The site of Takalik Abaj (7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $3.50), meaning “standing stones,” is particularly interesting because it reveals elements of Olmec influence in early Mayan culture. It made headlines as recently as 2002 with the discovery of an intact royal burial tomb thought to be that of the site’s last Mayan ruler, a discovery featured in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic.
Formerly known as Abaj Takalik because of an error in translation, the site is spread out over 6.5 square kilometers along nine terraces. Its ceremonial center, at the city’s core, is open to visitors but the remains of the city’s outskirts are now on lands occupied by five coffee farms. One of these, on the ninth terrace, is home to an ecolodge.
In its heyday, between 800 B.C. and A.D. 200, Takalik Abaj was an important commercial and political center at the heart of a far-ranging trade network in which cacao and salt were exchanged for obsidian, quetzal feathers, pyrite, and jade.
More than 275 structures have been unearthed here. Now being restored in an area once belonging to a private coffee and banana plantation is Structure 5, the tallest structure at 16 meters high. It occupies Terrace 3. East of here is Structure 7, thought to have been an astronomical observatory. Structure 4 contains some very clear engraving in Mayan style.
There are many sculptures scattered throughout the site. Among them are smaller versions of the giant Olmecoid heads seen elsewhere, as well as the pot-bellied barrigones that are also typical of Olmec influence.
Also noteworthy is Structure 12, the largest structure with a base measuring 56 by 42 meters and dating to A.D. 300. Standing before it are seven carved monuments, including Altar 8, and Stela 5, which shows two kings presiding over bound captives. Olmecoid heads and zoomorphs compose the other finely carved monuments at this structure. Structure 11 is similar, also with seven monuments before it.
Takalik Abaj was sacked sometime around A.D. 300 and its Mayan-style monuments were ritualistically defaced. Some were rebuilt after A.D. 600. The site is still an important ceremonial site and many highland Mayans perform ceremonies there.
Getting to Takalik Abaj
To get to Takalik Abaj, drive or take a bus heading out from Retalhuleu to the town of El Asintal, 12 kilometers northwest of Reu and 5 kilometers north of the Carretera al Pacífico (Pacific Coast Highway, CA-2). The turnoff is at Km. 190.5. Buses leave from 5a Avenida “A” southwest of the town plaza about every half hour during daylight hours.
From El Asintal, pickups cover the remaining four kilometers to the site. You can also take a taxi from Reu’s main plaza for about $30 round-trip, including waiting time.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com