Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa

Amid the sugar-cane fields and
fincas
of this Pacific town lie an extraordinary range of carved stones and images with influences from pre-Maya civilizations, believed mostly to be ancient Mexican cultures, including the Izapa civilization from the Pacific coast area of Mexico near the Guatemalan border. The town is just north of the Pacific Highway, where some of the hotels and banks are.

Sights

There is considerable confusion about who carved the range of monuments and stelae scattered around the town. However, it's safe to say that the style of the monuments found in the last 150 years is a blend of a number of pre-Columbian styles. Some say that the prominent influence is Toltec, the ancestors of the Maya K'iche', Kaqchikel, Tz'utujil and Pipiles. It is thought the Tolteca-Pipil had been influenced in turn by the Classic culture from Teotihuacán, a massive urban state northeast of the present Mexico City, which had its zenith in the seventh century AD. However, some experts say that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Pipiles migrated as early as AD 400 or that they were influenced by Teotihuacán. All in all, the cultural make-up of this corner of Guatemala may never be known.

Four main points of interest entice visitors to the area. Bilbao, El Baúl, Finca El Baúl and the Museo de Cultura Cotzumalguapa. The remnants at Bilbao, first re-discovered in 1860, are mainly buried beneath the sugar cane but monuments found above ground show pre-Maya influences. It is thought that the city was inhabited 1200 BC-AD 800. There are four large boulders - known as Las Piedras - in sugar-cane fields, which can be reached on foot from the tracks leading from the end of 4 Avenida in town. El Baúl is a Late Classic ceremonial centre, 6 km north of Santa Lucía, with two carved stone pieces to see; most of its monuments were built between AD 600-900. Finca El Baúl has a collection of sculptures and stelae gathered from the large area of the finca grounds. The Museo de Cultura Cotzumalguapa, displays numerous artefacts collected from the finca and a copy of the famous Bilbao Monument 21 from the cane fields.

From Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa to the Mexican border

Beyond Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa is
Cocales
, where a good road north leads to Patulul and after 30 km, to Lake Atitlán at San Lucas Tolimán. The Pacific Highway continues through San Antonio Suchitepéquez to
Mazatenango
(where just beyond are the crossroads for Retalhueleu and Champerico) and on to Coatepeque and Ciudad Tecún Umán for the Mexican border. Mazatenango is the chief town of the Costa Grande zone. While not especially attractive, the Parque Central is very pleasant with many fine trees providing shade. There is a huge fiestain the last week of February, when hotels are full and double their prices. At that time, beware of children carrying (and throwing) flour.

Retalhuleu and around

Retalhuleu, normally referred to as 'Reu' (pronounced 'Ray-oo') is the capital of the department. The entrance to the town is grand with a string of royal palms lining the route, known as Calzada Las Palmas. It serves a large number of coffee and sugar estates and much of its population is wealthy. The original colonial church of
San Antonio de Padua
is in the central plaza. Bordering the plaza to the east is the neoclassical
Palacio del Gobierno
, with a giant quetzal sculpture on top. The
Museo de Arqueología y
 Etnología
, is small. Downstairs are exhibits of Maya ceramics.

Fancy cooling off? Near Reu are the Parque Acuático Xocomil, www.irtra.org.gt. Nearby is the enormous theme park with giant pyramids of Xetulul, www.irtra.org.gt.

Abaj Takalik

One of the best ancient sites to visit outside El Petén is Abaj Takalik, a ruined city that lies, sweltering, on the southern plain. Its name means 'standing stone' in K'iche'. The site was discovered in 1888 by botanist Doctor Gustav Brühl. It is believed to have flourished in the late pre-Classic period of 300 BC to AD 250 strategically placed to control commerce between the highlands and the Pacific coast. There are some 239 monuments, which include 68 stelae, 32 altars and some 71 buildings, all set in peaceful surroundings. The environment is loved by birds and butterflies, including blue morphos, and by orchids, which flower magnificently between January and March. The main temple buildings are mostly up to 12 m high, suggesting an early date before techniques were available to build Tikal-sized structures.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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