When most people think of the Maya, their minds jump immediately to Mexico, but this ancient civilization exerted profound influence throughout Central America.
As a native of El Salvador and an expert in Mesoamerican anthropology and archaeology for National Geographic, I’m here to take you on the ultimate cultural journey through the Maya of Central America — from places that were inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, to Maya cities built at the time of Christ, to modern towns that celebrate their ancient heritage in unexpected ways.
- Los Izalcos: Los Izalcos is a mountainous region and major cacao producer in pre-Columbian times. Today, coffee that moves the local economy. The towns of Izalco, Nahuizalco, Apaneca, Ataco, and Juayua all have ancient roots — and the combination of native and Christian beliefs is celebrated by the largely indigenous communities with dances and festivals honoring local history. Apaneca is also well known for great culinary traditions. I recommend ordering up a round of tamales and some atol de elote (sweet-corn milk drink) or chocolate caliente (Spanish-style hot chocolate) for an afternoon treat.
- Cerro Verde and Lake Coatepeque: A short distance from the Izalcos is a great volcanic region. I recommend heading to Cerro Verde National Park, where you’ll find a lookout that provides a fantastic panoramic view of Izalco Volcano — a now-dormant stratovolcano that was formed in the 1770s and continually erupted for two hundred years — and an impressive orchid garden. From Cerro Verde, head to Lake Coatepeque (Snake Mountain in Nahuatl). The road that connects the sites circumnavigates the volcano’s magnificent crater.
- San Andrés: Jump on the Pan-American Highway east of Coatepeque to reach the Zapotitan Valley. This fertile basin, spanning between the Santa Ana and San Salvador volcanoes, contains two must-see archaeological sites. The first is the Archaeological Park of San Andrés, where you will find stepped pyramids, an acropolis, and a large ceremonial plaza. The local museum provides insight into archaeological investigations at the site, while an indigo-processing plant that operates within the park’s limits provides a glimpse into Conquest-period Maya. Did you know indigo used to be worth more than gold?
- Joya de Cerén: Not far from San Andres is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in all of the Americas, Joya de Cerén. Discovered by a tractor driver while clearing land, this site presents impressive adobe structures — including an almost intact Temazcalli (sweat-bath), community house, and several other domestic structures — that help paint a picture of what life was like in a Maya community at around 500 A.D. Visit the site museum to experience the fantastic story of the investigation and see some of the pottery that has been found in the area.
- Esquipulas: This eastern Guatemalan city has always been important to Maya communities that venerated Ek Chuah, the god of traveling merchants, who is commonly depicted as black or surrounded by that color. But by the late 16th century, when the Spaniards had defeated local armies and Esquipulas began to emerge as a center of Catholic spirituality, Quirio Cataño was commissioned to design a sculpture of Christ on the cross for the local basilica. The wood used in the statue mysteriously darkened over the years, eventually taking on supernatural significance. Four hundred years later, the Black Christ of Esquipulas continues to play an important part in Central American spirituality, itself a unique blend of indigenous and Catholic rituals. On January 15 each year, the site becomes a major pilgrimage site for thousands of worshipers who come to pay tribute to the Black Christ by entering the basilica barefoot, lighting candles, and bringing baskets of corn for the miraculous one.
- Antigua: Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century, and remains a lively city with restaurants, shops, and some of the best preserved examples of colonial architecture in Central America (at least those that have survived in this earthquake-prone region). While Antigua does have its colonial charm, it is the colorful people (and the amazing climate of the sleepy town) that make this place special. Be sure to visit the old church at the center of town and the local market which is frequented by many Maya who still live nearby. The colorful attire of the Maya has changed little in millennia, and the color arrangements are particular to the many communities.
- Tikal: Tikal was a capital of the Maya world in ancient times, and it’s easy to believe when you’re confronted with the thousands of massive pyramids, plazas, temples, and dwellings that remain today. One of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization, Tikal was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The city is so impressive it could take weeks to explore, but before you leave, climb to the top of a steep facade and witness the Petén rainforest jungle in its awesome beauty all around you.
- Copán: This archaeological site yields some of the most magnificent examples of Maya art and architecture to be found in Central America — including the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, which tells the official history of Copán’s rulers, and the elaborate stela (tall, sculpted stone slabs) that have come to symbolize the site.
Founded in the 5th century by the first dynastic leader Yax Kuk Mo, the city thrived for five centuries until it was abandoned.The Copán ruins were discovered in the 16th century, but the region wasn’t truly explored until John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood came along in the 1830s. Their descriptions, maps, and drawings of the monuments sparked an explosion of interest in Central America’s Maya culture that continues today.
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Fabio Esteban Amador is a program officer specializing in Mesoamerican archaeologist at National Geographic, as well as an associate research professor at George Washington University.