Quiriguá, a Mayan site that once rivaled Copán (in present-day Honduras) as the regional center of power, is still home to the region’s tallest stelae. It makes a good excursion on the way to Puerto Barrios when traveling along CA-9.
In the early 1900s, the site and surrounding lands became the property of the United Fruit Company, which preserved the ruins and the area in its vicinity.Set amid banana plantations, the Mayan site of Quiriguá is smaller but somewhat similar to Copán, particularly in regard to its inhabitants’ skill and propensity in the carving of stelae. It’s just 50 kilometers from Copán as the macaw flies, back on the Guatemalan side, though getting here from Copán is a bit more complicated than it looks on a map because the roads are structured so as to make you loop west, north, and then finally east on the highway leading to the Caribbean Coast (CA-9). Coming from Guatemala City, it’s just a few kilometers down a dirt road turnoff from the main highway (CA-9), making it a worthy side trip along the road to Puerto Barrios or Río Dulce. Restoration of the site was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and in 1981 Quiriguá was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only other sites of this kind in Guatemala are Tikal and Antigua. It boasts the tallest known Mayan stela.
Quiriguá’s history largely mirrors that of Copán, of which it was a vassal state for much of its history. In AD 653, for example, Copán’s very own king Smoke Jaguar erected Altar L in Quiriguá’s Great Plaza in his own honor after installing the city’s new ruler. Quiriguá’s stelae were carved with help from Copán’s artisans using beds of brown sandstone brought from the nearby Río Motagua. The sandstone was soft when first cut, allowing the artisans to create the excellent-quality carvings, which hardened through time and can still be seen today.
Quiriguá’s subservient status changed dramatically under the leadership of its king Cauac Sky with the capture and subsequent beheading of Copán’s ruler 18 Rabbit in AD 737, an event which would mark the beginning of Copán’s gradual downward slide. Cauac Sky quickly embarked on his own plan to expand the greatness of Quiriguá, carving most of the stelae in evidence there today. He can be seen on Stelae A, C, D, E, F, H, and J. Cauac Sky was succeeded by his son, Sky Xul (784-800), who lost his throne to Jade Sky, Quiriguá’s last great king, who embarked on his own grand-scale reconstruction of the city’s Acropolis. Quiriguá managed to remain independent of Copán for the remainder of its history until its own silent and mysterious demise in the middle of the 9th century.
Like Copán, Quiriguá captured the attention and fascination of John L. Stephens, who compared it to “the rock-built city of Edom, unvisited, unsought and utterly unknown.” Stephens even attempted to buy the site in 1840 and cart it off to New York City via the Río Motagua and out to sea. Assuming that Stephens was negotiating on behalf of the U.S. government, the landowner quoted an exorbitant price and the deal was never made. The noted archaeologist Alfred Maudsley followed up with his own visit and excavations between 1881 and 1894, making some fine illustrations of the site’s stelae and zoomorphic rock figures. In the early 1900s, the site and surrounding lands became the property of the United Fruit Company, which preserved the ruins and the area in its vicinity. The rest of the land was converted to banana plantations, miles and miles of them.
The Ruins of Quiriguá
What is left of Quiriguá is limited to its ceremonial center. As you enter the park from the main entrance, you’ll see the Acropolis straight ahead and the various stelae and zoomorphs (stone sculptures depicting animals and hybrid human-animal forms) in the Great Plaza to your left. The stelae are housed under thatched-roof structures to protect them from further deterioration from the elements. It can be somewhat difficult to view the carvings and even more difficult to get a good photograph. The most impressive is Stela E, standing almost 11 meters high, making it the tallest known Mayan stela. Noteworthy features in the carvings include their bearded subjects with elaborate headdresses, the staffs of authority clutched in their hands, and glyphs running up and down the monuments’ sides. The various zoomorphs can also be seen here, depicting turtles, jaguars, frogs, and serpents. Near the Acropolis, Altar P depicts a figure seated in a strange, Buddhalike pose. The Acropolis itself is rather unimpressive, failing to rise in height above the treetops of the surrounding jungle, though it is somewhat spread out. There’s a small ball court on its western side.
The park is open 7:30am-5pm daily. Admission is $4. There’s a small museum housing displays on the site’s significance in relation to Mayan history and geopolitics along with a model showing the extent of the site’s boundaries and unexcavated sections.
The site lies four kilometers from the main road with frequent transport heading up and down thanks to the activities of the nearby banana plantations. At the entrance to the site are a ticket office, the museum, and a few simple soda stands as well as some folks selling coconuts. The turnoff to the park from the main road (CA-9) is between Km. 204 and Km. 205, about 70 kilometers northeast of the Río Hondo Junction. Any bus heading along CA-9 can drop you off at the junction to the road leading to the park.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.