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The Silk Route - World Travel: Quirigua, Guatemala
americas asia & far east africa & middle east europe

Guatemala: Chichicastenango & Quiriguá
April/May 2012

Chichicastenango Quiriguá
Quirigua: King K'ak Tiliw

 

It was fascinating to see local Mayan customs in Chichicastenango.

The carvings of Quirigua are some of the most intricate to survive in such good condition, telling the story of King K'ak Tiliw and the rise and fall of this Mayan city.

 

Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango parrots
Chichicastenango parrots

 

Before returning to Antigua from Lake Atitlan we visited Chichicastenango, a town celebrated for its Sunday market - luckily it was Sunday!

We travelled through very fertile agricultural land, stopping at a check point to ensure we weren't bringing any prohibited fruits into a fruit-growing region.

Mario entertained us with stories from the Popol Vuh, a collection of myths and legends about the Hero Twins including a virgin birth, flood story and treachery between gods and mortals.

Arriving in Chichi we went to the Hotel Santo Tomás, our meeting point if necessary and where we would have lunch.



Parrots and macaws at Hotel San Tomás.
Chichicastenango parrots
Chichicastenango

Chichi has the largest open-air market in Guatemala and though the population are mostly Ladinos, Quiché Indians come from villages for miles around to buy and trade. It is a bit touristy, though, as its relatively easily accessible, and we were pestered by people, especially children, selling masks, musical instruments or touting for their particular family shop.

Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango
The whitewashed church of Santo Tomás rises above the market.
Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango

Mario first took us to the small, fruit and vegetable market held in what otherwise is a basketball court. Growers come from other regions to sell produce such as tomatoes, onions and potatoes which aren't grown here.

Chichicastenango

It's always fun to watch the hustle and bustle of a market.

We then went down through the main market where colourful clothing, bags, etc. were being sold. Though Mario had warned us to be careful and on the lookout for pickpockets and thieves Andrew was very nearly robbed - a thief unzipped a trouser pocket but didn't manage to get the wallet - we were even more careful after that.

Chichicastenango

We passed by the church of Santo Tomás where flower sellers had covered the steps to either side with their wares. Inside this Catholic church, built on an ancient Mayan spiritual site, there are also candle-bedecked Mayan altars, used by the Shamans for traditional rituals. Nearby is the Dominican Monastery where the Popol Vuh was transcribed in the 18th century by a Dominican priest, Father Ximénez, and this is now the only source available.

Chichicastenango

We found the market crowded, touristy and not so atmospheric so were glad to get out into the open away from the busy streets.

Mario took us to the colourful cemetery where a ten niche mausoleum will set a family back about $4000. Poor familes can rent spaces in public niches. They must pay for seven years to begin with then continue paying if they want to keep the space, otherwise the remains are removed and left on a pile of bones. Very poor people are buried directly into the ground.

Chichicastenango

 

Chichicastenango

Here too there are Mayan ceremonial altars and several had burning fires from recent use. For the local people this is not a sinister place and families will come with a picnic to the grave of a loved one.

Chichicastenango

Mario asked us if we'd liked to climb the hill on the other side of the town where there is another Mayan shrine, warning us it was quite a haul, especially in the heat, but we were keen to do this rather than wander the market.

 

Chichicastenango

Returning through the town we passed the Church of Calvario, across the plaza from Santo Tomás, and on its forecourt, reached by another impressive set of steps, there was a Mayan ceremony being performed. Mario said it would be OK to go up and watch and I made a donation to the participants in black at the church door so that I could take photographs and video.



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I'm not too sure what was going on but there was a mariachi band and a group of people carrying perhaps saints in little covered shrines decorated with balloons and feathers. One contained a model of a man carrying a cross on a white horse - one of the men at the church door carried a smaller model of a man on a white horse. The group turned to face the four cardinal points, kneeling and bowing their heads, while a woman swung a can containing some kind of burning incense. One of the men in black then lit a fircracker in a metal cage and danced in front of the group of people and then they all left down the steps of the church. Fascinating.

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Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango

 

We continued on our walk. passing through a family's land - Mario knows the family who also have a textile museum - and on up a steepish hill.

Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango

We stopped at the family's own ceremonial area which had a fire pit and a long stone "altar" with rounded stones, crosses, grasses, flowers and candles. Opposite the altar and on the other two side of the enclosure were smaller crosses and stones with flowers and grasses - a covering of the four cardinal points again perhaps. The Catholic and Mayan traditions seem to be strongly mingled in Chichicastenango.

At the top of the hill there is a worn stone idol presiding over a Mayan ceremonial altar. A Shaman was conducting a ceremony, chanting while people knelt with candles and waited to cast items such as sugar and rum onto the fire. We kept a respectful distance.

