Zaculeu Guatemala

Located in the highlands of western Guatemala, Zaculeu was the capital of the Mam, one of the principal highland tribes before the Spanish conquest. The site contains several large temples, plazas and a ball court, but unfortunately it has been restored with a shocking lack of refinement and accuracy.

Knowledge of the Mayan ruins was never lost and it was visited by American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and English architect Frederick Catherwood in 1840. The two excavated one of the mounds and recovered some ceramic vessels. The ruins were reconstructed in 1946 under the auspices of the United Fruit Company, a company notorious for its heavy-handed practices throughout Central America. The reconstruction included re-coating of the walls with white plaster leaving them stark and undecorated while the original stonework shows through in only a few places. Still Zaculeu has a peculiar atmosphere and is definitely worth a visit.

The Mam called their capital Chinabajul . K’iche conquerors changed the name to Zaculeu, meaning “White Earth” which refers to the white limestone plaster used by the Mam on all their buildings.

Structures I, the largest pyramid at Zaculeu. Photo credit: HJPD

Structures I, the largest pyramid at Zaculeu. Photo credit: HJPD

History of Zaculeu

The Mam first settled here during the Early Classic Period from 250–600 AD. Protected by two ravines and a river, the area quickly became their capital. The largest constructions at Zaculeu date from the Classic Period (AD 250–900).

According to the Popul Vuh book of the K’iche’, a more powerful neighboring tribe, Zaculeu was brought under their rule between 1400 and 1475. Recent radiocarbon dating however has pushed back the date of the K’iche’ invasion by three centuries, and their conquest may have taken place as early as the 12th century. The K’iche’ rebuilt over earlier Mam structures in a distinctively K’iche’ style.

When the Spanish showed up in 1525 the K’iche’ were still the dominant force in the highlands. For the first few months the Spaniards, led by Gonzalo de Alvarado, cousin of Pedro de Alvarado, dedicated themselves to conquering the K’iche’. Once they had achieved this they turned their attention to the Mam. The main Mam population was situated in Xinabahul at the time but they quickly withdrew to Zaculeu under the leadership of Caibal Balam. The Spanish army settled outside the city and Gonzalo offered the Maya a simple choice: become Christian or face death. Attracted by neither option the Mam held out for six weeks. But the natural fortifications of Zaculeu meant they were boxed in and the Maya started to starve. Caibal Balam finally surrendered the city to the Spanish in October of 1525. When the Spanish entered the city they found dead bodies everywhere, with the survivors eating the corpses of the dead. After this Zaculeu was abandoned.

Map of Zaculeu

The map shows the location of Zaculeu. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.

Zaculeu Highlights

There are more than 40 structures here, some of which are nothing more than grass covered mounds. The buildings are grouped around small plazas and were generally built from masonry coated with a thick layer of plaster. Most of the restored structures border Plazas 1 and 2. On the southeast side of Plaza 1 sits Structure 1, a 39 foot (12 m) high pyramid. It has eight terraces and the temple on top is entered through three doorways. The temple is approached via a double stairway rising from the plaza below. The pyramid was built in seven construction stages with the visible remains dating to the early Postclassic period.

There is a small museum on the site with examples of some of the burial techniques used and some interesting artifacts found during excavation. The artifacts include items fashioned from turquoise and metal artifacts that were either influenced by or imported from Mexico and southern Central America.

Visit Zaculeu

Zaculeu is located about 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometres) outside of the modern city of Huehuetenango. Buses to Zaculeu leave about every 30 minutes from Huehuetenango. The entrance fee is US$4.50.