This unassuming site in southwestern Mexico, in the shadow of Volcán Tacaná, was inhabited for nearly 3,000 years before finally being abandoned around A.D. 1200.
Izapa’s influence extended up and down the Pacific Coast, and it served as a powerful Preclassic city-state and trading center, dominating the area for a millennium. Izapa occupies an interesting place in history between the Middle Preclassic Olmecs and the Early Classic Maya.
Izapa is thought by some researchers to be a crucial place for the development of the sacred calendar. At the latitude of Izapa, the number of days in the sacred Tzolk’in calendar (260 days) is equal to the number of days between solar zenith passages (the two days of the year when the sun is exactly overhead).
Because one of those days is August 13—the Gregorian calendar date that correlates with the beginning of the Long Count in 3114 B.C.—this may indicate that the Izapans also developed the Long Count.
Izapa is a small site, with about 80 temple mounds decorated with river rocks. Izapa’s ball court points straight to the December solstice sunrise, and several stelae here have distinct images of frogs, caimans, the Hero Twins, and Wuqub Kaquix himself, the 7 Macaw underworld character from the sacred Popol Vuh.
This mix of creation mythology and astronomy helped lead John Major Jenkins, an independent researcher and author, to his galactic alignment theory; at its core is the Izapans’ “awareness of the future galactic alignment in era-2012” when the sun will align with the dark rift in the Milky Way on the winter solstice. This theme is also present in the ball game; as the ball passes through the goal-ring, it signals the dawning of a new age.
Izapa is sure to be a central spot to visit for the winter solstice, considering that day’s significance in the architecture and mythology of the place.
Izapa is open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; there are no entrance fees. Izapa is not included on most tours. It is neither obvious nor easy to visit, but it is a must-see for hard-core Maya turistas. The Maya Conservancy (http://mayaconservancy.org ) is making a huge effort to bring some basic facilities to Izapa to highlight its importance.
Izapa lies about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, just east of the city of Tapachula . Driving east from Tapachula, look for the Ruinas Izapa Restaurante. The main groups of structures are a short walk from this restaurant. You can also take a combi from Tapachula en route to Cacahoatán; ask to be let off at las ruinas de Izapa. The drive from town should take about half an hour and cost less than US$1.
You can reach Izapa from Guatemala , via the town of San Marcos in the Western Highlands, then continuing on to the border town of El Carmen. The road continues to Tapachula, Mexico, where there are Izapa transportation and guides.
For more travel information on things to see and do at Izapa and in the surrounding area, please visit the Izapa section of our Moon Chiapas travel guide .