We returned to the Hotel Santo Tomás and had a very good lunch and a couple of beers each - very thirsty after the heat of the town. Then we returned to Antigua for one more night at the lovely Hotel Palacio de Doña Leonor before leaving to drive to Honduras.

 

obsidian quarry
Motagua River
Motagua river
obsidian quarry

 

It was a seven hour trip, including a few stops along the way. We passed through Guatemala City and Mario made a detour to go through the centre so we could take a look - mostly monumental colonial and later buildings.

Mario, as usual, made the journey very interesting and our first short stop was at a Mayan obsidian quarry near San Antonio La Paz. This amazingly sharp, shiny black volcanic glass is one of the finest cutting tools ever produced, smooth at microscopic levels where steel scalpel blades look rough.

Mayan grave
Mayan graves.
Mayan grave

Further on we stopped again near San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán and walked from the road toward the Motagua River to the site of robbed-out Mayan graves from around 900AD, the covering stones broken and the contents removed.

Despite being near a large river this area is very arid supporting many cactii as well as the Lignum tree which has very hard wood. Along the road we had been seeing Royal Poinciana trees with their vivid orange flowers and further on Mario pointed out cashew trees with orange or red fruit and the curved seed pod hanging below, inside which is the nut.

Turning south we stopped at Estanzuela to stretch our legs and visit the small but very good Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology.

Mayan grave
Sloth and Mammoth skeletons in the Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology at Estanzuela.

It has several interesting prehistoric skeletons - the sloth is surprisingly large. There is also a reconstruction of a Mayan tomb complete with skull and offerings but there are no explanations in English so without a guide it's difficult to get much detail.

After a late lunch we crossed the border and Mario took us to our hotel. Mario was not licensed to guide us in Honduras so we looked around the ruins of Copan on our own. On the day we left Honduras Mario collected us early from our hotel and we set off back into Guatemala heading for Quiriguá.

 

Quiriguá

Quirigua
Quirigua

Though Quiriguá does contain the remains of buildings and even a ball court, its justified claim to fame are the intricately carved stelae and zoomorphs. These are each protected by a neat thatched roof and lie in a peaceful grassy setting.

The stelae tell some of the history of Quiriguá which from the second century AD was an important trading post between the mighty settlements of Tikal and Copan. Each stela has a deep carving of a ruler and glyphs recounting important dates and events.

Quirigua
Stela C, south face, erected 775.
Quirigua
Stela A, south face, erected 775.

The peak of Quiriguá was in the eighth century AD after K'ak' Tiliw, also known as "Cauac Sky", was appointed ruler by 18 Rabbit of Copan in 725AD. The extent of K'ak' Tiliw's ambition can be gauged from his attack on Copan in 738 when 18 Rabbit was captured, brought to Quiriguá and beheaded in the plaza. Human blood was a much prized sacrifice to the gods, and royal blood would be the best.

From this point Quiriguá was independent of Copan and Tikal, probably with the military support of Calakmul. K'ak' Tiliw died in 785. From 751 to 806, when the city state was at its height, a new monument was erected every five years. K'ak Tiliw created the Great Plaza and most of the carved stones here date from his reign.

Quirigua
Stela D, north face, a magnificent head-dress of K'ak Tiliw.
Quirigua
Hieroglyphs on Stela A, east face.
Quirigua
On Stela D.
Quirigua
Quirigua
Stela D, west face.
Quirigua
Stela D, west face; erected 766.
Quirigua
Stela D, east face.
Quirigua
Stela D: foot of K'ak' Tiliw.
Quirigua
On Stela D.

Mario explained the significance of the carvings, who they represented and what particular event might be commemorated. The first three stelae we came to were A, C and D, all showing King K'ak Tiliw. Each has date hieroglyphs on the lower half of the two east and west sides. Stela D has particularly magnificent deeply incised carving.

Quirigua
Looking north from the Great Plaza: Stelae A, C and D in a row nearest the mound; Zoomorph B in front of Stela A, to the east Stela E, Zoomorph G and leaning Stela F.

Quirigua
Zoomorph B
Quirigua
Quirigua
Classic period Maya incense burner depicting a warrior or deity, AD 600-900.
Quiriguá, Izabal Department, Guatemala.
Pottery.
National Museum of the American Indian, NYC.

Mario also explained the complex Mayan calendar and how Mayan hieroglyphs depict dates. I consulted Sacred Texts and Mayan Calendar Description for additional information on the details of the Mayan calendar as it was difficult to make notes at the time.

