Sitting in an isolated pocket of rainforest, surrounded by an ocean of banana trees, the small archeological site of Quiriguá has some of the finest carvings in the entire Maya world. Only nearby Copán can match the magnificent stelae, altars and zoomorphs that are covered in well-preserved and superbly intricate glyphs and portraits.
The ruins are situated 68km beyond the junction at Río Hondo, and 4km from the main road, reached down a side road that serves the banana industry. Weather conditions are decidedly tropical. Indeed, cloudbursts are the rule and the buzz of mosquitoes is almost uninterrupted – bring repellent.
A brief history of Quiriguá
Quiriguá’s early history is still relatively unknown, but during the Late Preclassic period (250 BC–300 AD) migrants from the north established themselves as rulers here. In the Early Classic period (250–600 AD), the area was dominated by Copán, just 50km away, with Quiriguá no doubt valued for its position on the banks of the Río Motagua, an important trade route and as a source of jade. It was during the rule of the great leader Cauac Sky that Quiriguá challenged Copán, capturing its leader, Eighteen Rabbit, in 738 AD and beheading him, probably with the backing of the “superpower” city of Calakmul. Quiriguá was then able to assert its independence and embark on a building boom: most of the great stelae date from this period. For a century Quiriguá dominated the lower Motagua valley. Under Jade Sky, who took the throne in 790, Quiriguá reached its peak, with fifty years of extensive building work, including a radical reconstruction of the acropolis. Towards the end of Jade Sky’s rule, in the middle of the ninth century, the historical record fades out, as does the period of prosperity and power.Read More
Entering the site you emerge at the northern end of the Great Plaza. On the left is a badly ruined pyramid, directly ahead are the stelae for which Quiriguá is justly famous.
The nine stelae in the plaza are the tallest in the Maya world and the quality of carving is remarkable. Similar in style in many ways to that of Copán, they feature portraits on the principal faces of the standing monuments and glyphs covering the sides. As for the figures, they represent the city’s rulers, with Cauac Sky depicted on no fewer than seven (A, C, D, E, F, H and J). Two unusual features are particularly clear: the vast headdresses, which dwarf the faces, and the beards. Many of the figures are shown clutching a ceremonial bar, the symbol of office. The glyphs, crammed into the remaining space, record dates and events during the reign of the relevant ruler.
Largest of the stelae is E, which rises to a height of 8m and weighs 65 tonnes. All the stelae are carved from a fine-grained sandstone. Fortunately for the sculptors the stone was soft once it had been cut, and fortunately for us it hardened with age.
Another feature that has helped Quiriguá earn its fame is the series of bizarre, altar-like zoomorphs: six blocks of stone carved with interlacing animal and human figures. Some, like the turtle, frog and jaguar, can be recognized with relative ease, while others are either too faded or too elaborate to be easily made out. The best of the lot is P, which shows a figure seated in a Buddha-like pose.
Ball court and Acropolis
At the southern end of the plaza, near the main zoomorphs, you can just make out the shape of a ball court hemmed in on three sides by viewing stands. The acropolis itself, the only structure of any real size that still stands, is bare of decoration. Trenches dug beneath it have shown that it was built on top of several previous versions, the earliest ones constructed out of rough river stones.
A small site museum has informative displays about the site’s historical significance and its geo-political role in Maya times as well as a diorama showing the extent of the ruins that remain unexcavated.
The village – also known as Quiriguá – is just off the highway, about 2km back towards Guatemala City. It’s a run-down sort of place, strung out along the railway track, but in the past it was famous for its hospital specializing in the treatment of tropical diseases, run by the United Fruit Company. This imposing building, which still stands on the hill above the track, is now a state-run workers’ medical centre; there’s a statue of Scottish doctor Neil Macphail (who ran the hospital here for forty years) in front of the structure.