A few kilometres to the west of Huehuetenango are the ruins of ZACULEU, capital of the Mam, who were one of the principal pre-conquest highland tribes. The site includes several large temples, plazas and a ball court, but unfortunately it was restored pretty unsubtly by a latter-day colonial power, the United Fruit Company, in 1946 and 1947. The walls and surfaces were levelled off with a layer of thick white plaster, leaving them stark and undecorated. There are no roof-combs, carvings or stucco mouldings, and only in a few places does the original stonework show through. Even so, the site has a peculiar atmosphere of its own and is worth a look; surrounded by trees and neatly mown grass, with fantastic views of the mountains, it’s also an excellent spot for a picnic.

There’s a small museum on site with examples of some of the burial techniques used – bodies were crammed into great urns, interred in vaults and also cremated – and some interesting ceramics.

Brief history

The site of Zaculeu, first occupied in the fifth century, is thought to have been a religious and administrative centre for the Mam, and the home to its elite; the bulk of the population most likely lived in small surrounding settlements. After a period of subjugation under the rival K’iche’ tribe in the fifteenth century, the Mam reasserted their independence, only for another expansionist empire, the Spanish – a yet more brutal alternative – to arrive. Following a massacre by the Spanish of five thousand Mam warriors to the south, Mam chief Kaibal Balam withdrew to the safety of Zaculeu, which was protected by ravines and walls. The Spanish army prepared for a lengthy siege, giving the Maya a choice: become Christians “peacefully” or face “death and destruction”.

Attracted by neither option, the Mam struggled to hold out against the invading force, but after about six weeks under siege, his army starving to death, Kaibal Balam surrendered. With the bitterest of ironies a bastardized version of his name has been adopted by one of Guatemala’s crack army regiments – the “Kaibiles”, who were responsible for numerous massacres during the 1970s and early 1980s.

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