Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala
The capital of the Quiché department, Santa Cruz del Quiché, will hold little interest for most travelers. It’s uninspiring and has very few sights, but it does have sufficient facilities and services if you find yourself stuck here. Santa Cruz del Quiché is 11 miles (18 km) north of Chichicastenango.
Back in the day, Quiché, as it’s better known, saw quite a bit of action. It was originally founded in the fifteenth century as the K’iche’ capital of K’umarcaaj and eventually developed into a great city. At its height, the city, led by the K’iche’ king Gucumatz, had several hillsides citadels and a total of 23 palaces. By the time the Spanish arrived, however, the K’iche’ empire was weakened and heavily fractured. The Spanish, led by Pedro de Alvarado, eventually conquered and destroyed the city, renaming it Utatlán.
These days, Quiché serves mainly as a transit point for visitors heading north. It has little in the way of sights, but it does have services like banks, ATMs, and Internet cafés. The bus terminal is close to the central plaza. Buses leave here for Chichicastenango and Guatemala City.
North of Quiché is K’umarcaaj, the former capital of the K’iche’ empire. K’umarcaaj was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1524 and these days has only a few recognizable structures. The K’iche’ settled the area sometime around 1250 AD after migrating from the lowlands in the Gulf of Mexico. They subdued other tribes in the area and eventually established a sizeable kingdom here. The population of the immediate area around K’umarcaaj is thought to have been around 20,000.
Most of the city’s 80 structures have not been restored. Templo Tohil, a partially restored temple, is the tallest and most important structure in the area. Dedicated to a god of thunder and lightning, it was once used for ritual human sacrifice. It remains an important site for Mayans today. There’s also a 330-foot (100-m) tunnel on the southern side of the ruins. It’s debated whether this was used to hide the women and children from the Spanish or as a representation of the mythical caves mentioned in the Popol Vuh. This site is also revered by modern Mayans.