JOYA de CEREN, EL SALVADOR: If you are a history lover or if archeological sites fascinate you then Joya de Ceren or “Jewel of Ceren” is a trip you will definitely enjoy in El Salvador. This archeological tour was a combination of visiting different sites which feature pre-Columbian farming villages of the ancient Mayan civilizations. These are remarkably well preserved and important archeological sites of El Salvador.
These Mayan sites are believed to be farming communities from around 1200 B.C. Volcanic eruptions from different centuries buried these villages under many layers of ash. The museums of each Mayan site displays utensils, ceramics, pots, and everyday household items that the villagers once used in their daily lives.
We booked this whole day trip thru viator.com beforehand. The package included a private van, a driver, and a professional guide. Our guide, Mr. Cesar, was an extremely knowledgeable person with gentle manners who spoke excellent English. Most of these sites, like Joya de Ceran, San Andres, and Tazumal are located within short distances from each other. It was an exhausting day walking under the hot sun and in humid condition, but going back in time of Mayans thru the history and display was thrilling.
TIME of TRAVEL: We went to Central America during the spring break in mid-March of 2015. Our first stop was in El Salvador, then Panama, Costa Rica, and finally Nicaragua. Within El Salvador, we spent a day in San Salvador, one day in historic town of Suchitoto, and last day in Joya de Ceren, visiting the Mayan ruins. The climate is very tropical here and temperature in El Salvador is usually constant throughout the whole year. We were there during the dry season. You don’t want to come here in the monsoon when you can’t get around as much. It was in high 90s, almost touching 100 degree the day we visited Joya de Ceren…needed sunscreen, hats, sandals, liquids, and ice cream for the whole day.
OUR HOTEL: Real InterContinental San Salvador was our hotel and base in El Salvador. We stayed here for 3 nights and everything about this hotel was above average. With courteous staffs, spacious rooms, grand breakfast buffet, and great location, this hotel was nothing less than A+ in every way. It was within walking distance from some fast food places and a mall. Although we booked all of our tours before arriving here, hotel can arrange daily tours with professional guides anytime for its guests.
EATING and SHOPPING: We had lunch in a popular Salvadoran fast-food chain, called Mister Donut in Santa Ana. Good thing they don’t only sell donuts and coffee. Our guide recommended this place for lunch and we found all sorts of local dishes here from rice, salad, fish, meat, soup, and lots of options for desserts in a clean environment…but sorry, no hamburgers or cheeseburger in this fast food. They are all cooked in traditional Salvadoran style.
All the sites below had their own souvenir shops. Tazumal had a whole street of shops outside the archeological park. You will find terra cotta potteries with human figures, bowls, wall-hangings, and lots more in these shops. The price here is very cheap and you are allowed to bargain or make a deal with the vendors, no fixed price in these places.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was a day trip from San Salvador and we hopped from one Mayan site to the next the whole day with the guide in a nice air conditioned van…we needed that A.C., so hot and humid. But it was worth all the way. This was a very educational trip for us and the kids.
1) JOYA de CEREN ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: Joya de Ceren was the first Mayan spot that we visited in this tour. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador and a must-see place for everyone. UN gave monetary support to save some portion of this park. Interestingly, unlike many other Mayan ceremonial sites in other countries, this is the only one where people used to reside.
Joya de Ceren is within the area of Mesoamerica. Around the 7th century A.D. there was a pyroclastic volcanic eruption which expelled ash mixed with steam that forced people to flee with few of their belongings. Within just a few day, the village had completely disappeared under volcanic ash. It left the village under 14 layers of ash which is average 19 to 32 cm of thick layers of ash. It is believed that no one died from the eruption…the villagers left before the disaster, so no mummies were found. Loma Caldera volcano, about 1km north of it, is the source of the eruption that buried Joya de Ceren. Over time, later eruptions from other volcanoes deposited more ash over the area too. The village remained deeply buried for 1400 years. In 1976, bulldozers were leveling the ground for a government project, when they accidentally cut a platform of a structure.
As many as 70 buildings were uncovered during the excavation along with kitchens, living quarters, different communal service rooms, and religious structures. You can see few tombs, ceremonial architectures, and small pyramids. There were saunas, sleeping quarters, old doors, windows, walls, and shaman’s house as well.
