Zaculeu, old capital of the Mam people, Guatemala, Central America

James Strachan/Robert Harding


Western Highlands

A remnant of the Mam capital, the Zaculeu archaeological zone was 'restored' by the United Fruit Company in the 1940s, leaving its pyramids, ball courts and ceremonial platforms covered by a thick coat of graying plaster. It's the sort of restoration that probably makes archaeology purists scream, but for casual visitors the site, set amid pleasant lawns, goes a long way in simulating the appearance of an active religious center.

With ravines on three sides, the Postclassic religious center Zaculeu ('White Earth' in the Mam language) occupies a strategic defensive location that served its Mam Maya inhabitants well. It finally failed, however, in 1525, when Gonzalo de Alvarado, aided by Tlaxcalan and K'iche' forces, laid siege to the site for two months. It was starvation that ultimately defeated the Mam.

An excellent museum at the site holds, among other things, skulls and grave goods found in a tomb beneath Estructura 1, the tallest structure at the site.

Zaculeu is 4km west of Huehuetenango center. Buses to the site (Q2.50, 15 minutes) leave about every 30 minutes between 7:30am and 6pm from in front of the school at the corner of 2a Calle and 7a Av. A taxi from the town center costs Q30 one way. One hour is plenty of time to look around the site and museum.

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