Mayan Ruins in Guatemala:

Quirigua Archaeological Park

The Mayan archaeological park of Quirigua is located in Guatemala's Izabal department, only a few kilometers from the main highway from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. Quirigua is situated in the valley of the Motagua River, between the slopes of the Sierra de las Minas and the rugged Montaña Espiritu Santo, and surrounded by a sea of banana plantations.

Quirigua is one of the smaller Mayan sites, but also one of the most notable due to the artistry of its stelae, which Mayan rulers during the Classic Period commissioned to commemorate important political and dynastic events. Nowadays, the temples and palaces lie in ruins around the pleasant green park that once was the great plaza of Quirigua and archaeologists are only now piecing them back together.

Quirigua features a total of 22 carved stelae and zoomorphs (large boulders carved to represent animals and covered with figures and glyphs), which are among the finest examples of classic Mayan stone carvings. Unlike other Mayan cities, which for the most part used limestone, monuments in Quirigua are made of sandstone, which has survived the millennium since the end of the Classic Period surprisingly well. Even though the Maya did not have any metal tools and only used stone chisels driven by other stones or wooden mallets, they still achieved a remarkable degree of naturalism and refined detail.

History of Quirigua

The beginnings of the city of Quirigua are hazy and very little is know about the time before the Pre-Classic Period. It is generally accepted that the site was occupied by AD 200 and construction on the acropolis began around 550. Due to Quirigua's strategic location in the valley of the Motagua River, some historians believe that the area may have been settled as early as 1500 BC.

For most of the Classic Period, Quirigua was apparently ruled by an offshoot of the ruling dynasty of Copan. Quirigua was Copan's most important dependency, securing Copan's access to the Motagua River and the trade routes connecting it to the rest of the Mayan world.

For reasons which are still unclear, Quirigua's relationship with Copan deteriorated under the rule of Cauac Sky and the two cities went to war in 738. Quirigua's forces under Cauac Sky defeated those of Copan under 18 Rabbit, who was taken captive and executed on the central plaza of Quirigua.

While the defeat had catastrophic consequences for Copan, sending it into a tailspin it never really recovered from, Quirigua moved quickly to become an autonomous city and assume Copan's former position as the dominant regional power. The victory prompted an unprecedented building boom during which the entire west side of the acropolis was redone and a new ball court was built.

Quirigua's glory faded quickly, however. As the Mayan culture went into decline in the early 9th century and city after city was abandoned, Quirigua could not stem the tide and suffered the same fate. No new buildings were constructed after AD 850 and it is assumed that the city had been completely abandoned by the year 900.

The reason for the city's demise remain under debate. Most likely a combination of wars and overpopulation with the resulting depletion of natural resources was a major factor. It was also suggested that an earthquake dealt Quirigua the final blow, but evidence remains sketchy.

Discovery and Archaeological Research

Quirigua was first described in modern times by John Lloyd Stephens, who visited the site in 1839 and mentioned it in his travelogue Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan. Stephens tried to purchase the site and ship the monuments to New York, but local landowners demanded too high a price and the deal was never closed.

Between 1881 and 1885, British anthropologist Alfred Maudslay made a thorough exploration of the ruins, taking photographs of all visible monuments, making minor excavations and taking paper and plaster molds of all inscriptions and most important sculptures. The molds were later shipped to the British Museum in London.

In 1910, the United Fruit Company bought a large chunk of the Motagua valley, including the ruins of Quirigua, to set up banana plantations. Fortunately, United Fruit recognized the significance of the ruins and established an archaeological park around it, taking great pains to protect the site from looters, and organized the first major excavations through the Archaeological Institute of America.

From 1910 to 1914 Edgar Lee Hewitt did major explorations for the School of American Research at Santa Fe, and the Carnegie Institution conducted several research projects between 1915 and 1934.

A large-scale research and restoration project began in 1975. This project has continued to this day and is sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, the National Geographic Society and the government of Guatemala.

Tours including a visit to Quirigua:

Mayan ruins of Quirigua and Castillo San Felipe (1 day)
Day trip from Santo Tomas or Puerto Barrios: Visit the Mayan ruins of Quirigua and the old Spanish fort of San Felipe on the shores of Lake Izabal.
Guatemala and Honduras by Land and River (10 days)
Visit Copan (Honduras), spend four days sailing the Rio Dulce on our sailboat Las Sirenas, then continue to Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan and Antigua.
Maya Guatemala (14 days)
The grand tour of Guatemala! Visit Antigua, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Copan (Honduras), Livingston, Coban, and climb the Pacaya Volcano.
Maya Guatemala and "The Caribbean Experience" (21 days)
The grand tour of Guatemala plus seven relaxing days on our sailboat Las Sirenas to the Belize Barrier Reef and Islands.
More tour packages ...