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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Mixco Viejo — a late-era Mayan city among the clouds

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore the highlands of Guatemala and venture to the Mayan city in the mountains — Mixco Viejo.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

For people used to the architecture and setting of Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatán or northern Guatemala, Mixco Viejo is likely to appear as somewhat of an oddity. Not only is the site much less ancient than many of its counterparts, but its extremely short period of occupation gives its architecture a sort of consistency not often seen in Mesoamerica.  

A panoramic view of Group A of Mixco Viejo from atop Structure B3b. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Mixco Viejo, sometimes also known as Jilotepeque Viejo, is an archaeological site belonging to the Mayan civilization located in Chimaltenango, 31 miles to the north of Guatemala City. 

Unlike more ancient Mayan city-states such as Tikal, in the northern department (the equivalent to states or provinces) of Peten, Mixco Viejo was founded in the 12th century CE among the mountains, atop a plateau topped off with a large artificial platform.

As impressive as several structures at Mixco Viejo are, the artificial platform on which the entire site sits is perhaps even more so. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city’s name is actually the result of a misunderstanding stemming from erroneous colonial-era records that associated it with the non-Mayan Postclassic Poqoman capital of the same name. 

Large ceremonial platforms at Mixco Viejo were likely topped with rooftops made from perishable materials or used as altars. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ruins of Mixco Viejo cover roughly one square mile and are surrounded by deep ravines which drop off sharply into the Pixtacaya river. 

The site itself is made up of 15 groups containing the remains of 120 structures, including temples, plazas, and Mesoamerican ballcourts. 

A Diorama of Mixco Viejo depicts the site’s main plazas and ceremonial areas, as well as its most important structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given its compact size and obviously defensive location, it is unlikely that the city itself would be able to sustain a large population. Though there is evidence for small-scale constructions on the banks of the Pixtacaya River where larger groups of people likely lived and fished outside of the city’s core. 

The architecture of Mixco Viejo is characterized by the use of pumice stone slabs, extremely porous volcanic material. 

Though little evidence of stucco remains visible at Mixco Viejo today, all of the city’s structure would have once been completely covered in this material —  as well as painted in bright colors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

In many ways, Mixco Viejo is archetypal of post-classical era construction in Mesoamerica, taking its artistic cues from much larger cities in central Mexico in the Región del Altiplano. 

Facing west, Structure D1 is one of the largest constructions at Mixco Viejo. Its southern end collapsed sometime in the early 20th century, but archaeologists did such a good job restoring it that the damage is nearly imperceptible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Perhaps the most iconic structures at Mixco Viejo are the so-called Twin Pyramids, though, in reality, these ceremonial temples are far from pyramidal in shape. Each is accessed by way of a single steep stairway and stands at just over 20 feet. 

Known as structures B3a and B3b, each of these temples has five stepped levels and faces onto the site’s main plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Built in a style very similar to that of the Twin Pyramids, Structure A1 is located on the northern end of the artificial platform the entire site sits upon.  However, at 40 feet tall, Mixco Viejo’s Structure A1 stands almost exactly at twice the height. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that Mixco Viejo’s Structure A1 dates to the 13th Century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Located to the south of the site’s main plaza is Mixco Viejo’s Mesoamerican ballcourt. The ballcourt is accessible from two entrances located on either end. 

Mixco Viejo’s ballcourt is described as sunken as its field is located below ground level —  a feature quite common in late post-classic sites. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
A detail of Mexico Viejo’s ballcourt shows a small staircase descending onto its northern end. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But one of the most notable features of Mixco Viejo’s ballcourt is its beautiful marker, which is also the only surviving sculpture found at the site. The stone marker depicts a human head inside the mouth of a serpent, much like those found across the Mayan world at sites like Uxmal or Copán. 

Having stone markers instead of the usual stone ring hoops is not unheard of in the Mayan world, but it does appear to have been relatively rare. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As you have likely already noticed from the photos above, aside from being extremely interesting from an archaeological perspective, Mixco Viejo’s beauty is complemented by its gorgeous surroundings in the Guatemalan highlands. 

There is something downright magical about Mixco Viejo which is hard to put your finger on. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Given its proximity to Guatemala’s capital 30 miles away, Mixco Viejo is fairly accessible. But the trip along the region’s winding mountain ranges and poor roads is likely to take over two hours. 

A map shows the location of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. Image: Google Maps

As cell phone coverage in the area can be spotty, and security in the area is not all that great, it is perhaps best to visit Mixco Viejo as part of an organized tour departing from either Antigua or Guatemala City.

Aside from the area’s beautiful mountain ranges, colorful species of wildflowers are plentiful. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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