Quiriguá is a small yet important Maya archaeological site, located just off the Carretera al Atlántico some 94km (58 miles) from Puerto Barrios. Set close to the banks of the Motagua River, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was predominantly a trading city with close ties to Copán. The Late Classic city thrived from A.D. 692 to 900, during which Quiriguá's greatest leader, Cauac Sky (A.D. 724-784), reigned. Quiriguá was visited in 1841 by John L. Stephens, who tried to buy the site for as much as he'd paid for Copán. In the end he failed, or was too cheap, and the site was purchased by the United Fruit Company in 1910. The company built banana plantations everywhere, but fortunately spared and protected the area's Maya ruins.
To get to Quiriguá, take the well-marked exit off the Carretera al Atlántico, 1.5km (1 mile) east of the town of Los Amates. From here, it's another 3km (2 miles) on a well-graded dirt road, through working banana plantations, to the park's entrance.
When you enter Quiriguá, your first stop should be the small museum and visitor center, which features some historical information, photos, and a scale model of the site. Even though all of the written material is in Spanish, the displays will help you get a grasp of the content. The main attraction at Quiriguá is its massive carved stelae. The tallest of these, and in the Maya world, is stela E, which is more than 10m (35 ft.) tall and weighs more than 65 tons. In addition to the stelae, there are massive carved stones in various shapes including frogs, serpents, turtles, and mythical beasts, all covered with hieroglyphs. Most of the stelae are found in Quiriguá's Great Plaza, which is surrounded by low temple buildings. At the north end of the Great Plaza lies the Acropolis, which occupies the highest ground on the site and offers a good panoramic view of the plaza and surrounding forests. Note: Because of the landscape, bird-watching is excellent, but it also means that mosquitoes are a problem, so bring repellent.
Most of Quiriguá's stelae were erected during the reign of Cauac Sky, and his face graces seven of the nine carved stelae at the site. In A.D. 738, Cauac Sky apparently conquered Copán, captured King 18 Rabbit, and had him decapitated in the Great Plaza. This event is depicted on zoomorph G. After this victory, Quiriguá began converting itself from a vassal trade city into a more classic ceremonial center. Grand new stelae were erected on the Great Plaza roughly every 5 years, beginning in A.D. 751 and continuing on until A.D. 806.
While Quiriguá's stelae and zoomorphic stones are somewhat protected under tall thatch roofs, many have already been severely damaged by the ravages of time, and, more recently, by graffiti.
Quiriguá is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm; admission is Q30 ($4/£2). You can easily tour the whole site in a couple of hours or less. If you end up needing to spend the night near Quiriguá, check into the Hotel Royal (tel. 502/7947-3639).