The Mayan site of Quiriguá has some of Guatemala’s best-preserved stelae. Set within the Caribbean Lowlands near Lake Izabal, Quiriguá is smaller but similar to the ruins of Copán, especially in regards to the architecture and carving style. It’s far less visited than Copán but nonetheless holds some fabulous Mayan structures.
Quiriguá was a vassal state of Copán throughout much of its history. It was likely valued for its close proximity to the Río Motagua, which was used as a trade route. The early rulers of Quiriguá may have even been from Copán, which was just 30 miles (50 km) away. In 653 AD the Copán King Smoke Jaguar erected Altar L in his own honor after appointing a new ruler at Quiriguá.
The relationship between the two cities changed under the leadership of the Quiriguá King Cauac Sky. A member of the long-established Sky Dynasty, Cauac Sky captured and beheaded Copán’s ruler 18 Rabbit in 737 AD. So began Copán’s slow decline. During the rest of Cauac Sky’s 56-year reign, Quiriguá experienced enormous growth—most of the stelae that can be seen today (many of them bearing the portrait of Cauac Sky) were carved during this time.
Cauac Sky died in 771 and was succeeded by his son, Sky Xul, who ruled for sixteen years until being usurped by Jade Sky, the last great king of Quiriguá. During Jade Sky’s 50-year tenure there was extensive building, including a reconstruction of the city’s Acropolis. The historical record fades with the end of Jade Sky’s rule and is accompanied by the mysterious decline of Quiriguá in the mid-9th century.
American explorer John L. Stephens was so taken by the ruins during his visit in 1840 that he compared it to Edom, an “unvisited, unsought, and utterly unknown” place. Stephens even attempted to buy the site and carry it off to New York City by boat. Fortunately, however, the deal fell through and the ruins remained. The United Fruit Company gained rights to the property in the early 1900s. They preserved the site but planted banana plantations all around it.
Today, travelers will primarily see the ceremonial center of Quiriguá. These include the Acropolis, the largest structure here, and the Great Plaza. The best ruins are, however, the stelae and zoomorphs (sculptures with animal and animal-human hybrids). These are set beneath thatched-roof structures that protect the ruins from the elements. The most outstanding is Stela E, which, at 36 feet (11 m), is the tallest stela in the Mayan world. Most of the stelae are carved with portraits and have glyphs running down their sides. The zoomorphs depict snakes, frogs, turtles, and jaguars.
There is a small museum that covers Quiriguá’s historical significance and geopolitical presence during the Mayan period.