declare, "Everyone is lying, even the people you'd least expect!" Tribal Council is full of surprises when one Survivor takes advantage of the group setting to call out a tribemate. How will this influence the vote?
In an attempt to break up the Final Four, one Survivor plants doubts in another's mind. Will this strategic risk turn the tide? One Survivor receives a sealed envelope containing a clue that could provide an advantage in the next Immunity Challenge. A bidding war breaks out at a Reward Challenge auction when family members and loved ones show up unannounced.
Feeling deceived after a tribemate's ousting, one Survivor confronts the tribe. After a big win, one Survivor has a big decision: try and break the "car curse" or risk it all to drive away with a new car. One Survivor's car decision creates a rift at camp. Will this affect who goes home next? The Survivors battle it out in a close race for Immunity and a guaranteed spot in the Final Four.
A surprise from a local family quickly shakes up the Final Four in a traditional Maya ceremony. Later, a surprise thunderstorm sets the Survivors wondering if a decision they made upset the Maya gods. Two Survivors question their alliance and agree on who should be eliminated. Will this decision work to their advantage? With only three days left, the Final Four face off in an intense battle to make it to the end. Who will outwit, outlast and outplay to become the Sole Survivor?