Early in the fifteenth century, riding on a wave of successful conquest, the K’iche’ king Gucumatz (Feathered Serpent) founded a new capital, K’umarkaaj. A hundred years later the Spanish arrived, renamed the city Utatlán, and then destroyed it, leaving the ruins that can be visited today.
K’umarkaaj is nowhere near as grand as the large ruins of Petén, but its dramatic setting, surrounded by deep ravines and pine forests, is impressive, and its historical significance intriguing. Little restoration has taken place and once-grand temples and palaces are today just grassy mounds. The small museum has a scale model of what the original city may once have looked like.
The splendour of the city, once containing 23 palaces, signified the strength of the K’iche’ empire, which at its height boasted a population of around a million.
By the time of the Conquest, however, the K’iche’ empire was fractured. Their first encounter with the Spanish was a heavy defeat near Quetzaltenango, resulting in the loss of their leader Tecún Umán. The K’iche’ then invited the Spanish to their capital, but on seeing the fortified city, the conquistador feared a trap and captured K’iche’ leaders Oxib-Queh and Beleheb-Tzy. His next step was characteristically straightforward: “As I knew them to have such a bad disposition to service of his Majesty, and to ensure the good and peace of this land, I burnt them, and sent [soldiers] to burn the town and destroy it.”