Santa Cruz del Quiché (or Quiché) is a town about 15 miles north of Chichicastenango situated in the western highlands of Guatemala at an altitude of 6,600 feet above sea level. The town is the capital of the El Quiché region of Guatemala and serves as a great base for exploring the traditional villages in and around the region’s hills.
Santa Cruz del Quiché was founded around 1524 by the Spanish Conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, who was second in command to the famous Hernán Cortés. After Pedro de Alvarado burned down the Maya capital of Gumarcaj (or Kumarcaaj), he relocated its residents and rulers to the new town of Santa Cruz del Quiché. The living conditions in Santa Cruz del Quiché at the time were so poor that many of the Mayans moved to Chichicastenango; the migrations helped Chichicastenango soon surpass Santa Cruz del Quiché in size and importance.
Today, Santa Cruz del Quiché’s main attraction is its large white cathedral with its elegant clock tower, located on the east side of the town’s central plaza (or Parque Central). The church is particularly notable because it was constructed by enslaved Dominicans using the stones taken from the Maya temples of Gumarcaj, which was an ancient city the Spanish destroyed in 1524.
Of course, the archaeological ruins of Gumarcaj are a tourist attraction in and of itself. This ancient capital of the Quiché kingdom is not far from Santa Cruz del Quiché, located just to north of the town. It can be reached by taxi or a pleasant but long 2-mile walk. Gumarcaj was known as Utatlan before the Spanish invaded it. Situated on a hilltop surrounded by ravines, Gumarcaj was founded around 1400AD as defense post favored for its geographically strategic position. When Aldvarado conquered the city in 1524, he ordered it burned. After Gumarcaj’s destruction, its ruins were mined to build Santa Cruz del Quiché. Even up until the late 19th century, the stones from Gumarcaj continued to be quarried off by scavengers looking for construction material. Today, Gumarcaj is a shadow of its former self, its buildings having suffered extensive damage. While archaeological excavations have been made in the 20th century, there have been no attempts by archaeologists and authorities to restore the ancient structures. Even so, there are still temple pyramids, palace remains, and a Mesoamerican ball court left for visitors to admire. The ruined temples are also still in use today, employed by many locals to perform Maya rituals.