Quirigua Ruins are a Must-Visit for Indiana Jones Fans

by | Jul 22, 2022 | Guatemala, Travel

Located in eastern Guatemala near the border with Honduras sits the Quirigua ruins, a small archaeological site with the Mayan world’s most beautiful works of art. Not many travelers make it to this off-the-beaten-path UNESCO Heritage Site. However, if you do and you love history, art, or archaeology, you won’t be disappointed. In this guide, I’ll tell you how to get to the fascinating and beautiful ruins of Quirigua and what you will see when you get there.

Check out my 2022-2023 Guatemala Travel Guide for more tips, tricks, ideas, and inspiration for visiting the land of eternal spring. You’ll find over 15 travel articles to help you explore the history, culture, food, and natural beauty of Guatemala.

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Is Quirigua worth visiting?

Yes, the Quirigua ruins are definitely worth visiting. This is especially so if you are an archaeology buff, history lover, or ancient Maya nerd.

Quirigua is also a UNESCO Heritage Site.

If you’re staying in Rio Dulce, it makes for a good day trip as it’s only 2 hours away from the lakeside city.

For those visiting the Copan ruins as part of a private or group tour from Antigua or Guatemala City, for sure add Quirigua to your itinerary.

If you’re interested in less touristy and more off-the-beaten-path places, you might also find Quirigua worth it.

The Quirigua ruins are worth visiting for 2 reasons:

  1. Stelae – the craftsmanship and detail of these lifelike stone monuments are the best in the Mayan world. Quirigua has the tallest stelae in the Americas. You will only find stonework like this in Copan. All other sculptures and stone monuments in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras are now in museums, especially the museums in Britain and the United States.
  2. Zoomorphs – stones with bizarre carvings of mystical creatures; you’ll often see rulers or gods emerging from the mouth of the creature and hieroglyphics all over the animal’s body.

Quirigua’s temples and palaces are small and in poor shape. Little restoration work has been done on them. Overall, I found them to be quite disappointing.  


 I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can see pyramids and temples at 20 other archaeological sites across Mexico and Central America. It’s extremely rare to see such beautiful artwork up close as you can at Quirigua at other Mayan ruins.

So, I’d say visiting Quirigua is definitely worth it.

Where are the Quirigua Ruins?

The Quirigua ruins are located in the Motagua River Valley along the Motagua River in Guatemala, very near the Honduras border.

map of Guatemala with major Mayan sites

The closest city to the ruins is Los Amates.  However, I don’t recommend using it as a base. Instead, stay in one of the hotels around the lake in Rio Dulce.

The ruins are just 30 miles north of the Copan ruins.

Interestingly, the ruins used to be located on the property of the infamous United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Bananas). To find out more about this infamous company and its role in Guatemalan history, read the fabulous books Bitter Fruit and Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa.

What is the best city to base yourself in?

In order to see the Quirigua ruins, the best city to base yourself in is Rio Dulce. It takes only 2 hours by public transportation to visit the ruins from there.

Rio Dulce also has some excellent hotels and hostels around a lake. Visit Booking.com to see what they have available. At the end of the post, I’ve included some possible places to stay in Rio Dulce. You can also check out my guide to Rio Dulce for my favorite places to stay.

How to get to Quirigua

map of route from Rio Dulce to Quirigua
Route from Rio Dulce to Quirigua ruins

Of course, the easiest way to get to Quirigua is by private care.

However, if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to either take public transportation from Rio Dulce or do a private or group tour from Antigua or Guatemala City.

You might be wondering whether it’s possible to see the ruins as a day trip from Guatemala City or Antigua. Unfortunately, Quirigiua is too far away and traffic is heavy along the road to Quirigua to see the ruins in a day. It’s not possible to travel to Quirigua from Antigua or Guatemala City and then back in one day. The best place to base yourself is in Rio Dulce.

If you really want to leave from Antigua or Guatemala City, you’ll need to do a private or group tour. I have a list of tours in this section.

