The only World Heritage site in the country, Joya de Cerén is firmly on my list of places to see in El Salvador. On my way east from the Ruta de las Flores, I calculate I can visit it to break the journey in two. So I get off the San Salvador-bound bus at a roundabout, walk to bus 108, and around fifteen minutes later, I get off at the bus stop of the small village of Joya de Cerén. No one would have ever heard of this settlement, if a bulldozer driver would not have hit a wall of what turned out to be a Mayan settlement. Several decades later, Joya de Cerén is a Unesco World Heritage site, and excavations still go on. Loma Caldera, a volcano close to Joya de Cerén, erupted around 600 CE. It covered the village, and the buildings remained well protected against weather influences until they rose from the ashes again after 1976.
Joya de Cerén is dubbed the Pompei of the Americas because, just like Pompei itself, it was covered by a volcanic eruption which allows us to have a look at daily life many centuries ago. Before it was smothered by the Loma Caldera eruption, a much bigger eruption of mighty Ilopango volcano had caused a large area to be covered by volcanic ash. When things had settled down, people settled again, and Joya de Cerén is one of those settlements. After leaving my bag at the entrance building, I start by exploring the little museum which has replicas of pottery, models of houses, and pictures with bilingual explanations of the site. It makes me even more curious than before, so I quickly walk off to the three excavation sites that are currently open for visitors. They are covered by roofs to protect them against rain. When I look down into the first pit, I am amazed by the depth of it, and realize that I am standing on a thick layer of volcanic ash myself.
What I see here are the ruins of a storehouse and a communal house. The layers of deposits of various volcanic eruptions can also clearly be seen, and each layer can be attributed to the originating volcano. The next area has a temascal, a traditional steam bath, and another storehouse. The temascal is a square building with a dome; the middle of it was destroyed by a large stone spewed out by Loma Caldera. The inhabitants of Joya de Cerén knew that an eruption was coming: no human remains have been found at the site. But a lot of other remains have been found: utensils, artefacts, skeletons of small animals, food, thatched roofs. Area 1 turns out to be closed, but a friendly guide takes me in, and explains that this is the only area where we can see the normal residential constellation of a house, a kitchen, and a temascal. Next to them, we see a communal kitchen which was used for festivities, and another building which had a religious function. Currently, ten structures have been excavated. According to my guide, radar technology has revealed that there would be around 100 structures, most of them still hidden deep down in the earth. Given that the excavation of one structure takes years because it has to be done manually, a lot of work still remains to be done to uncover Joya de Cerén and give us the full picture. I cannot help but think how many other settlements must still linger deep down in the volcanic ashes in this part of the world.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Joya de Cerén (El Salvador). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Joya de Cerén. Read more about this site.