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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.