Guatemala // The Oriente and Izabal //

The ruins

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.

More about Guatemala

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