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Ancient Cities of the Maya

The Capitals of Cuzcatlán

Evidence of Maya settlement in what is now central and western El Salvador dates back more than 4,000 years. Known anciently as Cuzcatlán, these cities represented the southern limits of the civilization. Their frontier position allowed for unique syncretism with neighboring cultures. El Salvador's sites may not be as spectacular some of those in Guatemala or Belize, but because many excavations are nowhere near complete, they allow visitors to observe archeology in progress.

Joya de Cerén was a Late Pre-classic Maya farming community that was home to an estimated population of 200. The site was abandoned suddenly in 600 AD, when the eruption of the nearby Loma caldera smothered the site under 15 to 20 feet of volcanic ash. The ash mummified the site, preserving gardens, bean-filled pots, sleeping mats, ceramics, tools and more than a dozen structures. In honor of its unique state of preservation, Joya de Cerén was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The site is located roughly 25 miles northwest of San Salvador, and can be visited together with San Andres as a day-trip from the capital.

San Andres was occupied intermittently over the 2,000 years prior to 1200AD. At its peak, San Andres served as Cuzcatlán's capital and as a regional religious center. To date, excavations have focused on the central plaza and pyramids. Visitors can climb the pyramids, observe traditional indigo production, and tour the on-site museum.

Tazumal is located in the department of Santa Ana 40 miles northwest of San Salvador. The site's main pyramid, which shows Toltec influence, rises 75 feet above the primary plaza. Other structures include palaces, tombs, a ballcourt and drainage systems. Smaller structures fan out from the city center over four square miles. The site's museum displays an Olmec-style stone figure, pottery and ceremonial stone belts. Casa Blanca, a Maya site with five intriguing pyramids, is located within walking distance of Tazumal.

Cihuatan, located 22 miles north of San Salvador on the North Trunk Road near Aguilares, may be the country's largest Pre-Columbian Maya site. Ballcourts, palaces, pyramids and defensive walls have been unearthed. Excavation is ongoing; several more pyramids are likely to be revealed, and only one of the seven subsidiary residential areas has been explored. Some structures show unusual evidence of Lenca influence. Cihuatan was destroyed by fire around 1150AD, and its residents fled in haste. In the coming centuries, the city was engulfed by forest. 


Mosaico Travel Services arranges personalized travel throughout El Salvador. We organize luxury accommodation, private transportation, and tours with expert guides. Speak with a Mosaico travel planner today at 801.582.2100. We’ll take care of the details.


"A thousand years may scare form a state. An hour may lay it in ruins."

Lord Byron