How to get to the Quirigua Ruins from Rio Dulce

  1. Take a colectivo (a van) from in front of Transportes Fuente del  Norte in Rio Dulce (Google Maps) – How do you know which colectivo to take? Just tell the driver and his helper that you want to go to “Ruinas de Quirigua” (the Quirigua ruins). The minibusses leave every 10 minutes.
  2. The colectivo will take you to Morales. It will take 45 minutes and cost Q20 (US$2.59)
  3. In Morales (Google Maps), change to another colectivo or bus going toward Guatemala City. How do you know which bus to take? The colectivo drivers will make sure you get onto the correct colectivo or bus that will take you to Quirigua. Don’t worry!
  4. Get off at the intersection of Highway CA-9 and Ruinas de Quirigua Road (Google Maps). It should take 30 minutes from Morales and cost Q20 (US$2.59). Generally, if the colectivo driver and his helper know where you want to go in Central America, they’ll make sure you get off at the right stop. Don’t worry!
  5. Cross Highway 9. There is a red store at the intersection on Ruinas de Quirigua Road. Sometimes tuk tuks will be waiting at the store. You can take one to the ruins. If you don’t see any, just keep walking.
  6. Walk 3.4 kilometers (2 miles) down Ruinas de Quirigua Road. At the end of the road, you’ll come to the entrance to the Parque Arqueologico Quirigua. You’ll also come to the entrance to a banana plantation.
a paved road lined with trees on the way to the Quirigua Ruins
Ruinas de Quirigua Road
cars lined on beside a red store
the red store where you can find tuk-tuks to the Quirigua ruins

Ruinas de Quirigua Road is a quiet narrow country road lined with banana trees. There is very little traffic on this road. You can try hitchhiking. I got lucky and a guy from Guatemala City picked me up and gave me a ride to the ruins.

bananas being pulled across a road by a conveyor belt

Alternative transportation: You can also take the bus from the Litegua Bus Station (Google Maps) across the street from Transporte Fuentes Nortes (Google Maps). The bus goes to Los Amates (the closest city to the Quirigua ruins). I was told it would take 2.5 hours. Tell the bus driver that you want to get off at “ruinas de Quirigua.” The bus leaves almost every hour at 6:00, 8:00, 9:30, 12:30, and so on.

Tours of Quirigua

All tours of Quirigua include a stop in Copan and last 2 days.

  1. From Guatemala City: 2 Day Tour of Copan and Quirigua  –
    • Day 1 – Copan
    • Day 2 – Quirigua
    • US$360 (includes ground transportation, professional guide in your language, lodging for 1 night in Copan (based on double occupancy), 1 breakfast per person, and all entrance fees and taxes)
    • Minimum 2 people
  2. From Antigua: 2 Day Tour of Copan and Quirigua
    • Day 1 – Copan
    • Day 2 – Quirigua
    • COST: US$340 (includes English and Spanish guide, lodging for 1 night in Copan, and 2 breakfasts per person)
    • Minimum 2 people

What is the entrance fee for Quirigua?

The Quirigua ruins cost 80Q (US$10.36) for foreigners and 20Q (US$2.59) for locals.

When are the Quirigua ruins open?

The ruins are open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm every day.

What is the history of Quirigua?

The history of Quirigua is as fascinating as its monuments are beautiful.

Quirigua existed from 426 to 810. For much of its history, it was under the thumb of the mighty Copan. In 738, through treachery and deception, Quirigua overthrew its overlord and gained independence to become one of the wealthiest cities in the Mayan world.

How did Quirigua defeat Copan?

To understand how this happened, it’s important to know about the economy of the region at that time.

The economy of Quirigua

Quirigua was a small but important port city along the Motagua River in the Motagua River Valley. The Motagua River flows from the Highlands of Guatemala to the Atlantic Ocean, where ships would take goods to other major Maya cities. Quirigua controlled the flow of goods along this river.

Luckily for Quirigua, the Motagua River Valley was rich in natural resources: cacao, obsidian, and jade.

