If you’ve spent any time at all in Guatemala or Honduras, you will have seen at least one (and probably several) Mayan ruins. Tikal in particular is incredible (at least that’s what my memory from 16 years ago tells me), but I have also visited Copán in Honduras, as well as several other lesser-known sites. All of them are important ceremonial sites that show the elite side of life, rather than how your average, run-of-the-mill Mayan lived.
El Salvador also has quite a few Mayan sites, but they tend not to be as impressive as the more famous locations. And lets face it, you do get a bit ruin-ed out after a while – just like you get a bit church-ed out or museum-ed out in other parts of the world.
So I had been planning to skip all ruins on this trip through Central America, but was invited by Ian and Erika (a couple who were also staying at the Casa Verde and going overland for a bit as part of their most recent sailing adventure) to accompany them and the driver they’d hired for a day trip to some of the key sights around Santa Ana. How could I say no? Our first stop – the ruins of Joya de Cerén.
The good thing is that these ruins are not like all the others! Joya de Cerén is sometimes known as the “Pompei of the Americas” because it is a pristine site that was suddenly buried under 4-8 metres of volcanic ash when the nearby Volcán Caldera erupted in about the year 590. Its other unique feature is that it is not a ceremonial site, but rather a simple farming village that shows how ordinary Mayan people lived. It seems as if the people of the village had time to escape the eruption as no bodies have ever been found, but the items left behind show that they left in a big hurry.
After looking through the museum, we joined one of the free tours of the ruins and I got to practice my Spanish interpretation skills. Our first stop was “Structure 4” – the building that the tractor sliced through leading to the discovery of the ruins in 1976. The holes in the wall are actually nests for the Guardabarranco – and there are heaps of them flying around in this area!
The next building, “Structure 3” (yes, they are imaginatively named), is thought to be a communal place where the village leaders gathered. In the doorway you can clearly see some of the 14 layers of ash that fell on the village when the volcano erupted.
Then there was the sauna! The domed roof is partially collapsed but you can clearly see the thermostat above the entrance (the round thing). This was a wooden plug that was kept suspended by the steam within the sauna. When the wooden plug dropped, they knew they needed more steam and would have to put more hot rocks into the sauna.
They have created a replica sauna at the site and we crawled in to see what it was like. The door is purposefully small and low to keep the heat in, and the steam is produced by pouring water over hot rocks that are placed in the domed pit in the centre. It’s actually much bigger than it appears from outside and surprisingly comfortable even though you are sitting on stone benches.
The next building was that of the Shaman (medicine person), who may have actually been a woman. It is one of the most decorated buildings in the complex and the stones slotted into the front of the building may have been benches used for people waiting to see the Shaman.
And finally, my favourite, a really interesting look at a typical home for a family featuring 3 distinct buildings. The closest (round) one is the kitchen complete with a fireplace (the three stones), the one in the middle is the storeroom and the one over the back is the living area (the raised platform is the bed). Over on the lower left you can even see part of the family’s cultivation area. Each family home in the village was composed of these three parts, and each family looked after one of the important community buildings. In this case, given the proximity to the place of the Shaman, the family probably looked after the Shaman’s building.
The tour was fascinating and lasted for about an hour – highly recommended if you can understand a bit of Spanish. The ruins themselves are displayed really well, protected by very large structures that don’t impinge on what you are there to see and with basic information at each structure in English and Spanish. The modern, on-site museum is air-conditioned (if you’ve spent any time in Central America during summer, you’ll know why this gets a special mention!) and houses artifacts found during the excavation with explanations in English and Spanish. And then there are the beautiful gardens in which the whole thing is set. Really, really enjoyed this site!
Recommendation: If you want to see how the other half lived in Mayan times, this is a must. If you’ve visited one (or more) ceremonial Mayan sites, it is also definitely worth a visit and really very different. Probably easier to visit from San Salvador than Santa Ana though.
Time Required: About 1.5 hours, depending on how long you spend in the museum and enjoying the gardens/cafe. The tour is about 45 minutes.
Cost: Entrance is US$3 for foreigners.