The military barracks that once occupied the northeast corner of the plaza was closed in 2004. The plaza is dominated by, as usual, the church, said to have been constructed by Dominican friars using stones from K’umarcaaj’s Templo Tohil. The local market is held on Thursdays and Sundays, just as in neighboring Chichicastenango. Other than that, there’s little in the way of sights in the town proper.
The former capital of the K’iche’ empire enjoys a splendidly sylvan setting surrounded by deep ravines, though little has been carried out in the way of restoration since it was destroyed by the Spanish conquerors in 1524.
The K’iche’ established themselves here sometime around A.D. 1250 after a migration from the Gulf of Mexico lowlands (previously Toltec territory) to the Cancún & the Yucatán and up the Río Usumacinta. They were able to dominate and subdue the less-complex highland societies they encountered along the way, eventually establishing a sizable kingdom that stretched as far east as the lands occupied by the Rabinal of modern-day Alta Verapaz, west to present-day Momostenango, north to the Sierra de Chuacús, and south to Chichicastenango. The population of the immediate urban area is thought to have numbered 20,000.
The formal founding of K’umarcaaj, signaling the consolidation of K’iche’ power, dates from about A.D. 1400. It fell briefly under the dominion of the Mexica (Aztec) of Central Mexico, with whom they maintained a peaceful coexistence, until the arrival of the Spanish two decades later.
Of the city’s 80 structures, few are recognizable, these being limited to the area around the central plaza. The partially restored Templo Tohil is the site’s tallest structure and featured a sacrificial stone altar that was once the site of ritual human sacrifice. It is dedicated to a deity of thunder and lightning. Modern-day worshippers still perform rituals here, as it remains an important site for the Mayans.
Much of the temple’s exterior stonework has been vandalized and removed for use in local construction. The circular foundations of Templo K’ucumatz can also be seen and are all that remains of a previous building about four meters in diameter with a doorway in the shape of a snake head. A ball court lies to the east of here.
Beneath the ruins on the site’s southern escarpment is a long, 100-meter tunnel. It’s debated whether it was built by the K’iche’ to hide the women and children pending the Spanish arrival or as a representation of the mythical caves of Tula mentioned in the Popol Vuh. The site is revered by modern-day Mayans and is also a place for frequent rituals, including candle and flower petal offerings and chicken sacrifices. Bring a flashlight if you go into the cave, as there are a number of side tunnels, at least one of which ends in a dark, deep chasm. Watch your step.
The ruins are open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily and admission costs about $1.50. There’s a small museum at the entrance with displays on the site’s history, including a three-dimensional diagram of how it may have looked in its heyday.
The easiest way to get here is to take a cab from the center of town, which should cost about $9 round-trip including an hour’s wait time. You can also walk for about 45 minutes from the center of town, heading south from the plaza along 2a Avenida and turning right onto 10a Calle, from where it’s a straight shot to the ruins.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com