Cacao is the bean that makes chocolate, the drink of the Mayan elites. The Mayans also used the cacao bean for their currency.

Obsidian was the material used in making the Mayan weapons.

Jade for the Mayans was like what gold and diamonds are for us today. The largest deposit of jade in the Americas is found in the Sierra de las Mines (Mountain Range of the Mines), located near Quirigua.

Whoever controlled this river valley controlled these valuable resources and thus, would be one of the wealthiest and most powerful kingdoms in the Classic Mayan period.

The large and mighty Copan (population 25,000) was the lucky one to control all of it. Tiny but important Quirigua (population 2,000) was a vassal of Copan.

trade routes in the ancient Mayan world
Trade routes in the Maya Classic Period – from the Quirigua Museum

The early history of Quirigua

Quirigua was most likely founded by Copan when the ruler of Copan crowned the first ruler of Quirigua, Tuk Casper, in 426 CE. This made Quirigua subordinate to Copan.

Copan probably set up the city in order to control the trade along the Motagua River.

For the next 300 years, Quirigua remained its vassal.

And then…

The rise of Quirigua and the fall of Copan

In 725, a young, energetic, and ambitious ruler came to power in Quirigua—Cauac Sky (K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat). He was put on the throne by 18 Rabbit, the ruler of Copan.

However, in 738, things began to change in the river valley.

Cauac Sky captured the Copan ruler and decapitated him.

This action gave Quirigua its independence from Copan. It also gave it control over the production and trade of jade, obsidian, and cacao in the region, making the city wealthy as well as powerful.

But how could a city of only 2,000 people overpower such a strong, large, and wealthy city like Copan?

We’re not completely sure how it happened. But archaeologists found an inscription at Quirigua that might give us a clue as to how they did it.

Two years before the decapitation, Quirigua was visited by the ruler of the most powerful of all kingdoms in the Mayan world: the Snake Kingdom of Calakmul.

Why is this so important?

The two most powerful states back then were Tikal and Calakmul. All the other cities were allied with one or the other. If you were allied with Tikal, then you were an enemy of Calakmul and vice versa.

At that time, Copan, and thus Quirigua, were allied with Tikal.

Calakmul probably sent warriors to Quirigua, as they often did, to help them fight Copan. Because Calakmul was so powerful, Copan probably didn’t dare fight back. Quirigua also probably didn’t fear Calakmul controlling it since it was so far away in what is today Mexico.

Why would mighty Calakmul visit tiny Quirigua?

Most likely Calakmul’s motivation for helping Quirigua was not altruistic.

By helping Quirigua overthrow Copan, they gained access to the riches of the Motagua valley.

Quirigua is now the most powerful city in the Motagua Valley

With control of the trade routes and the production of so many valuable resources, Quirigua became wealthy enough to go on a building spree.

They built a new ball court and temples and made the acropolis bigger. They expanded their plaza to become the largest in the Maya world. Then they filled it with the most magnificent works of art in the Mayan world. These are the stelae and zoomorphs that Quirigua is so famous for today.

Who succeeded Cauac Sky?

Cauac Sky remained on the throne for 61 years.

He was succeeded by his son, Sky Xul, in 785. Sky Xul ruled for 10 to 15 years and continued the building spree that started under Cauac Sky. He constructed several temples and 3 of the most beautiful zoomorphs in the world. However, no stelae were built.

Ruler 16, Jade Sky, comes to the throne in 795.

We can tell that things were going downhill at this point for Quirigua.

Construction of stelae continued but they were smaller and less grand than in previous times. It looks like Quirigua did not have the resources to build such grand ones as they were able to do under Cauac Sky.

Reconciliation with Copan

The last written inscription in 810 mentions a visit by Copan at Quirigua. It looks like the two cities were trying to rekindle their relationship.

The collapse of Quirigua and Copan

Within a few years, both Quirigua and Copan had both been abandoned. A year or two later, the jungle swallowed up the temples and pyramids and stonework of these two amazing kingdoms.

