Bear and I went to see the ruins of Kumarcaaj (spelled many different ways), near the town of Santa Cruz del Quiché, which he’d never seen before.  According to Google Maps, the distance from Panajachel to Santa Cruz del Quiché (also known as Quiché) is 54.3 km. and takes 47 minutes. It is clear that Google has not actually driven this road, which crosses the northern edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate.  The ride is, shall we say, breathtaking.  It took three hours at the absolute top speed that chicken buses could negotiate the road (including three changes of buses).  Between Chichicastenango and Quiché, the bus driver gave a virtuoso performance on the hairpin turns, and finally, approaching the outskirts of  Quiché, one of the rear tires blew out with a loud bang that made everyone jump.  The driver slowed down, as though contemplating the idea of stopping to take a look, and then he thought the better of it and drove on into Quiché.  Bear and I walked the 2 or 3 kilometers from Quiché to the ruins of Kumarcaaj.

Kumarcaaj was the capital of the Quiché empire, who were at war with the Kaqchikel when Alvarado arrived in 1524. Alvarado invited the Quiché leaders to come visit his camp and then he killed them, took all the gold, and burned the city.  We paid our admission, went in, and were greeted by an old guy who was sweeping the path and wanted to tell us the story of the place.  He was not a guide and didn’t ask us for money; he just wanted to sit down for a while, put down his broom, and tell us the story.  The city was founded by a god who came down from Mexico and who changed form every 27 days, from a man to a snake, to something else.  The myth is pretty cryptic to me, but I suspect there’s some real history in there if you can decode it.  After the mythic origins, the guy pretty much skipped over thousands of years, to his main point.  The Spanish were not conquistadors, he told us (in Spanish), because if they were conquistadors we would be part of Spain now.  They came here to steal, murder, massacre,… (he had a pretty good litany).

Only one structure has been partly restored in Kumarcaaj, and that is the ball court.  The rest looks like this:


This is a place where you can walk around in the ruins of an imperial capital, in the state it remains in after stones have been looted to build other things, and there is no restriction on climbing up on these structures for a vantage point.  Here is the ball court from the top of the Temple of Jacawitz. (Jacawitz?  Could this be the lost tribe of Israel?)

Another interesting thing about this place is that it is still a living place of worship.  Several groups were holding ceremonies, and I didn’t photograph them out of respect, but here is an altar with candles still burning.

There is also a cave, a long man-made tunnel.  It was very smoky in there from religious observances.  Bear did not go in because of the smoke, but I could not resist exploring.  At some distance in, maybe about 100 feet, there was no light at all from the entrance and I could not see the ceiling with my flashlight because of the smoke. That was scary enough for me, and I did not find out how far the tunnel goes.

We rode a bus back to the town of Chichicastenango, which has a famous mercado, and arrived there about 2:30 in the afternoon.  I was hoping we’d have time to go see an idol called Pascual Abaj on a hilltop at the edge of town.  At this time of year torrential rains can start at any minute, but the sky still looked clear so we walked through the mercado and up a trail to the hilltop. The town is at about 7000 feet, so the climb required a noticeable exertion.  A ceremony was taking place, and by then I’d lost all shame and asked them if I could take a picture.

The idol is that cylindrical rock between the candles, whose features have pretty much been wiped out.  

We walked back down to Chichi, took a stroll through the market where I ended up buying a couple of tchotchkes, and got on a bus shortly before it started raining.  We arrived back in Pana around 5:00 and by then it was pouring.  The street to my house was flooded, so rather than take off my shoes and wade, I hailed a tuk tuk.

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