Kaminaljuyu – Guatemala City



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Kaminaljuyu – Guatemala City


Kaminaljuyu, a K’iche’ word meaning ‘Hill of the Dead’, is situated in the Ermita Valley, the site of the presentday Guatemala City, some 1,500 m above sea level. This was a valley of fertile land and historians believe it was for this reason that it was chosen as the fourth site of the capital after the ancient city was destroyed in Santiago de los Caballeros in 1776. Due to the modern expansion of Guatemala City, nowadays it is difficult to see that it consists of a valley surrounded by deep ravines on the banks of which numerous brooks flowed into streams situated on lower ground. The vegetation was characterised by holm oaks and pines, although only a few pockets of such woodlands have survived to this day. The predominant climate is mild, with two clearly differentiated seasons: a dry one occurring between November and April, and a rainy season between May and October.

Pre-Hispanic history

The earliest occupation of Kaminaljuyu is believed to date from around 1000 BC, although the greatest evidence of its population corresponds to 800 BC (the Middle Preclassic). This was concentrated primarily around the old Lake Miraflores, nowadays completely dry. During this period, the population was well organised and built large clay platforms surmounted by small huts made of perishable material, believed to have been used as temples. Most of the constructions were situated along a north-south axis, a characteristic of Preclassic sites. Evidence has also been found of dwellings and botellones, large holes dug out of the natural ground, sometimes in the shape of a bell, containing debris, tombs and fragments of figurines. The figurines from this period tend to represent naked pregnant women and bear a great similarity to examples found at sites along the south coast, such as La Blanca and La Victoria.

Kaminaljuyu had grown considerably by around 300 BC, extending over a radius of more than 1 km around Lake Miraflores. The lake was clearly important for the Preclassic city as several channels have been found, indicating the hydraulic skills of this society. These channels must have been used for distributing water to the various crop fields located around the site. However, by the end of the Late Preclassic, around AD 300, the lake had dried up, apparently due to a combination of climate changes and over-exploitation. Kaminaljuyu also maintained control over sites situated outside the valley. During the Classic era, its governors sustained ties with Teotihuacan, as evidenced by the ceramics found in several tombs and by some of the architectural styles. There may well have been marriage alliances between the elite classes of Kaminaljuyu and Teotihuacan to reinforce control over the trading networks in the region. Meanwhile, the strategic location of Kaminaljuyu between the Pacific Coast and the Maya lowlands enabled it to play an important trading role within a large region, apparently controlling the trade in obsidian and other important commodities such as jade and cacao. When Teotihuacan collapsed, Kaminaljuyu began to lose power: there are signs of decline in the late Classic era and, despite the presence of a few remains from a small Postclassic occupation, the site finally collapsed around AD 900.

Site description

At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 200 mounds were reported at Kaminaljuyu. Approximately 35 structures can be seen today. Of these, 10 ha belong to the Kaminaljuyu Archaeological Park, situated at 9th Calle A and 30 Avenida A in Zone 7. Two groups have been excavated and exposed for visitors to gain an insight into the typical clay architecture built at the site: the Palangana and the acropolis (Group C-II-4). The Acropolis comprises several constructions and beneath it are the Preclassic embankments corresponding to the earliest occupation of the site. The buildings display the talud-tablero (slope-and-panel) architecture that is characteristics of the Teotihuacan style. The surfaces appear to have been painted red, and it is possible to see the remains of two drains made with stone slabs for controlling the distribution of water inside the building. The constructions at the Acropolis are clad with a special type of concrete which seems to have been made of mouldings and fired prior to its application. The tableros or panels display finely cut two-faced stones and the concrete was applied vertically, denoting a certain expertise. The section of the site known as the palangana also contains remains of the ancient architecture. The excavations uncovered Middle Classic (AD 400-600) constructions, which also contain Teotihuacan-style architecture. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that this area continued to be occupied until the end of the Classic era (c. AD 900), although there are also a few insignificant remains from the Postclassic. Very close to the park, some 500 m to the south-east, stands mound D-III-I , dated to the Late Classic, which displays various tableros inlaid with obsidian; this construction is known as ‘El Chay’, chayal being the Kaqchikel Maya word for this mineral. There are also a few, albeit poorly preserved, clay effigies that once formed part of the small masks adorning the facade.


The abundance of volcanic rock around the central valley offered a raw material for making monumental sculptures. It also explains why Kaminaljuyu boasts one of the largest sculptural groups from the Preclassic (800 BC-AD 300). The exact number of monuments at the site is not yet known, but the inventory already lists around one hundred specimens. In addition to the two areas excavated and covered by large roofs to protect the structures, visitors can stroll around the park and see some of the structures covered by grass. There are also a few monuments still in their original location. For example, the Acropolis contains two outstanding monuments: a jaguar with a butt, which represents a ball-court marker and would appear to be one of a pair, the other specimen being Monument 34, currently on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology; and a skull-shaped incense burner associated with Building G. Other monuments at the park include various smooth stelae scattered around the grounds and Stela 26, situated in the lower plaza near the Palangana. This monument displays a sculpted sky band at its base. On the other side of Calle 11 at the park, behind the Palangana, in Building C-III-2, are monuments 42 and 43 associated with a talud-tablero structure. Monument 43 represents a headdress that appears to rise from a platform. Other monuments were found at the park but are now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (still closed in the summer of 2023).

Barbara Arroyo

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp484-486

There’s a small museum just behind the ticket office at the entrance to the park. The places to visit are locked so you might have to wait a few minutes for one of the guardians to take you there.

How to get there:

Take the TransMetro Line 7 from the old town to bus stop Ciudad de Plata II, cross the road on the overpass and then go down 13 Calle until you reach the perimeter of the (fenced) park. Go anti-clockwise around the perimeter to the entrance.