At this time all of the other city-states in Guatemala and Chiapas in Mexico collapsed and were abandoned—Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, etc.

Why did these kingdoms collapse?

The most recent theory is that the area experienced a massive drought that lasted many years. This led to a shortage of food. The citizens became angry and overthrew their rulers.

Then the people left Tikal, Copan, Palenque, and Quirigua and migrated north to the Yucatan or to the Highlands of Guatemala.

New residents at Quirigua

It wasn’t until several centuries later that merchants from the Yucatan came to the river valley and settled at Quirigua. They were probably there to control the trade route and resources.

However, they didn’t stay long before abandoning the city. The jungle again swallowed up the monuments of the valley of Motagua.

What are some great books and videos on Quirigua?

You can learn more about the history of Quirigua with these resources:

What can you see at Quirigua?

The beauty of Quirigua is found in the artwork of its stone sculptures.

There are two main types of monuments that you can see at Quirigua:

  1. Stelae – these are stone carvings done on tall and thin large pieces of sandstone. Many consider these stelae to be the greatest works of art in the Mayan world.
  2. Zoomorphs – large pieces of carved stone. The carvings are of mythical creatures and hieroglyphics. Zoomorph P is considered to be one of the greatest works of art in the Mayan world.

The stone buildings at Quirigua are not impressive at all. They are rather small and in poor condition, and they have not been fully reconstructed. If you are expecting grand pyramids like at Tikal and Palenque, you will be sorely disappointed.

Entering the ruins

When you enter the ruins, you come to what was once Quirigua’s grand plaza, the largest in the Mayan world. Here in the plaza are the stelae and zoomorphs that Quirigua is so famous for.

I’ll describe these monuments in the order that you will see them:

1-2. Stelae A and C

the figure of Cauac Sky on Stela A

The first two stelae that you come to are Stelae A and C. These are considered twin sculptures as they were constructed in the same year and have similar themes.

They are located along what used to be a raised platform at the northern end of the plaza. You can’t really see the platform anymore.

The figure of Cauac Sky

The figure on both stelae is that of the famous and great Cauac Sky, the one who won independence for Quirigua.

face of Cauac Sky on Stela A
Stela A

His face is rather interesting. His mouth is open as if he is speaking to the people.A

Cauac Sky also wears a little beard at the bottom of his chin. The Mayans are not known for having a lot of facial hair, so it is interesting to see it on him.

It feels like this could be a rather realistic picture of him and not an idealized version.

What is Cauac Sky holding?

Stela C

On Stela C, Cauac Sky is holding a bar covered in jaguar spots and with jaguar heads coming out of both ends. Blood is spurting out of the jaguars and dripping down the sides of the stela.

On Stela A, Cauac Sky is holding a throne with serpent heads.

What do the hieroglyphics say?

side of Stela C with its hieroglyphics

Stela C is the most interesting of the 2 stelae here. The text on the side tells the story of the creation of the universe with the placing of 3 stones.

You can watch a fascinating video of the archaeologist, Dr. Mark Van Stone, deciphering the meaning of the text.

What’s on the back of the stelae?

back of Stela C

On Stela C, the back is the figure of the God Pax. He is associated with human and animal sacrifices.

Take a look at God Pax’s feet. One foot is flat and the other is raised. According to Dr. Mark Van Stone, whenever you see a raised foot, it means that the person is dancing.

At the very bottom is a text mentioning the Hero Twins from the Mayan creation story. This is the only mention of these mythical twins together from the Mayan creation story on a stone monument.

YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN: Who was the first person to decipher the Mayan hieroglyphics? The story of how linguists and Mayan scholars were able to figure out the writing system and are now able to translate most texts is fascinating. Michael Coe’s book, Breaking the Mayan Code, is a fascinating read! I highly recommend it.

3. Stela D

Stela D

Stela D is another beautiful stela constructed during Cauac Sky’s lifetime in 766.

