The Mayan civilization existed in the Americas from around 2000 BC to the late 17th century. The civilization was known for its developments in mathematics, architecture, and writing. At its peak the Mayan’s territory stretch from Mexico in the north to Honduras in the south, with El Salvador right at the limit of their southern expansion. For this reason the Mayan ruins in El Salvador are not as large or expansive as those in Copan (Honduras), Tikal (Guatemala), or even Belize. However, they are worth visiting for an insight into this intriguing ancient civilization. Mayan ruins in El Salvador also have the advantage of being relatively close together, and it is possible to visit several sites in a single trip.
Tazumal Mayan ruins
Tazumal is a Mayan ruin believed to have been occupied from the late Classic period (250 AD) onwards. Obsidian artefacts found here indicate links with other Mayan sites as far north as Mexico.
Tazumal was first excavated and restored in the 1940s. Unfortunately at that time conservation methods were less well developed than they are now, and cement was poured over a large part of the ruins. Nevertheless it is still possible to see several multi-level temples, a suspected ball court, and burial mounds. The site is relatively large and it is possible to climb the steps of several temples.
Entrance to Tazumal is $3, and there is also a museum on site with artefacts from the excavation work. Other artefacts from the ruins can be found in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in San Salvador.
San Andrés Mayan ruins
This small but charming set of Mayan ruins is just off the Santa Ana highway, and close to Joya de Cerén (see below). Occupied from around 900 BC San Andrés, like many settlements in El Salvador, was briefly abandoned around 250 AD after a local volcanic eruption. However, the site was later resettled and by 600 AD San Andrés was the capital of the settlements in the Valle de Zapotitán.
Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site
The Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site has a special place on this list, as El Salvador’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is unique in that the Mayan ruins here are perfectly preserved thanks to the eruption of the Loma caldera volcano which blanketed the settlement in volcanic ash. For this reasonJoya de Cerén is often called the “Pompeii of the Americas”. Unlike in Pompeii, not human remains have been found at Joya de Cerén, suggesting the residents were alerted to the possibility of an eruption and were able to evacuate. The site was rediscovered by accident in 1978 by a government worker bulldozing the land for a project.
Today over 70 buildings have been excavated, and visitors can see the remains of homes, Mayan festival areas, and religious buildings.
Cihuatán Mayan ruins
One of the more recent sites (c. 950 AD onwards), Cihuatán is thought to have once been a very large city, with over 900 structures excavated since the 1980s. The city was so large that it had two ceremonial centres and multiple ball courts. However, unlike many other Mayan ruins, Cihuatán was only occupied for around 100 years. Archaeological finds include ash layers and human remains, suggesting the city was hastily abandoned when engulfed by a large fire.
Today a low stone perimeter wall marks the extent of Cihuatán’s borders. It is possible to walk around the pyramid and ball court, and you can even climb to the top of the main temple to see the size of the site for yourself.