Mayan Ruins in El Salvador | Tazumal & Joya de Cerén
The Maya are indisputably one of the most exiting civilizations that have ever inhabited Central America. It was a society with its own astronomical and mathematical systems and its own written language, evolving for three millennia, before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Today, a lot of ruins remain to remind the world of the glory of this community, the most important being Yucatan in Mexico and Copan in the Honduras. In fact, there are also a lot of ruins worth visiting in El Salvador, but they are often overlooked, since they are not in the heart of the Mayan empire. This year, I visited two of them, Tazumal and Joya de Cerén, which are the two most famous ones, thus getting my first taste of the amazing Mayan world.
We set off early from our hotel in the center of San Salvador, and having Alex as our guide, we reached our first stop, Tazumal, one of the most prominent archaeological sites of El Salvador, only 60 kilometers off the capital, in the heart of Chalchuapa. The name Tazumal, in the K’iche dialect is translated as “the place where victims were burnt”. If this arduous name is not enough to convince you to visit it, then what you are about to read will surely make you change your mind.
The “father” of archaeology, Salvadoran Stanley H. Boggs discovered the ruins during the 40’s. The complex consists of a line of ancient buildings, which are considered to be among the best preserved Mayan ruins in the country! If you take a close look, you will notice that all the buildings face west. The complex extends across an area of 10km2 and includes pyramids, statues, and samples of Mayan art, tombs and workshops.
The most significant sight, though, is naturally the 23 meter high pyramid, which stands proud in the leafy area of the archaeological park! The pyramids were the biggest buildings in Mayan cities, and indigenous people used them as temples or royal tombs. The altar, where the sacrifices to the Gods took place, was at the top, while inside there were burial chambers. Ever since the 2001 earthquake, due to safety concerns, getting to the top of the pyramid has been forbidden to tourists. We climbed up as far as we were allowed to get in order to take pictures. I couldn’t stop thinking that Mayan people, one of the most advanced and awe-inspiring people of Central America, used to wander at the exact place, where I was at that time, hundreds of years ago.
Archaeologists discovered evidence in the ruins, suggesting that this city traded with other Central-American civilizations of Mexico and Panama. You will be given the opportunity to learn a lot about Tazumal’s history, from details on how Mayan trade transactions were carried out to how the conclusion was reached that the first inhabitants of the area date back to 1200 B.C. On entering the place, paying a minimum fee, you can ask for a guide who will tell you everything you need to know about the Maya and Tazumal.
The place includes a small museum with artifacts found during the excavations and which prove the relationship the Maya had with other communities in Central America. Hence, in the museum you will see one of the statues that were found in the area that depicts god Xipe Totec, who the Aztecs worshiped as the god of agriculture and spring. It is said that those who were to be offered to Xipe Totec were tied in a frame and were killed by the warriors’ arrows. Subsequently, they carefully removed their skin and the same priests used it as a cloak in the fertility ceremonies that followed the sacrifices. Scary, hah?
There is a green area where you can have a picnic, in the shade of the great pyramid. The archaeological park is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 9.00 a.m to 4 p.m
Joya de Cerén
The archaeological site of Joya de Cerén has been an Unesco World Heritage Sight since 1993, and it is often compared to Italy’s Pompeii, which is why it is often called “America’s Pompeii”. It is very close to Tazumal, so you can combine a visit to both of them in a single day, and why not, arrange a visit to the stunning lake Coatepeque, which is located between the two archaeological parks!
So, in this place there is an agricultural community that has remained intact and preserved for centuries under thick layers of volcanic ash. Contrary to Pompeii, the people here, had the chance to evacuate their houses not once but twice! Both of the erupting volcanoes covered the village in ash, but only after the second eruption, that of the Loma Caldera volcano, did residents finally decide to abandon the village. The location was discovered during some manufacturing works in 1976, when a bulldoze unearthed one of the buildings. Excavations started again in 1989 and still continue until today.
If you are a history enthusiast you should definitely visit this archaeological park. The ruins of Joya de Cerén are of the utmost historical importance since they are unique in providing us with details about the every day life of Mayan farmers. A lot of buildings were found in this space, such as storage facilities, workshops, temples and public baths. Yes, you understood correctly! The Maya had their own….spa!
In the northwest section just off the village, you will see the house (or office!) of Shaman, who was the wisest person in the village, in this particular situation most probably a woman, as almost half Shamans in this area, according to research, were female.
It is incredible how everything has managed to remain intact. It’s like time froze in another era. My guide, Alex, was so descriptive and so illustrative that at every point I could see the sights come to life. It was like I was witnessing small natives coming to and fro their houses, and the families sitting around the hearth. The fact that you can make everything out, including the rooms of the houses, the furniture, the earthenware, even the crops, makes you travel with your imagination to the time of the indigenous people and give color and life to the ruins that lie in front of you.
The archaeological park of Joya de Cerén is open daily except Mondays, from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. Entrance is 3 dollars for foreigners and only 1 dollar for locals, while admittance for children under 8 is free.