Who is the figure on the stela?

face on Stela D

The figure on the front side has been worn so it’s not clear.

It’s the back side of the stela that is the most beautiful and in the best condition. This is again the figure of the ruler Cauac Sky.

What is he holding?

Stela D

Here he is holding in his left hand a Manikin Scepter with the God K on it. It’s not the clearest, but if you look closely, you can see the god’s foot, hand, and face. A serpent is coming out of the foot. It’s kind of bizarre, almost like he’s holding a mini-me.

The Manikin Scepter is a symbol of rulership. If you see a figure holding one (it should always have God K on it), it means he is the ruler.

God K was associated with lightning, fire, and dynastic descent (An Illustrated Dictionary of Ancient Mexico and the Maya)

In his right hand, he is holding a shield.

What is he wearing on his feet?

His feet are pointing out at 180-degree angles, very typical of Quirigua sculptures. The ones at Copan are usually at 45-degree angles.

back of shoes of Stela D at the Quirigua ruins
Cauac Sky’s shoes on Stela D

The other interesting feature of Cauac Sky is his shoes. On the front, he’s wearing these pom poms. The back of the shoes, though, is very symbolic. There are 2 diagonal lines that represent the syllable for Xi, which is the first syllable in the word Xibalbal, meaning the Underworld. Below that on each foot is the head of a god or monster from the Underworld.

What is on his head?

headdress on Stela D

He is wearing a hat with three heads. The first two are bird heads, symbolizing heaven. At the very top are a skull and 2 diagonal lines like on his feet, representing the underworld.

You can learn more about stela D in this video of a lecture by Dr. Mark Van Stone at the San Diego Museum.

In the Mayan religion, the ruler is seen as a link between the heavens and the Underworld with the world of the living. It is through the ruler that these gods from both places communicate. Communication usually happens during self-sacrifices and blood-letting rituals when the ruler pierces a part of his body.

What does the writing say on the sides?

hieroglyphics on the side of Stela D at Quirigua

4. Zoomorph B

the front of Zoomorph B the rulers head is emerging from a crocodile's mouth
Zoomorph B

Zoomorph B is your first look at these fantastic stone beast-like monuments. It is associated with the creation story recounted on Stelae A and C.

Who is the figure on the Zoomorph?

You can see the head and hands of Cauac Sky emerging from the mouth of a hybrid crocodile-turtle creature or some cosmic monster.

Do you see the teeth above Cauac Sky’s head and the eyes of the crocodile-turtle on the two corners of the zoomorph? 

The crocodile (or caiman) in Mayan mythology represents the creator god, Itzamna. Sometimes Itzamna is portrayed inside the body of the crocodile.

The turtle shell represents the Earth.

You can also see the remains of the red paint that these Zoomorphs and stelae were covered with. Yes, these stone monuments used to be painted red.

The opening of the creature’s mouth is in the shape of a T. This represents the opening of a cave, which symbolizes the entrance to the Underworld.

Here again Cauac Sky symbolizes the link between the Underworld and the human world.

Zoomorph B at Quirigua
Zoomorph B

What do the hieroglyphics say?

The rest of the zoomorph is covered in hieroglyphic writing. They tell us when the monument was built, the person it was dedicated to, and the name of the god it was dedicated, which was the creator god, Itzamna.

5. Stela E

Stela E

Stela E is the tallest of all the stelae in the Americas. It stands at 35 feet (10.6 meters)

The stela was erected in 771 during the reign of the great Cauac Sky.

Interestingly, in 1934, it broke into 2 people when archaeologists were trying to get it to stand straighter.

Who is the figure on the stela?

The figure is none other than Cauac Sky, the one who brought down Copan.

What is he holding?

He is holding a Manikin Scepter. God K is a bit worn so it’s hard to see his features clearly. It symbolizes that he is the rightful ruler of Quirigua.

What is he wearing?

He is wearing the same shoes that we saw on Stela D. The shoes represent the Underworld. He is also wearing the same headdress topped with birds representing the heavens and a skull representing the Underworld like in Stela D.

