Pompeii of the Americas
Continuing our tour in El Salvador, we spared today for doing what is known as the Maya Route. Although within the country there are many hundreds of known Maya places, the majority of them remain unexcavated, with only 8 sites out of 11 in total currently open to the public (as of January 2016). 3 of them are the ones offered in this route, which also are the best ones and unique not only to El Salvador but across the entire former Maya civilisation area. The good side is that all of them are within easy reach from the capital, hence another reason why to have your base in San Salvador would work perfectly as we did.
Joya de Ceren, nicknamed as the Mayan Pompeii or Pompeii of the Americas, is not for coincidence. The fate of this ancient city was the very same as that of the Roman city in Italy. The volcano next door once abruptly erupted and buried the city well deep in hot ash and pyroclastic flow, 10 layers to be precise, meaning the level of conservation is quite immaculate and to this date, the only one example of Maya city where one can see how the people really lived 1400 years ago, with their houses, their utensils, cultivated land and even food. That’s right, it was dinner time when the eruption occurred and while the people had enough time to flee for their lives, they left absolutely everything behind. A proper time capsule like no other that brought to live many of the unknown facts of the daily lives of the Maya. No corpse whatsoever have ever been found in the site, another indication that proves they could escape prior to the destruction.
Although it is known to be there at least 40 structures, only 10 have been entirely excavated and put on display at great care. The reason why they cannot continue excavations is that once open and exposed again to the air after that many hundreds of years, they cannot stop nor control them from deteriorating. Nevertheless, the ones you can see today are an amazing example to give you an idea.
The next site quite near Joya de Ceren was San Andres. This was the little regional capital, small and modest if compared to the greater capitals. Only a very small portion has been excavated, but what is unique in here are 2 facts: First, the main square. You will notice that only the top of the pyramids are visible. No stone floor. But hold on, then what is the perfectly flat floor you are walking along? Those are thousands of adobe blocks placed there by the Maya covering everything below. You can see the hole dag in the adobe next to one of the pyramids for appreciation of these perfect blocks and the deep below to the base of the pyramid. Although it is not 100% certain what was this purpose, it is strongly believed because they wanted to further expand the city, and as it is well known in their culture, with each new ruler, a newer larger structure was placed on top of the older ones. They might have never had the time to finalise it hence why this is what you see today.
The second unique fact about San Andres, is the perfectly preserved indigo factory. For the Maya, the colour blue was sacred, and widely used across their civilisation. To see in such a perfect state the place they were processing blue pigment has no equal anywhere.
As last, El Tazumal, right after the city of Santa Ana, completes the tour. Here you can see the large structure of the acropolis and walk on top of it, and see the main pyramid perfectly preserved.
Overall, a great must do while in El Salvador, a nice day to remember. But if you have been before to the impressive Maya sites of Mexico and Guatemala, do not come here with the same expectations of see large structures, temples, buildings and many pyramids. Those sites as explained before, are way smaller yet different and unique to everything else.
For more information about Joya de Ceren check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in El Salvador is the North American Dollar. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to get there and book a tour
If you are planning to come here using public transportation, of you course you can but bear in mind you will end up without enough time to do it all; at least if your plan includes visiting the beautiful colonial city of Santa Ana. We booked a tour instead and without any doubt, it was the best decision we could do. But before I continue explaining on our choice, here below you can find some information taken from Wikitravel on the bus you need to take to get to Joya de Ceren, Santa Ana and back to San Salvador:
-Bus 108 towards Opico, from either Terminal de Occidente, or Plaza Mundo shopping centre in San Salvador runs past Joya de Ceren. Just tell the driver that’s where you’re going and he will drop you off at the entrance. The bus takes around 1 hour and costs USD$0.50. After visiting Joya de Ceren, get on either bus 201 or 202 towards Santa Ana. The trip will take around 1 hour.
-Coming back to San Salvador from Santa Ana you can take buses 201 or 202 in the opposite direction to be dropped off at Joya de Ceren. Tell the driver you are planning on catching the bus 108 from there to San Salvador and he will tell you where to get off. Make sure you return before 18.00pm just in time for the last buses to the capital.
-From Santa Ana to Tazumal you will need to get a bus or a taxi. Unfortunately you will miss San Andress if you decide to plan this trip via public buses.
Now coming back to do this as an organised tour, as you can imagine there are plenty of providers offering the same service. Some include lunch and drinks, other no and a general mixture of places you will visit. Aim for a tour including the three Maya sites plus a visit to the beautiful city Santa Ana. After all, this is not a place or country you will most likely ever return therefore the most you can do and see, the better.
We found the best deal at www.getyourguide.co.uk. We have used them in the past and were extremely satisfied. Simply search for tours in El Salvador and select the desired one. Ideally the one under the name: From San Salvador: Archeological Route Full-Day Tour. That’s the one we took. With it, entrance tickets are also included, so all you will have to pay by yourself is lunch and refreshments whenever you need it. You will have a guide to explain you everything and take you around. You will be picked at the hotel and so dropped off, driven from place to place and have more than enough time at each of the sites to enjoy as you wish, and free time in Santa Ana for visit. Without doubt, the best one we could find.
Since this was a day trip from San Salvador we did not stay overnight anywhere along the route we did. Bearing Santa Ana, the 3rd largest city in the country where you can find larger properties, some of which worldwide chains; there are no international hotels elsewhere but instead, family run businesses, many of them from the look of it at least from outside, really nice, hosed in small colonial buildings.
San Salvador has a great choice of hotels of any kind. Notorious are the large international properties on the outskirts around the up-scale neighbourhoods. However, finding a deal was not an easy task. The same hotels we saw at one website were having a completely different price on other sites, and while at some pages the fare was including breakfast, at others it was not. It took quite a while to figure out what would be the best option, but it really paid off and we hit jackpot to be honest. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Real Intercontinental, on Bulevard Los Heroes with Avenida Sisimiles on the west of the city. It was a great decision to stay here, knowing we will be having some free time every day after our daily tours, hence the reason for a hotel with a nice pool and all the facilities alike. The staff was really nice with great attention to detail. Large modern room with anything we needed, and very large top quality breakfast. And if thinking on what you could do for dinner for example, don’t worry, just across the road, literally over the foot bridge across the main road was the largest shopping mall not only in the city but in the country. Plenty of choice of everything!