15d 19′ 16″ N

90d 21′ 09″ W



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Q’Umarkaj-Gumarcaj – Santa Cruz del Quiche – Guatemala



More on the Maya

Q’Umarkaj-Gumarcaj – Santa Cruz del Quiche

[The description below promises much more than is, in fact, to be seen. Probably, for me, the most under-whelming site so far – hence the few pictures in the slide show. After I left the site I started to think that I must have missed something, but was sure I saw all that was there. Perhaps, I’ll never know.]


Q’umarkaj, which means ‘old reed huts’, is a pre-Hispanic fortress situated 8 km from the departmental capital of El Quiche, approximately 163 km north-west of Guatemala City. Also known as Utatlan and Guamarcaj, it was the capital of the K’iche’ kingdom, and therefore the political seat of the most powerful entity in the Guatemalan Highlands during the Postclassic. From here, the K’iche’ kings ruled over a large territory encompassing most of the central and western plateau of Guatemala, from the Chixoy Valley to Quetzaltenango and San Marcos between the plateau and the coast, covering an area of over 7,000 sq km. It was founded in AD 1250 by the governor Gucumatz and destroyed due to conflicts with the Spanish conquistadors in 1524.

Pre-Hispanic history

According to historical sources, the K’iche’ nation was a crucial target for the Spaniards, who had received news in central Mexico about the power wielded by the K’iche’ governors and their rule over other groups on the Guatemalan plateau. A military expedition led by Pedro de Alvarado departed for the Guatemalan Highlands to subjugate the K’iche’s. En route, the Spaniards struck alliances with opposing groups such as the Caqchikels, who together with Tlaxcaltec warriors helped to defeat the K’iche’s. In keeping with the Postclassic architectural tradition and settlement pattern, the city of Q’umarkaj was established on a hilltop overlooking the surrounding territory and offering defensive advantages. The area enjoys the typically mild climate of the plateau, while the vegetation consists of large trees that provide ample shade, a cool breeze and raw material for the construction of dwellings and handicrafts, as well as fuel for domestic uses. The K’iche’ capital occupied a strategic geographical position, enabling the population to control the fertile lands, valleys, water resources and trading routes, all of which gave this group an enormous advantage over its rivals.

Site description

The architectural characteristics of the site include double stairways, twin-temple complexes, elongated structures or large houses in the fashion of palaces with pillars, numerous entrances and interior courtyards, ball-court structures, sloping pyramid platforms, vertical walls or finial blocks and circular structures. The city consists of three building groups connected by causeways. Each group has a plaza, twin temples with a double stairway, and a ball court, as well as low platforms for dwellings and circular structures. These groups must have been organised hierarchically in keeping with the relative importance of the principal K’iche’ lineages. These would appear to have established a complex form of social organisation based on territorial federations called chinamitales, out of which they created three Amak or large federations and established their capital, Q’umarkaj, in one of them. The building materials used were the local adobe, sedimentary rock and igneous rock, covered with stucco for a more elegant finish and greater durability. The fired clay technique was also used to create the solid core of some of the structures, while mud, pebbles and sand, duly compacted, were used as fillings. A network of artificial caves for ceremonial purposes has been found beneath the site. These continued to be used in the same way today, like the ruins of certain structures such as the Temple of Tohil, where modern day Maya priests perform rituals.

Despite minimal restoration and research, various structures illustrate the architectural characteristics of the site. The temple dedicated to Tohil in the middle of the Central Plaza is one of the most important constructions at this Postclassic city. It is a pyramidal structure composed of a sloping wall, which constitutes the balustrades flanking the stairway, surmounted by a vertical wall or finial block. A small stairway once led to the upper platform and temple. This pyramid was one of the highest at the site.

The other important buildings at the site are the Temple of Awilix, the Temple of Q’uq’umatz, the ball court in the Central Plaza, the Temple of Jac aw itz, the Tamub Temple and the Kawek Palace. The Temple of Awilix, which stands opposite the Temple of Tojil, consisted of two main tiers, the first wide and the second narrower. The top tier had two stairways, divided by a finial block, leading to a temple with a roof comb. Two standard bearers were found flanking the central stairway. Meanwhile, the Ball Court was of the enclosed, I-plan variety with a single and relatively small access stairway situated at one of the ends. Another stairway led to the top of each wall where there must have been a type of roofed box for authorities supported by pillars. The parallel walls were sloped and lined with benches. The marker at the top of the court must have been of the ring variety. From the Central Plaza, the remainder of the site stretches out in all four directions, the north section being the most distant. The south, east and west sections contain various residential buildings and a few temples at what has been called the ‘ritual-council palatial’ complex. Nowadays, all of the visible large structures are situated in and around the Central Plaza and adopt the form of mounds. None of them have been restored, although a few have been consolidated. Further away from the plaza are a few smaller structures in a similar state of preservation.

Situated at the entrance to Q’umarkaj is a small site museum (closed in summer 2023) containing pieces recovered during the excavations, a scale model and informative panels offering details about the history of the site and general aspects relating to the K’iche’ culture. There are also a few modern objects made locally, such as the traditional brightly-coloured fabrics that are produced in the nearby town of Chichicastenango, which is famous for its textile market and still contains numerous elements that defined the K’iche’ culture. The most famous of these is the church of Santo Tomas Chichicastenango, where the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the K’iche’s, was copied.

Edgar Carpio

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp492-493

How to get there;

A combi, with Ruinas scrawled on the windscreen, leaves from the square in front of the church on a regular basis during the day. Q5. It’s route ends at the bottom of the approach road to the site.



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