Long before reaching Santa Elena , you can see its imposing Iglesia de San Mateo rising like a misplaced airplane hangar from a distant hilltop. (Some say it was built atop a Maya ruin—not at all uncommon—but you can see from the town’s central plaza that it’s simply a rocky hill.)
A huge pinkish stone box standing 35 meters (115 feet) high, 50 meters (165 feet) long, and 20 meters (66 feet) wide, the church has almost no exterior adornment. The cavernous nave is also austere, with thick white walls and wood pews. The exceptions are the ornate wooden altar and large wooden retablos (hand-carved religious scenes depicted in ornate boxes) along the walls. Be sure to ask the church attendant (he’s usually hanging out in the nave) to let you up to the roof, reached via a rickety spiral staircase.
Near the top is the organ platform (sans organ) with a dizzying view down into the nave from a wooden patio and narrow corridors along the sides. The roof affords an awesome vista of the surrounding countryside.
A small museum alongside the church (8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, US$1) has detailed and somewhat disturbing displays of the mummified remains of four children who died in the 1800s and were buried in the church floor (a common practice), and uncovered during renovations in 1980. Twelve bodies were discovered; five were reburied, three were taken by authorities and never returned, and four displayed in glass cases here. The tiny corpses may have been children of German transplants brought during the French occupation that died (or were killed) during the Caste War.
The museum also has a replica Maya tomb under glass in the floor of the same room. (Notice a theme?) It shows a skeleton and common burial items, like a stone axe and ceramic dishes, thought to be needed in the next world. Photos, a painted Maya doorway, and a few pre-Hispanic and colonial items round out the displays.