In the heart of the lower Motagua Valley, Quiriguá showcases the remains of an important ceremonial center and trading post that linked the Mayan kingdoms of Tikal and Copán (Honduras). Surrounded by rainforest and banana plantations, the site holds the country’s tallest stelae, a massive stone tablet featured on Guatemala’s ten-cent coin. The intricacy of the site’s other carvings led to its declaration as one of Guatemala’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Located only four kilometers south of the Carretera al Atlántico, Quiriguá makes for an easy day trip on the way east to Puerto Barrios.
A Little History
Originally governed by Copán, Quiriguá gained its independence in 738 AD when its ruler, Cauac Sky, attacked Copán and killed its leader, Eighteen Rabbit. After becoming a stable independent state, Quiriguá invested significant time and money into construction and expansion. For the next four decades, skilled stonecutters hewed massive sheets of pliable sandstone from the nearby Río Motagua and carved intricate monuments in Cauac Sky’s honor. Many of the most impressive stelae present today were commissioned under the leadership of Jade Sky, who seized the throne from Cauac Sky’s son, Sky Xul.
Midway into the 9th century, Quiriguá faded and mysteriously disappeared. The site was not discovered again until 1840, when explorer John L. Stephens stumbled upon it, then made a desperate (and failed) attempt to purchase and export its carvings to the United States. The United Fruit Company bought the land surrounding Quiriguá in the early 1900s. Most of the area was transformed into banana plantations, but the UFC allowed further excavation and restoration efforts to be performed by the University of Pennsylvania.
Getting Here, Around, and Away
The entrance to Quiriguá is 68 kilometers beyond the Río Hondo junction, just after Los Amates. All buses running between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios can drop you at the turn-off. From here, micros, motorcycles, and tuk-tuks shuttle visitors to the site itself, which is just over three kilometers down an access road for nearby banana plantations.
Two kilometers back along the highway to Guatemala City is a small run-down village also known as Quiriguá. The UFC once operated a tropical disease institute here, and it is still used to provide medical services to workers on the banana plantations. Quiriguá village offers basic accommodations and decent meals. For onward transportation to Río Dulce town, you’ll want to catch a bus to Morales or La Ruidosa junction.
See the Sights
The ruins of Quiriguá are open daily from 7:30am-5pm, and admission costs Q80 for foreigners. The entrance path leads you to the Great Plaza’s north end. To the south is a ball court and the Acrópolis, a disappointing raised temple ringed by a series of six altars carved with bizarre zoomorphs. These figures combine human forms with animals like turtles, jaguars, and snakes. Zoomorph P is the best preserved of the bunch and depicts a short, squat man deep in meditation. To the east are nine of
Guatemala’s tallest stelae. These impressive pillars are slightly obscured by thatched roofs, but their detailed glyphs display Quirigua’s ancient rulers and the important events of each one’s reign.
The stelae are true works of art, carved in remarkable detail and preserved by the gradual hardening of the sandstone over time. The engraved rulers (Cauac Sky is depicted on seven stelae) are portrayed with massive headdresses and full beards, and most carry a metal rod to signify their right to power. The most impressive of the nine is E, which measures eight meters in height and weighs over 65 tons. A full three meters of the massive monolith are covered by the earth. Before leaving, check out the small museum at the entrance, which provides information on Quiriguá’s history and excavation efforts. Keep in mind that the dense jungle surrounding the site is filled with pesky mosquitoes, so bring repellent.