The Izapa Ruins: Home of the Mayan Calendar, a Rarely Visited Olmec-Maya Site near Tapachula, Mexico

Izapa: Home of the Mayan Calendar

Tired of waiting in line with hundreds of tourists, and then having only a few minutes to observe a pyramid or monument before the next tour group pushes you out of the way? Then take a tour of the Izapa ruins near Tapachula, Mexico.

One thing that makes Izapa special is that few tourists visit this site. It is likely that you will have the place to yourself for hours, especially if arriving in the morning. And it's a short trip from Tapachula, Mexico, where artfacts and stela are exhibited in the museum.

Older than Tikal

Inhabited since 1200 BC, the ruins of Izapa predate Tikal and other well-known sites. Many Mayanologists consider it the place where the 260-day Sacred Calendar and the 5,125-year Long Count Calendar were devised, and some think the haab, or 365-day Solar Calendar, was also developed here -- making Izapa one of the most important sites of ancient Mesoamerica.

It consists of three areas: Groups F, A and B. Group F is a modest site with several small pyramids, and several altars, monuments and stelae. There is a ball court, a giant stone snake head and an unusual stone turtle head with magnetic properties.

Izapa's Sacred Ball Court

The ceremonial ball court, built on an east-west axis, is aligned with the rising sun on winter solstice, December 21, every year.
According to John Major Jenkins in Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, the ball court was used for initiation and other rites. Throne 2, a large round stone at the south end, is where an initiate would sit and partake of various sacred substances.

Then, says Jenkins, he would be guided through the court to Stela 60 at the north end, which was deemed a portal to the Otherworld, which the initiate would enter to achieve ultimate enlightenment and knowledge of the cosmos.

At the far north end of the site, in the direction of Volcan Tacana, a tall gnomon stands before the largest but not fully restored pyramid on the site. This was used to determine the date of the solar zenith, as it would cast no shadow when the sun was directly overhead.

gnomon zenith passage izapa mayan olmec calendar

Zelia Nutall and Vincent Malstrom have proposed that the 260-day Sacred Calendar was based on the 260-day interval between solar zenith passages on May 1 and August 12 at Izapa. This was in 1359 BC, according to Malstrom.

Magnetic Stone Head

Another important discovery was made here in 1975. A giant stone turtle head , was found to possess magnetic properties that convert into a huge bar magnet. When a compass is held in front of the nose, the needle moves from north to point due west. It has the opposite effect when held at the back of the head. A third magnetic field is found below the right eye. It has been determined that these are due to magnetite inside the stone, not to plugs inserted artificially. The sculptor, aware of the magnetite, carved the head around them.

mayan stone head olmec magnetic turtle

Why? Something that floated in a bowl of water on top of the head, it acts like the needle of a compass. Interestingly, sea turtles are known for their unerring homing instincts as they cross vast bodies of water to lay eggs in specific places. A magnetic bar has also been found in the region.

The Izapans are known to have established sea routes for trade as far as Ecuador. But the head is far too big to use on a ship. Perhaps the head was used as a model for making smaller ones, or to preserve the knowledge of how to make a compass.

Stelae at Groups A and B

Izapa was originally an Olmec site, but gradually transitioned into a Mayan city where the calendars and esoteric spiritual secrets were developed and taught. The teaching took place at Groups A and B, where rectangular stelae record various myths such as the fall of 7 Macaw, who represented the polar god as told in the Popul Vuh of the Ki'che' Maya.

Most of the stelae have been worn smooth by rain and are impossible to make out. But Stela 11, though worn, is worth the trek to Group B. In Group A, Stela 5 reveals another key message, depicted the world tree and other elements of the Mesoamerican creation myth. There are also several gnomons at one of these groups, and unexcavated pyramids as well.

Where are the Izapa Ruins?

Izapa lies fifteen minutes outside Tapachula, Mexico, in the Conocusco region in the country's far southwest corner. Tapachula is a half-hour north of the Guatemalan border. Takalik Abaj, another transitional culture a few hours farther south, is now thought by some archaeologists to have contributed to the development of Mayan cosmovision and the calendrical system.

Tapachula is eight hours from San Cristobal de las Casas, the jumping off point for Palenque, Tonina and sites around the Usamacinta River, such as Bonampak. Both Tapachula and las Casas are big, modern cities, though the latter has Colonial architecture and sees many more foreign tourists than Tapachula.

Group F can be explored in an hour. Add two more hours for Groups A and B. Some of the most important finds at Izapa are in the museum at Tapachula's zocalo. In addition to stone carvings, a turquoise-covered skull and other artifacts are on display. This museum is well worth a visit before heading off to the ruins.

What to Bring: bug spray, water, sunscreen, compass. To get the most from the experience, read Jenkin's Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, which focuses on Izapa as a ceremonial and spiritual center and illustrates and interprets the stelae and monument.

How to Get There: A taxi from Tapachula to Izapa costs 100-130 pesos and drops you off at Group F. It take a half-hour to walk to the other sites, though the hike through the sub-tropical forest is enjoyable.

For only 15 pesos, you can take a colectivo to Izapa. These leave from the main terminal two blocks form the zocalo, or main park, in Tapachula. You can get directions at the tourism office across from the church. To return, wait on the same side of the road as the entrance to Group F for a colectivo.

Guided tours are available at Tapachula travel agencies, but there are no guides on the site. Entrance is free.

Mexico Tours, Vacations and Travel Packages to the Mayan Ruins and Pyramids in 2012-2013