El Salvador’s Mayan ruins can’t be compared with the great Mayan centres in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, but they have their own powerful charm – and on most days you’ll have the sites completely to yourself. Stephen Keeling went to explore El Salvador’s rich but oft ignored Mayan heritage.

Joya de Cerén

Around 1400 years ago, a small Mayan village in Central America faced disaster. Black smoke had been spewing from the nearby volcanic peak of the Loma Caldera for several days, and violent tremors shook the ground. The people here were simple manioc and maize farmers who had settled in the village only a few decades before, and in desperation they decided to flee, leaving virtually everything they owned behind. Soon after, the volcano blew its top and the village was buried under more than six metres of burning hot ash in just a few hours. The villagers never returned.

For hundreds of years the site lay abandoned and overgrown. And its secrets would have remained hidden if not for an accident: in 1976 a bulldozer levelling ground for the construction of grain-storage silos exposed a mysterious clay-built structure, and archeologists were called in. Excavations were interrupted by the El Salvador civil war, but resumed in 1989 and have been continuing ever since.

Quezaltepeque volcano

Today Joya de Cerén, an hour or so north of the capital San Salvador, isn’t quite the “Pompeii” it’s hyped up to be, but it does offer a totally different perspective to all the other great Mesoamerican ruins.

What remains of sites like Copán and Tikal is spectacular but ceremonial – there is very little evidence of the houses where people actually lived in these cities. At Joya de Cerén you can wander around the beautifully preserved earth homes of Mayan farmers from the sixth century AD, as well as a sweat bath (temazal), excavated from the ash and dirt, in situ.

In total some eighteen structures have been identified and ten have been completely or partially excavated. One of the most intriguing is thought to have been a religious building where a shaman practiced. Cerén was probably home to about two hundred people, and although no human remains have been discovered, everyday objects found here include petrified beans, maize, utensils and ceramics.

San Andrés

A few kilometres southwest of Joya de Cerén, in an open field surrounded by simple farms and dense jungle, lies the once mighty city of San Andrés. Originally supporting a population of about twelve thousand and reaching its peak as the regional capital around 650–900 AD, it was later occupied by the Pipil people.

Joya de Cerén

The ruins were partially buried by another volcanic eruption in 1658, and today only sections of the ceremonial centre have been excavated – seven crumbling but enigmatic structures including the Acrópolis complex and a seventeenth-century Spanish indigo works. You can stroll freely around most of the site, which is also a popular picnic spot for locals at the weekends, though the tallest pyramid (“La Campana”) can only be viewed from a distance. The small Museo Sitio Arqueológico includes a good model of what the city would have looked like in its heyday.

Tazumal

El Salvador’s most impressive pre-Colombian site lies outside the small town of Chalchuapa, some 80km northwest of San Salvador. All that remains of another powerful Mayan city is the Tazumal complex, primarily comprising a vast fourteen-stepped ceremonial pyramid, influenced by the style of Teotihuacán in Mexico and gradually extended over many generations.

Today, vendors from the local neighbourhood line the pot-holed street outside, with the site itself surrounded by a simple metal fence – it’s all relatively compact and low-key, like a small blossom-filled park, but with the great pyramid looming over everything. Most visitors simply roll up and park right at the entrance.

Tazumal, Chalchuapa

The site was occupied for over 750 years, mostly in the Late Classic period (600–900 AD). Earlier remains, dating back to 100–200 AD, have been found beneath the pyramid. The Mayan abandoned the city around the end of the ninth century, during the collapse of the Classic Mayan culture, and, unusually, Pipils moved in and occupied the site, building a pyramid dating back to the Early Post-Classic (900–1200 AD) and another pelota court, in the northwest corner of the site. Tazumal was finally abandoned around 1200 AD. The Museo Sitio Arqueológico here displays artefacts discovered during excavations in the area, including some stunning ceramics, but you’ll need to read Spanish to make the most of it.

Aficionados should also check out the closely related but smaller, grassy ruins of Casa Blanca, an important Mayan centre between 200 BC and 250 AD, just a five-minute taxi ride from Tazumal (it’s right on the main highway on the north side of Chalchuapa). Visit in mid-winter and the site is smothered in pink madrecacao blooms.

Need to know

To see all three Mayan ruins it’s best to rent a car, taxi or take a tour from San Salvador. All three sites are usually open Tues–Sun 9am–4pm and entry costs US$3 at each (parking US$1). For more information visit www.fundar.org.sv.

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