structure 3                                                          simon burchell

structure 1 to plaza                                       rodigo moreno

structure 1 upper temple                                          rodrigo moreno                             

structure 4                                    jacob astrada

plaza 1 w/ structures 6 & 1                                           by hjpd

structure 4                                                      simon burchell

ball court                                                                   simon burchell

overview                                                               google earth

structure 4 circular  chamber        marris morales

censer lid                                           julio lemus

structure 1                                             ulises posso

ZACULEU-Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Zaculeu, “White Earth” in the Mam and Kʼicheʼ Maya languages, is an impressive Post Classic (1150-1525 CE) site located on a hilltop plateau within a valley ringed by mountains. The site is protected by ravines on three sides. It was situated between the Selegua and Viña rivers which formed an important trade route linking the Central Highland site of Kaminaljuyu with the Central Mexican site of Teotihuacan.

 Zaculeu was the Western Highlands capital of the Mam Maya kingdom, and was continuously occupied until its defeat by Spanish invaders in 1525. The ceremonial area is still used today by small groups of the local Mam Maya for ritual purposes on special occasions.

The civic/ceremonial center is rather compact (10 acre/4 hectares), and there are a total of 43 structures grouped around a series of plazas. The site core can only be accessed via a narrow corridor that connected the plateau to the slightly lower valley below.

Zaculeu is easily reached from Guatemala City north on Highway CA-1 to Huehuetenango, a distance of about 165 miles/266 km. From there it is about 2 miles/3 kms to the site.  

HOURS: 8:30 A.M.-4:30 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $6.50/Q50
GUIDES: Guides can be arranged on site or in Huehuetenango.
SERVICES: Bathrooms, food, beverages, and handicrafts
ACCOMODATIONS: Food and lodging can be found in Huehuetenango
GPS: 15d 20’02” N, 91d 29’ 34” W
MISC: The site is in a remote area. Check current security advisories.

Zaculeu has a long settlement history dating back to the Early Classic (250-600 CE). The original name of the city was Chnab'jul, although later the Kíche’ called it Zaculeu, which means "White Land/Earth". In modern times it was also known as Xinabajul.

The architecture from this early period shows a strong Central Mexican influence. Construction activity increased towards the end of the Classic Period (250-850 CE) and on through the Post Classic (1150-1525 CE) when the site reached its greatest expansion.

There have been no stelae or other glyphic inscriptions found, though some stone sculpture and a single mural have been recovered. Investigations have revealed a strong commercial relationship with other Highland sites such as Kaminaljuyu and Nabaj. Indigenous sources from the Colonial era have provided important narratives regarding the history of the site.

Zaculeu was the traditional capital of the Mam Maya. The Mam Maya were in constant rivalry with the neighboring Kʼicheʼ Kingdom of Qʼumarkaj with the K’iche’ defeating and occupying the site on at least two occasions beginning in the 12th the century. The K’iche’ were in control of the city for the final onslaught by the Spanish invaders in 1525. The city was not conquered, but fell victim to a prolonged siege with the last K’iche’ king, Kayb’il Balam, surrendering to the Spanish in October 1525. There was a subsequent rebellion and the city was burned with the population forced to relocate to Huehuetenango.

The site is first mentioned by Captain Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman, as chronicled in his book Recordacion Florida, published in 1690. Next came those intrepid explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1840’s. Adrian Recinos produced a monograph on the area in 1913. Later investigations were undertaken by Samuel Lothrop, and by Sylvanus Morley and Edwin Shook in the 1930’s. The United Fruit Company undertook a restoration project in the 1940’s under the direction of John Dimick, and this is how the site is viewed today.

Some purists have decried the application of a modern stucco finish to the structure’s surfaces. On the other hand, the way the structures are viewed today is how the Maya would have finished them, and not left exposed rock as is seen at nearly every other restored site. Most all of them were finished with a coat of stucco in antiquity. The only other example for a modern cement/stucco application may be the restored Structure 1 at the site of Tazumal in El Salvador, though this was mostly removed during recent restoration work. 

The civic/ceremonial core of Zaculeu is orientated on a northeast-southwest axis about 30 degrees east of North, and composed of several plazas. For simplicity I will refer to the locations of the structures that surround the plazas as being on either the north, east, south, or west side of the plaza. The platform structures were constructed with a fill base of dried adobe, and in most cases were faced with stone. A veneer of stucco was then applied and usually painted. There are several structures that exhibit twin stairways. Many also exhibit the talud-tablero style of architecture indicative of Central Mexican influence.

After the defeat of the Mam by the K’iche, the latter modified many of the structures to their own architectural style. Eight structures have been currently excavated and restored. The other structures are grass covered mounds, some showing remains of masonry detail.

Plaza 1 is located in the northeast area of the site core, and measures around 125 feet/38 m x 177 feet/54 m. It houses the most prominent structure located at the site, Structure 1.