What is he standing on?

He’s standing on a plinth featuring the Earth Monster.

What does the text say on the side?

Besides its height, the other interesting part of this stela is its hieroglyphics. They tell the story of how Cauac Sky captured and decapitated the head of 18 Rabbit of Copan.

6. Stela F

Stela F
Stela F

Stela F and Stela E probably go together.

It was erected in 761 and stands at 23 feet (7 meters).

Who is the figure on the monument?

On both sides, we have Cauac Sky.

What is he holding?

On one side, his hands are up in the air and he is holding a two-headed serpent.

The serpent in ancient Mayan was associated with different meanings: water, sky, or a cave. Here the serpent symbolizes a lightning bolt. Lightning bolts are associated with rain, which is necessary for crops to grow.

The Rain God, Chac, also often holds a serpent in his hands, representing a lightning bolt.

On the other side, he is holding a Manikin scepter again representing his divine right to rule.

What is he standing on?

The connection to the Rain God is also found in the plinth that the ruler is standing on. The plinth has the face of the Rain God, Chac.

What does the text say?

Mayan writing on the side of Stela F at the Quirigua ruins

On the sides, the text is similar to Stela E. It recounts the history of Quirigua during the rule of Cauac Sky. This includes the beheading of the ruler of Copan and celebrates the independence and prosperity of Quirigua.

7. Zoomorph G

This Zoomorph was constructed in 785, the year that Cauac Sky died.

What is the creature on the Zoomoprh?

On both ends of Zoomorph G, the ruler is emerging from a cosmic monster, either a crocodile, turtle, or jaguar. The face is in poor condition. However, you can clearly see the claws of the monster.

What does the writing say?

The rest of the zoomorph is covered in writing that narrates the life and achievement of Cauac Sky, funeral rituals for his passing, and the capture and decapitation of the ruler of Copan.

8. Stela H

Stela H
Stela H

Stela H was constructed in 751, one of the earliest stelae at Quirigua.

It is shorter than the previous ones we’ve looked at.

Who is the figure on Stela H?

The façade has been eroded over time, so it’s hard to make out the figure on the front. However, it is probably Cauac Sky.

His hands are on his chest.

He is wearing a headdress in the shape of a jaguar.

Who is the figure on the side of Stela H?

Corn God on stela H at the Quirigua ruins
Corn God emerging from the World Tree on Stela H

On the side is a fabulous carving of the ruler as the Corn God emerging from the World Tree.

What is the writing on the back of Stela H?

Mayan hieroglyphics written at a diagonal on the back of Stela H
Stela H

The text on the back of Stela H is unique in that it’s written at a diagonal. This is not common in ancient Maya culture.

9. Stela I

a figure of Sky Jade on the front of Stela I
Sky Jade on Stela I

Stela I was erected in 800. This was when Sky Jade was ruler.

The Mayan world was going through a major drought at this time. In a few years, many of the most powerful city-states like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copan would be abandoned.

The stela is much shorter than previous ones. Is this an indication that things for Quirigua were going down hill?

Who is the figure on Stela I?

The figure is Jade Sky, the last ruler of Quirigua that we know of.

What is on the back side of Stela I?

the back side of Stela I
the back side of Stela I

The highlight of this stela is the unique back side.

On this side, Jade Sky is sitting on a throne. He is surrounded by a sky band which represents heaven.

Surrounding the outer edge of the stela is ears of corn, representing abundance. However, since this was the time of a major drought, it probably represents the hope for corn and abundance rather than a celebration of it.

What does the writing on the side say?

Stela I describes a visit by the ruler of Calakmul in 736, 2 years before the beheading of the ruler of Copan. This is when we think Quirigua and Calakmul made a pact, and Calakmul agreed to help Quirigua overthrow Copan.

10. Stela J

Stela J
Stela J

Stela J was erected in 756. It is probably the least impressive stela at the Quirigua ruins. It’s façade is faded, so it’s hard to make out much.