Other than the different sections of ruins in this archeological park, enjoy many exotic plants (like cocoa tree, banana tree, chestnut tree, and more) and tropical birds. Make sure to visit the exhibition near the entrance to know about the history thru photos and texts. Relics, beautiful potteries, and other artifacts from the Mayan community are in display here. These are more than 1500 years old treasures. Overall, this is a very well-preserved Mayan site with good management.
Ticket is $3 for foreigners, $1 for the local Salvadorans, and free for the kids. Visiting Joya de Ceran took us about an hour. This is still an active archeological site where excavations still take place, so please be respectful and mindful of the area and its rules.
2) SAN ANDRES ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: About 10 km from Joya de Ceren Archeological Park is San Andres archeological site in Zapotitan Valley. This was a major ceremonial center for the Mayans. It was discovered even before Joya de Ceren in 1940, when they were building Pan-American Hwy.
Occupation in this area dates back to 900 B.C. The sites you will see here were mainly political and ceremonial structures, since San Andres was a major political center point for the Maya civilization. The site was buried due to a volcanic eruption that took place in 1658 A.D. The monumental area is formed by the Acropolis and the Great Plaza including La Campana (The Bell) and other small buildings. Visitors are allowed to climb the grassy mounds and pyramids. An ancient underground tunnel in this site provides view of the pyramid bases located in the acropolis. This path is about 80 meters longs, 2.2 meters high and 1 m wide. Evidence of human sacrifice was also found in the area of Acropolis and our guide showed us a spot in front of the Acropolis which is believed to be the sacrifice stone. This is a very well-preserved and nicely maintained park. Be sure to visit the small museum for additional information and displays.
Interestingly, San Andres is still being used as a Ceremonial Center for Native American groups as spiritual guides with Maya vision of the cosmos and others. The museum and park is open from 9 – 4. Although our tickets were included in the package, it is $3 for the foreigners and $1 for the locals.
3) SANTA ANA: After visiting couple ancient ruins, Santa Ana was a nice break in the middle. This is a small colonial style town about 35 km from San Andres and about 64 km from San Salvador. Since the colonial times, it was an attractive place for its land, people, and landscapes. In 1555, it was established as the first Spanish city because of its suitable land for cultivating cocoa. This was also a prosperous city for coffee plantations, and therefore many rich businessmen used to live in this area.
Plaza Libertad is the main public square here which houses a theater (the green and white building) and city hall (the yellow building). Both of these are from the 19th century. The most magnificent building in Plaza Libertad is Santa Ana Cathedral or Catedral de Santa Ana. Its elegant white exterior with two Gothic towers put a grand touch in this square. This main attraction of the city has a neo-Gothic style exterior. Finished in 1956, it has a simple but elegant interior.
4) TAZUMEL ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: 14 km from Santa Anna and 74 km from San Salvador, this is known to be the best preserved and most important pre-Columbian Mayan archeological site that we visited in this tour. It is located in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa and is the biggest ancient Mayan pyramid in San Salvador with 52 steps and about 24 meters height. The city was at its peak from 100 A.D. to 1200 A. D. These ruins were excavated and restored during the 1940s and 1950s. It was fantastic to walk around this old pyramid and climbing certain portion of it which holds so much history. Be sure to visit the museum at the entrance which has lots of Mayan artifacts and sculptures in display. In front of the museum, visitors can see a large rock with some carvings by the Mayans.
The ticket is $3 for the foreigners and $1 for the local Salvadorans. The site is located in the heart of busy city. You will find lots of souvenirs and antique vendors right outside the main entrance.
5) LAGO de COATEPEQUE: Our last destination of this tour was Lago de Coatepeque. It was not in our itinerary but our guide brought us here since we had some extra time. It is a stunning lake resort area. We didn’t go all the way down to the lake shore, just parked the car for 15 minutes and enjoyed the view from a hill. The lake kind of reminded me of the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Lake Coatepeque, with 125 meter depth, is also a crater lake with mesmerizing blue water and is considered as one of the largest lakes in El Salvador.