Structure 1 is an impressive pyramid that reaches a height of 39 feet/12 meters, the highest at the site, and is located on the east side of the plaza. It rises up on 8 levels and is surmounted by a large, single-chamber temple at the top entered between two pilasters. The lower portion of the structure has a double stairway that reaches to a fifth level terrace. The terrace exhibits a central, low-walled, semi-enclosed area overlooking the plaza. Directly behind this area is a small, circular, ringed basin. From the terrace a smaller set of stairways divided by an elongated podium extends to the summit temple. An Early Classic tomb was discovered beneath Structure 1. This red-painted tomb contained four individuals and held a very rich offering of jade, pyrite mirrors, and ceramics.

In the center of the plaza are two small, double-tiered platforms, Structures 11 and 12. Both have been restored, and each features two staircases.

Structure 6 is located on the north side of Plaza 1. This is a nicely restored 4-tiered platform structure with a roofless superstructure on the summit level. A central stairway leads up from the plaza to the second terrace. A second stairway, divided by a podium, then rises to the summit structure The structure is entered between four large rectangular columns with four separate interior, rectangular columns which once supported a now-missing roof. At the rear of the structure is a bench/throne.

The west side of the plaza houses three connected structures. The southwest corner is taken up by Structure 10. This structure is a long, range-type construction about 171 feet/52 m in length that extends westward, and is mostly mound-covered. Investigations have determined that a single gallery ran along the top of the structure. Multiple stairways faced to the south across Plaza 4.

The middle structure, Structure 9, is a large pyramid and exhibits a restored masonry lower section. The rest of the structure is mound-covered. The third structure is a two-tiered platform that has been partially restored. Behind this structure is another platform of similar design.

The south side of Plaza 1 is taken up by Structure 13. This structure is set on a large platform base measuring around 67 feet/20 m x 91 feet/28 m. Twin plaza-facing stairways lead up to a second-tier terrace. From there a single, broad stairway leads up two tiers to a large, single-chamber summit temple. The temple is entered between two rectangular pilasters. A small stairway on the west side of the structure leads up to the terrace level. Attached to the west side of the structure is Structure 14, an unrestored mound that has twin stairways that face west onto Plaza 4. The backside of Structure 13 faces onto Plaza 2.

Plaza 2 measures about 287 feet/87.5 m x 208 feet/63 m, and houses several structures.

Structure 4 runs the length of the east side of the plaza, and is a most unusual combination of architecture. The central portion of the structure is a truncated pyramid with a three-chamber temple at its summit. A single stairway flanked by imposing balustrades leads up three tiers to a summit terrace. The two sides of the pyramid each display a narrow stairway flanked again by massive balustrades. The temple is accessed through three entryways into a narrow gallery/portico. The interior chamber has a separate shrine room at the back that features a very unusual circular design. The roof of the temple has been lost to the ravages of time.

Attached on either side of the Structure 4 pyramid are two low platform extensions of unequal lengths and height. Each platform exhibits a single gallery entered between several columns. At the back of the gallery a set of steps leads to a second raised, gallery/bench.  A tomb was discovered here of a single individual, and contained obsidian knives, jade, ceramics, and fragments of gold/tumbaga.

The south side of the plaza features a series of small mounds. Some of these form around a small raised plaza, Plaza 3. The north end of Plaza 2 is anchored by the south side of Structure 1.

The center of the Plaza 2 is taken up by three structures. Two of these are small platforms, Structures 15 and 16. The third structure, Structure 17, is an interesting two-tiered platform with a small two-chamber temple, The temple is entered between two round columns via a divided west-facing stairway. It has been nicely restored minus its roof. The temple faces across the plaza to the Ball Court. 

The Ball Court, Structures 22 and 23, is the main structure on the west side of Plaza 2 and has an axis of approximately 125 degrees east of North. It rests atop a low platform base that measures about 153 feet/47 m x 73 feet/22 m. It features slanted walls, and the superstructure shows the remains of masonry foundation walls. The endzones are enclosed.

Adjacent to the Ball Court and forming the southwest corner of Plaza 2 is Structure 3. This structure has been partially excavated, and is centered on a platform base measuring about 84 feet/26 m x 108 feet/33 m that also houses several small mounds around the perimeter. There are traces of a stairway on its west side that faces onto a small, sunken plaza, Plaza 8. The north side of this plaza backs onto the Ballcourt. The west side of the plaza houses Structure 2.

Structure 2 is an unexcavated pyramid that has a base measurement of approximately 79 feet/24 m x 97 feet/19 m with a height of around 23 feet/7 m. A twin east facing stairway has been partially exposed.

There are several smaller plazas located within the core area. Most of these plazas are ringed by small mounds, some showing masonry remains.

updated July 2023 

modern k'iche' ceremony                      francisco kan


structure 6                                                      rodrigo moreno

structure 10 plaza 4                                    julio reyes palencia

structure 4 backside                                                simon burchell

plazas 5 & 6                                                               simon burchell

structure 9                                                            simon burchell

museum                                                                crisolivergt

plaza 7 platform                                         karina del cid b

ball court                                                         julio reyes palencia

Share your photos with us

ceramic                                         daniel chiquin

structure 13                                                            simon burchell

structure 4                                                           rodrigo moreno

structure 2                                      femely lopez

​​​​​welcome to the mayan ruins website .

structure 1                                                            by hjpd

structure 17                                                               romeo uyu