Who is the figure in Stela J?

This is Cauac Sky standing on a plinth displaying the Earth Monster.

We don’t get to see Cauac Sky’s beard.

11. Stela K

the figure of Jade Sky on Stela K
Jade Sky on Stela K

Constructed in 805, Stela K is the last stela erected at Quirigua.

It is shorter than and not as imposing as the others, but the stone carvings are still beautiful.

Who is the figure on Stela K?

On both sides is the Jade Sky, the last ruler of Quirigua and the grandson of Cauac Sky.

What’s he holding?

Jade Sky on one side is holding a Manakin Scepter and a shield with the face of the creator god, Itzamna.

What clothes is he wearing?

On both sides, he’s wearing an apron over his robe. You can see at the bottom the face of a monster or god who is sticking his tongue out. Blood is dripping out of the mouth. This figure can be seen on the clothing of most of the other stela as well.  

Constructed in 805, Stela K is the last stela erected at Quirigua

It is shorter than and not as imposing as the others, but the stone carvings are still beautiful.

Who is the figure on Stela K?

On both sides is the Jade Sky, the last ruler of Quirigua and the grandson of Cauac Sky.

What’s he holding?

Jade Sky on one side is holding a Manakin Scepter and a shield with the face of the creator god, Itzamna.

Stela K

On this side of the stela, Jade Sky is holding a bar with two serpent heads at both ends.

You can also see the face of a monster with his tongue sticking out on the bottom part of his clothing.

He’s wearing a necklace and round earrings that represent the sun.

hieroglyphic writing on the side of Stela K at the Quirigua ruins
side of Stela K

You can see ears of corn on the side of Stela K.

Look at the beginning of the hieroglyphic text. You’ll see the head of a monster or god over what appears to be a UFO (I agree with Uncovered Histories).

That is no UFO, though.

It’s actually a marker that can be found on all the stela at the beginning of a text. It’s used to introduce a date, “This is a date”.

Dr. Mark Van Stone has an interesting video explaining the features of Quirigua’s stela K.

You might be interested in these posts on Guatemala:

12. Zoomorph M

Zoomorph M
Zoomorph M

Zoomorph M was found together with Zoomorph N at the base of the ballcourt.

It’s dated 734.

The monument appears to be the head of a crocodile or according to Uncovered Histories, a feline animal.

Zoomorph M is small but actually quite important.  It features the first use of the character for Quirigua and includes the date of the battle against Copan.

13. Zoomorph N

Zoomorph N
Zoomorph N

Zoomorph N is small but I found it to be quite interesting.

It’s clearly some kind of turtle-like creature.

From the two ends is the God N, who usually appears wearing a turtle shell on his back.

The turtle symbolizes the Earth.

God N usually has the responsibility of supporting the sky.

14. Zoomorph O

one end of Zoomorph O
Zoomorph O

Quirigua’s Zoomorph O was created in 790, during the reign of Sky Xul, the son of Cauac Sky.

It narrates the story of the rise of Sky Xul. The animal at the end of the zoomorph is a cross between a crocodile and a deer.

15. Altar O

the Rain God Chac emerging from a cave on Altar O at the Quirigua ruins
Altar O

Altar O goes together with Zoomorph O and is fortunately in better condition.

The beautiful carving on Altar O is that of the Rain God Chac, dancing in front of the entrance to a cave.

16. Zoomorph P

the figure of Sky Xul on Zoomorph P
Sky Xul on Zoomorph P

One of the last stone monuments at the Quirigua ruins is Zoomorph P. Many Mayan scholars believe it is the finest work of art in the Mayan world.

Created in 795, the figure is that of the ruler Sky Xul, the son of Cauac Sky. He is emerging from a mythical crocodile-turtle creature.

In one hand is a Manikin scepter and in the other a shield.

The writing around the figure records the founding of Quirigua and the life of the Sky Xul.

Zoomorph P
Earth Monster on Zoomorph P

The other side of Zoomorph P is the Earth Monster representing the Underworld.