Quirigua
On Stela D.
Quirigua
Traces of colour remain on Zoomorph B which shows K'ak Tiliw emerging from the mouth of the Earth Monster.

A base of 20 is important in the system which is, on its most fundamental level, composed of three calendars: the Long Count of 20 baktuns each of about 144,000 days; Haab which is a civil calendar with a year of 360 days and eighteen "months" of 20 days with an extra short month of five days added at the end of the cycle; and the Tzolkin ceremonial calendar which had a cycle of 260 days - 20 periods of 13 days.

The Long Count is cyclical and a new cycle began on 21st December 2012. A baktun is sub-divided into 20 katuns, a katun has 20 tun, a tun has 18 uinal (360 days, the same as a Haab year), a uinal is 20 kin or days (the same as a Haab month).

Quirigua
Stela E north face, K'ak Tiliw.

Zoomorphs are quite different to Stelae being large oval stones carved in animalistic shapes such as toads and snakes and identified as altars. These are particularly intriguing, especially those which show the birth or death of a ruler respectively emerging from the mouth of, or being swallowed by, the earth monster.

Zoomorph B, near Stelae A, C and D, was dedicated in 780 by K'ak' Tiliw. It is over 4m long and must weigh tons. It shows K'ak Tiliw emerging from the mouth of a reptilian Earth Monster, a birth analogy.

Quirigua
Stela E
Quirigua
Stela E with Stela D in the background.
Quirigua
Stela F north side, K'ak Tiliw holding a sceptre.

To the east of Zoomorph B are two enormous Stelae - E and F. Stela E is the tallest carved Mayan stone known, at about 10.7m high, 3m of which are buried, and weighing an estimated 65 tons. It was dedicated in 771 by K'ak' Tiliw.

Quirigua
Stela F east side.

Stela F is another big one at around 7.3m high and dates from 761. Both these enormous stelae bear portraits of K'ak Tiliw. Though smaller than E, Stela F has some really impressive carving, showing K'ak Tiliw holding his hands to his shoulders on the south face and holding a sceptre on the north face, in both portraits wearing a magnificent headdress.

Quirigua
Zoomorph G
Quirigua
Quirigua
Stela H east face.

Nearby is Zoomorph G dating from the year of K'ak Tiliw's death in 785. It again represents some kind of monster, very cat-like with fine claws and curved lower incisors! It has a human head at both ends.

Further south Stela H is quite different to the ones we've seen up to now. It dates from early in K'ak Tiliw's reign, 751, and the portrait faces west. K'ak Tiliw holds a horizontal bar, also known as a Serpent Bar; a demon or god emerges from the ends of the bar on the north and south faces. The hieroglyphs on the east face are arranged in unusual double diagonal lines.

Quirigua
Stela H north face.

 

Quirigua
Stela H north face: demon or god emerging from the end of a bar held by K'ak Tiliw on the west face.
Quirigua
Stela H south face: demon or god emerging from the end of a bar held by K'ak Tiliw on the west face

 

Quirigua
Stela K west face, 805 - the last monument; ruler Jade Sky holds a short sceptre in his right hand and a round shield in his left.
Quirigua
Stela J north face, dating from 756 and about 5m high.

Stelae J and K stand on the southern extremity of the Great Court - Stela J details the capture and beheading of 18 Rabbit of Copan. Stela K, dating from 805, was the last monument to be erected at Quirigua and shows the grandson of K'ak Tiliw who was ruler at that time and is known as "Jade Sky".

Quirigua
SE corner of the Court of the Great Turtle.
Quirigua
A carved representation of the Ball Game in the museum at Quirigua.

South of the Great Court the ball court was located surrounded by the remains of monumental buildings in the so-called Acropolis area of the site. There's not much to see of the ball court, the walls being covered with mounds of earth, but steep, deep steps facing it suggest spectators may have stood on the surrounding buildings to view the game.

Quirigua
The giant ceiba tree on the left was sacred to the Maya, representing a connection between heaven and earth.

Quirigua
Sky Xul seated within the jaws of the Earth Monster on "The Great Turtle"north face, below is shown the south face.
Quirigua

Here can be found a magificent zoomorph nicknamed "The Great Turtle" by the explorer Maudsley (a wonderful collection of his photographs and drawings can be found on the Mesoweb website). It dates from 795 when K'ak Tiliw's son "Sky Xul" was ruler. It is intricately carved on all faces and in excellent condition.

Quirigua
"The Great Turtle" west face.
Quirigua
Quirigua

From Quirigua Mario took us to meet our new guide who would be showing us Tikal. We were really sorry to say goodbye to Mario - truly a "Number One" guide.

Quirigua