Mayan Ruins in Quirigua, Guatemala

Guatemalen stelae
  • Guatemalen stelae

I’m fascinated by the Mayan civilization and its monumental architecture, artwork and culture and have visited ancient Mayan sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Some sites are sprawling, and it’s amazing to step back in time, surrounded by the plazas and buildings. I have found other sites that, though they might not be on a normal tourist itinerary, are also worth the time to visit — even offering up unknown treasures of history and workmanship.

The ancient Mayan site of Quirigua is small compared to its famous cousins like Tikal, Palenque and Chichen Itza. It lacks the monumental temples, palaces and ball courts of the other more famous Mayan ruins. What it does offer is some of the most outstanding sculptures, best examples of hieroglyphic writing and the largest stelae in the Mesoamerican world.

Located in the midst of a banana plantation a couple of hours from the Caribbean coast in southeast Guatemala, Quirigua is a great diversion for tourists traveling to the coast or to the famous ruins of Copan just south across the Honduran border. The Motagua River runs nearby, and along with the proximity of the coast and large jade deposits in the area, it made Quirigua a major trade center during its time. The city was a vassal state of Copan for years until it broke the bonds and became its own independent polity.

Cahuac Sky was Quirigua’s leader from 724 A.D. to 785 A.D. The event that led to his fame and the freedom of his kingdom occurred in 738 A.D., when he defeated the forces of Copan and brought their leader known as 18 Rabbit back to Quirigua and had him publicly beheaded.

Many of the stelae that dot the site are monuments to Cahuac Sky. Upon entering the site there are amenities such as bathrooms, a gift shop and snack bar. You walk through trees into the Great Plaza, a long manicured area with sculptured stelae, zoomorphs and sacrificial altars strewn throughout.

Passing the site where a ballcourt once stood, you reach the end of the plaza and the acropolis, a palace complex with a large grassy area in the middle that’s great for a picnic on its steps. One of the nice things about this site is that it isn’t packed with tourists, so a nice quiet exploration can be enjoyed. You’ll marvel at the detail on its sculpture and if you learn even a basic understanding of the Mayan writing — like dates and emblem glyphs — you will truly be rewarded.

Traveling to Guatemala and seeing the site is a wonderful experience. The surroundings are beautiful, and seeing the magnificent sculpture in person and studying the intricate details of the hieroglyphs make for a time well spent. If you’d like to get a taste of Quirigua with a sampling of their sculpture, you can see replicas of a few stelae and zoomorphs in the San Diego Museum of Man, along with other Mayan artifacts.

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