Iximche- An Interesting Day Exploring Mayan Ruins

It was a bit chilly early in the morning as I got ready for my day trip to visit Iximche (pronounced “ee sheem chay”), a small Mayan archaeological site that

Temple, Iximche Ruins Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

is located in the western highlands of Guatemala about two hours from Antigua, roughly halfway to Lake Atitlán. As we left Antigua, the beautiful sparkling clear blue sky was speckled with just a few clouds including one produced by the Fuego Volcano that had just recently erupted. It was just a small eruption as if Fuego had not yet had its morning cup of coffee.

The drive was interesting as we passed through some small cities and villages, experiencing the bustle of traffic as people got an early start to their Saturday activities which often includes a trip to the local mercado (market).  Our van climbed high into the mountains and wound its way through the curvy roads, eventually traveling through a small town, Tecpán, just off the Interamericana highway. Shortly after we left the town, we ended up at the parking area to visit the Mayan ruins of Iximche and to visit a small museum at the site. There were only a few people around as it was still early and not quite opening time. As we exited the van, I was quickly chilled by the very crisp breeze that I hadn’t expected. I suddenly realized we up over 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the brisk temperature but at least my thin jacket was somewhat of a windbreaker.

We were greeted by Alexis, a very pleasant, personable and obviously intelligent multi-lingual 20-something Mayan young man who led us to a small

Iximche Ruins, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

museum to give us an overview of what we would be seeing. There was a power failure in the museum but we were still able to see what we needed to using the dim ambient light and the flashlights on our cellphones. We saw maps of the site while Alexis gave us a detailed explanation of the history.  We also saw some human remains since approximately 100 individuals were found, a few with gold headbands (which was simulated in the museum.

Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom from 1470 until 1524. The site includes a number of pyramid-temples, palaces, and even some
Iximche, Ruins, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

sunken ball courts, all of which are modest in scale. These structures seemed fairly well preserved despite the fact that a times, the site was looted for its building blocks and stones which have been used to construct buildings in some of the local Guatemalan villages. While the site is fairly small, it is located in a beautiful park-like setting high up in the mountains, very green with lots of mature majestic trees. There were 4 ceremonial plazas that had palaces, temples and the ball courts. On a few structures, the original plaster coating could still be seen.

The ball court was interesting but the game played was disturbing. The soccer-ish game used a “ball” which was actually a large stone that could be struck only with the hips and knees. The object was to get the stone though a

Iximche Sunken Ball Court, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

ring mounted at head height or higher on the sides of the court. (If you are having difficulty imagining how this game could possibly be played, so am I.) The game was watched only by royalty so it was a great honor to be chosen to play. However, unfortunately the kicker was (pun intended) that the winner was actually put to death as a sacrifice, which was also supposedly an honor (also difficult to imagine).

Interestingly, the area is high up on a ridge surrounded by deep and very steep (90 degrees in some places) ravines which provided safety for the Mayan capital. The rear area of the site is still used today by deeply religious Mayan people who come there to perform fire ceremonies, magic rituals, burning

Iximche, Ruins, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

copal resin, wood, liquor, candles and other items in the presence of the pyramids to ward off illness or other things. We were able to witness a fire ceremony but no photos were allowed in this very sacred area of the site.

After visiting the site, we went back into the small museum to see the rest of the exhibits that explained more about the site including how people lived, dressed, ate and other interesting aspects of the site.
We then headed to the pueblo of Santa Apolonia which is not far away. This village is well known for its handicrafts and earthenware pottery. We were able to visit the home of a poor Mayan indigenous family who was very nice and gracious to us. They talked a little about their life and showed us how they make pottery and beautiful woven items. Some of the yarn materials are hand-dyed using local plants and other materials which they showed us as well.

Interestingly, the pottery is made from very raw materials. Clay soil is purchased locally in clumps which then has to be beaten to break the clumps

Breaking Clay Dirt into Sand, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

into smaller pieces. It is then rolled with a rolling pin against a flat stone until it becomes clay sand. The sand is then mixed with water until it forms into malleable moist red clay. In making large round clay pots, instead of using a potter’s wheel, the woman making the pottery initially forms the clay on the ground into the beginnings of bowl and then keeping her hands on the clay, she runs in tight circles around the clay while forming it into a perfectly round pot. It was actually amazing to see how perfectly round it was! She then put the pottery in a big pile, buried it with pine needles and other dry plant materials and made a large open fire to work as a kiln to harden

Forming the Pottery, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

the clay which takes several hours. It seems to work very well and it gives the pottery a distinct appearance of a dark reddish brown color with streaks of black.

There were several small houses on the property and there were a few chickens and dogs running around. One or more of the structures was made of mud and sticks. Of course we had a chance to purchase some items so I came home with a small but pretty vase.
Small Clay Vase, Santa Apologia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Breaking Clay Dirt into Sand, Santa Apologia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Adding Water to Clay Sand to Make Clay, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Forming the Pottery, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Making a Small Pottery Bowl, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Making a Small Pottery Bowl, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Preparing the Natural Kiln, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Pottery in a Natural Kiln, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Indigenous Houses, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Natural Dyes for Cloth, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Indigenous House Made of Sticks and Clay Mud, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Weaving Cloth, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Embroidering Cloth, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Human Remains with Simulated Gold Headband, Iximche, Ruins, Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

We then had  lunch at touristy thatched roof restaurant that was decorated in early tiki-Mayan where I had a chicken sandwich with french fries which was more than adequate. We then headed back to Antigua and got back in the late afternoon just as it was getting dark. I hope you enjoy taking a tour through the remaining photos that capture more of my interesting day trip.