17. Altar P

Altar P at Quirigua
Altar P

Altar P is absolutely stunning, fascinating, and a bit bizarre!

The first thing that I think everyone sees is a foot in the middle of the altar. It doesn’t seem to be attached to anything.

However, if you look closely, you’ll see that indeed it is part of a figure lying on his back. Perhaps it is the Rain God Chac. It’s sort of falling off the stone. Perhaps the stone broke off during creation and the artist had to improvise and that’s why everything lacks proportion.

There is a lot of symbolism on Altar P.

Sky cords emerge from his mouth, which I’m not sure what they symbolize.

A serpent cord is wrapped around his head or shoulders with the heads of serpents coming out of each end of it.

He is emerging from the mouth of a cave, representing the underworld.

18. Acropolis

a plaza covered with grass and surrounded by stone steps

The Acropolis was the largest building at Quirigua. It was where the royal family lived.

You don’t need to spend much time here as it’s in poor condition and there isn’t much to see.

an ancient stone building with a door

What Archaeological Work Has Been Done on Quirigua?

In 1841, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made their famous journey through Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan. Catherwood managed to make it to Quirigua, where he sketched some of the ruins. The two published a travel book called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which became a best seller. It was in the book that people in the United States and Europe first became aware of Quirigua.

Then in 1881 archaeologist Alfred Maudsley visited the Quirigua ruins. It was his first experience at a Mayan site, and it was these ruins that sparked his interest in the Maya, leading to him dedicating his life to that ancient civilization.

In 1910 the infamous United Fruit Company bought Quirigua and the surrounding area for growing bananas. When you visit the ruins, you’ll see banana trees growing on both sides of the road. Right next to the entrance of the ruins is the gate to the plantation.

From 1910 to 1914, Edgar Lee Hewitt and Sylvanus Morley further excavated the site. They made casts of some of the stelae, which you can still find in the San Diego Museum of Man.

From 1974 to 1979 the University of Pennsylvania, the National Geographic Society, and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History collaborated on a project to excavate Quirigua. The project was led by Robert Sharer and William Coe.

Quirigua became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Where to stay in Rio Dulce

The best city to base yourself in is Rio Dulce, just 2 hours by public transport from the Quirigua ruins.

The best hotels and hostels are around the lake. The lake is peaceful, relaxing, and beautiful. Plus! It’s a lot of fun kayaking or doing standup paddle boarding around the lake. You can also visit Livingston from here.

However, getting to the hotels and hostels requires hiring a boat or arranging a pick-up ahead of time.

The downside to staying outside of the town center is that you’re often stuck eating at your accommodations.

Budget Accommodations:

  1. Boatique Hotel and Marina – (dorms) I stayed here for a week and it was superb! Has a swimming pool and kayak rentals; food is delicious but a bit pricey; 9.2 rating on Booking.com; US$22/night for bed in dorm
  2. El Hotelito Perdito9.4 rating; US$10/dorm; US$22/private room with shared bath

Mid-priced Accommodations:

  1. Boatique Hotel and Marina (cute bungalows – Superb!; 9.2 rating; US$60/night)

Where to go after Quirigua?

Where do you want to go after visiting the Quirigua ruins?

Since you’ll probably already be in Rio Dulce or Livingston, check out my list of things to do there.

If you love archaeology and history, don’t skip the ruins of Tikal and Copan. For those with an extra 5 days, the hike to the El Mirador ruins is unforgettable. Read my post on Flores on how to visit Tikal and El Mirador.

But probably the 2 best places to visit in Guatemala, though, are Antigua and Lake Atitlan.

Check out this post for more travel ideas for Central America.

Are you on Pinterest?

Hey! How about saving one of these pins to Pinterest to read for later?

And feel free to follow me on Pinterest, where you’ll find lots of travel articles for everywhere around the world.

Quirigua ruins pin
Best guide to visiting Quirigua Guatemala


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About the Bamboo Traveler

The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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