Under the thatched roof of a squat adobe house, Maya families eat their evening meal — dishes of bright yellow corn, beans and a root vegetable called manioc. Suddenly they hear a disturbingly loud, high-pitched noise. Knowing exactly what it means, they frantically gather their children and run for their lives.
This is what anthropologists believe happened in the area now known as El Salvador, as the Loma Caldera volcano erupted around A.D. 630. Villagers had barely enough time to flee, and everything left behind was perfectly preserved in volcanic ash. But what was a tragedy at the time is now a magnificent window into the everyday life of Maya commoners and one of the coolest things to see in El Salvador — perhaps even all of Central America.
The pre-eruption steam mixed with volcanic ash created a sticky substance that froze an entire Mesoamerican farming community — and their supper — in time.
A tour guide will walk you through the site where you’ll see rooms that once served as kitchens, bedrooms and a steam room known as a temescal. The preservation is so extensive and significant that in 1993, Joya de Cerén was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. “It’s a real-time capsule of extraordinary scientific value,” says Mauro Rosi, chief of the Latin America and Caribbean unit of the World Heritage Centre. “It helps us better understand the links between the past and the present.”
Cerén was discovered entirely by accident. As grain-storage silos were constructed in 1976, one of the clay houses buried underground was unearthed by a bulldozer. Two years later, anthropologist Payton Sheets was on an archaeological survey in the country when a local man mentioned the uncovered buildings. After visiting the site and discovering a thatch roof still intact, Sheets, a professor at the University of Colorado, figured the house couldn’t be more than a century old since thatch is usually replaced every 20 years or so due to the hot, humid weather in the region. However, radiocarbon dating showed that it was 1,400 years old. This was an incredible find because it “really shows the richness and sophistication of the lives of Maya commoners” he says, whereas before this discovery, information was mainly about the Maya elite.
But it’s not just architecture that’s been preserved here. You’ll also see beans, garden tools, sleeping mats and animal remains — items that would rapidly deteriorate in El Salvador’s hot, humid climate under normal circumstances. Food items were preserved, says Sheets, because the eruption likely happened around dinner time: the pre-eruption steam mixed with volcanic ash created a sticky substance that froze an entire Mesoamerican farming community — and their supper — in time.
For the best experience of Joya de Cerén, take a tour. Without a guide, “you won’t be able to appreciate the significance of each structure nor the way of life that was predominant at that time,” says Sandy Novak of Seattle, who recently visited the ruins and was particularly impressed by the 1:1 replica of the original temescal sweat lodge. “You can crawl inside to a surprisingly large space,” she says, which fits up to 12 people. You can also see maize crops, an herb garden and guava and cacao trees, all still intact. There’s plenty of live flowers and vegetation to take in as you stroll through the site.
And it’s a safe place to visit, Sheets notes. The entire site is fenced in and guarded. Plus the indoor museum is air-conditioned for a little relief from the Central American humidity. But be sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray and plenty of water, Novak advises. “It gets pretty darn hot under the protective canopies covering the ruins.”
As more and more of the site is unearthed, there will likely be further revealing stuck-in-time moments of early Maya common life available for visitors to marvel at. “Cerén never ceases to surprise me,” says Sheets, who plans to go back to study his ancient Maya village in 2019.
- Hours: Open Tuesday–Sunday from 8 a.m–4 p.m.
- Cost: $1 for locals, $3 for foreigners. Book tours in advance for $35–$45.
- Pro Tip: Go during dry season (November and April) to avoid downpours and stifling heat in summer months.
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