“Central America is famous for it’s Mayan ruins. So El Salvador must have some of their own, right?” This was the thought that went through my mind when I was trying to find things to do on my trip. Once again, my research online turned up few results, but I did see 3 sites that might be worth checking out – San Andres, Joya de Ceren and Tazumal.

I couldn’t find anything online about buses that go to these locations and after talking to Dave (my Salvadorian friend), he suggested taking a taxi. But since we’re hiring a driver anyway, it seemed worthwhile to have him take us to each site. San Andres and Joya de Ceren are close to each other (10 minutes apart), but Tazumal is on the other side of Santa Ana (45 minutes away). But they aren’t as far as they look on the map.

San Andres

Our first stop of the morning is San Andres. A word of warning – when we arrive, the line to get into the parking lot is quite long. Apparently it’s a popular spot for field tripping school kids, a trend that continues at the other ruins as well.

Just inside, it’s not clear where exactly you’re supposed to go. We walk through a small museum that explains the history of the site – a few signs are in English – then kind of guess where to go next. Looking through some doors, we see green hills in the distance. That might be something.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but this is literally all there is. There are no signs explaining what these mounds are, and the site is very small. There aren’t even clearly defined paths of where to walk, so we cut straight across the grass. We wander around for a bit, but there really isn’t too much to see.

I wonder where those stairs inside the doorway are supposed to lead…

From the size and shape of it, I guess that these were probably some sort of ceremonial buildings as previous Mayan ruin visits taught me that homes were often built of wood. But don’t quote me on that.

An old drainage system perhaps?

Another mound of what appears to be a building juts up from the trees in the distance. It’s closed off so we can’t get closer to see for sure.

The area in the picture below is blocked off, but looks like the most interesting part of the site to me. It feels rather Indiana Jones-esque. Wish I could have explored it further.

Also on the site is an old (ish) indigo plant. Built by the Spanish during colonial rule, indigo dye was produced here and sent back to Europe. It was covered in volcanic ash in the 1600’s and only rediscovered in 1995.

The entire site takes less than an hour to fully explore.

Joya de Ceren

Next we head down the road to Joya de Ceren. Originally, I figured this would be my least favorite site of the three. Emma wasn’t even interested in going at all. But since it’s close to San Andres, I really want to at least check it out, even it it’s just for 10 minutes. And I’m glad we do. It ends up being my favorite site of all.

Joya de Ceren is essentially the Pompeii of the Mayan world. When the nearby Ilopango volcano erupted in 200AD, the town was buried under a layer of ash. Unlike Pompeii, the residents had warning and were able to evacuate. The people resettled the area until another volcano erupted in 590AD. It was finally discovered in the 1970’s when the government was building an agricultural project.

Today there is a series of buildings covering the dug out sites to protect them from the elements while they are being excavated. A one-directional pathway leads you to each. Some you view from outside, others you are able to actually go in. It’s hard to know exactly what everything was, but it’s amazing to see how well things are preserved, and just how deep the ash actually was.

This structure is believed to have been a goods building. Several pottery bowls were found inside and a garden and several agave plants were found around it. It probably would have been part of a larger domestic complex.

The building below on the right was a sweat bath (temazcal), used to purify the body and soul. The other structures are more domestic buildings.

This is a life-size reconstruction of the sweat bath. I crawl on my hands and knees to get in the little opening to see inside. It’s tiny!

This picture makes the inside of the sweat bath look much larger than it is. There isn’t much room and I can’t stand up, so I have to get up quite close. The stone slabs to my left and right are where people would sit. A fire would be built under the stones in the center and water was poured over the top to create the steam. It’s the exact same concept as our wet sauna’s today.

These next two pictures are of another domestic complex, this time with a kitchen.

What, you can’t tell it’s a kitchen? Yeah, neither can I. But thankfully there are signs throughout numbering the structures and are even written in English!

I think part of what helps me enjoy this site the most is not only the interesting ruins, but the signs throughout explaining what we’re looking at. It really helps bring it to life for me; I can imagine how it might have once looked. With San Andres (and Tazumal next) the structures are more impressive, but there’s nothing telling me what I’m looking at or why it’s important. Not even in Spanish. The school kids running around are likely learning what they need to know from their teachers, but for the rest of us (admittedly few) tourists, it would be nice if there was just one sign – in Spanish even, explaining the importance and function of the structures. I’m sure it helps that Joya de Ceren is a UNESCO World Heritage site with the extra funding that comes with that. But I don’t think one sign would be too much to ask.

Rant over.


Our final stop of the today is the most impressive – Tazumal. This is easily the most photogenic of the Mayan ruins in El Salvador.

Since again we aren’t sure where to go, we begin by walking around the structure, just to see what we see.

I find this image very interesting. On the left, it looks like the pyramid has been reconstructed. On the right, it remains much more rustic. I’m assuming this is on purpose as the left side is facing the front of the complex.

As we’re finishing our lap, a bunch of school kids come running after us, wanting to speak English. They are definitely not shy, asking us our names and where we’re from. Most people we’ve met here, despite the language barrier, have been very friendly and curious.

I’m not sure whose grave this is as again, there are no signs around, but it’s kind of neat looking, in a crumbly sort of way.

One last look back at the pyramid.

Since we still have time to kill, we check out the stands just outside selling all sorts of knickknacks.  It’s kind of weird that just on the other side of these tables on the right is an ancient pyramid. Such an odd juxtaposition of old and modern.

If you’re interested in checking out El Salvadors Mayan ruins, these three are worth a morning to see. Don’t expect to be blown away – they can’t really compare to Tikal in Guatemala or Lamanai in Belize. We don’t spend more than an hour at any of them, and some only require 30 minutes. But I enjoy them all the same.

It might be possible to take public transportation, but I couldn’t tell you how. I would recommend hiring a taxi for the duration. It shouldn’t be much more than $50 total, and you’ll have the flexibility to stay as long or as short as you’d like.

2016 Craft Projects
Hiking the Santa Ana Volcano