The Mayan site of Takalik Abaj is located 9 miles (15 km) west of Retalhuleu along Guatemala’s Pacific coast. The site is especially notable for its Olmec-influenced sculptures and structures.
Takalik Abaj, which means “standing stones,” was once an important commercial and political center for Pacific coast trade routes. Cacao, obsidian, salt, pyrite, jade, and quetzal feathers were commonly traded here. First settled around 1800 BC, the city’s prime came between 800 BC and 200 AD. During this time, many of the structures that still stand – including sculptures, monuments, and zoomorphs – were likely carved.
Olmec influence can be seen in the huge, potbellied figures with swollen eyelids. By the late Preclassic period, however, Mayan influence was beginning to creep in and replace Olmec art. During the classic Mayan period, incredible jade masks were carved here. Takalik Abaj was raided around 300 AD and its monuments were defaced; some were rebuilt after 600 AD.
In 2002, an intact royal grave, thought to be the city’s last Mayan ruler, was unearthed. The excavation made headlines and was even featured in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic.
The site extends over 2.5 square miles (6.5 sq km) along nine terraces. Today, most of what is open to visitors is the city’s ceremonial center. The outskirts of Takalik Abaj are spread over 5 coffee farms.
Over 275 structures have been found here. The tallest structure, at 53 feet (16 m), is Structure 5, which is found on Terrace 3. Terrace 3 is a rectangular temple that has three Olmec-style stone heads facing a Mayan altar. Structure 4 has clear Mayan engravings, and some of the most impressively carved stelae are in front of Temple 12. Structure 12 is the site’s largest structure, with a base measuring 184 by 138 feet (56 by 42 m) and dating back to 300 AD. There are fascinating sculptures spread throughout Takalik Abaj, including zoomorphs, Olmecoid heads, and carved monuments.
Takalik Abaj continues to be an important ceremonial site for highland Mayan communities.