Joya de Ceren, El Salvador – preserved beneath metres of ash, just like Pompeii 2

I haven’t been to the real Pompeii, so I can’t speak of it with any certainty, but I suspect the archaeological site of Joya de Ceren, in Central El Salvador, is somewhat slighter in scale and less momentous than the original. So if you’re thinking of visiting the site in El Salvador (and you aren’t an archaeologist) then it’s probably best you curb your excitement, as Joya de Ceren isn’t replete with jaw-dropping sights and scenes.

Be ready instead to witness the squashed remains of a perfectly ordinary, bucolic, Mesoamerican village.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

The squashed remains of the village of Joya de Ceren. Photo credits: Benjamin White

Joya de Ceren

Joya de Ceren, like Pompeii, was preserved beneath mountains of ash, layered four to eight metres deep, deposited by volcanic eruption sometime around 640 CE.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

The ruins of Joya de Ceren. The ash is up to 8m deep. Photo credit: Benjamin White

It wasn’t a particularly big city. It wasn’t a particularly important city. In fact, Joya de Ceren was entirely mundane. The people who lived there weren’t kings or queens. They were just normal folk, going about their business, when one day, out of the blue, there was a bone-shaking explosion, and day turned to night.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Perhaps it wasn’t a normal day, perhaps the village-folk were already on edge. There might have been warning signs from the volcano: ominous rumblings, smaller eruptions. If they were caught unawares, then it seems the villagers understood the risks perfectly, and fled immediately.

No human bodies have been found in the ruins of Joya de Ceren (unlike in Pompeii).

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Ceramic recovered from Joya de Ceren. Photo credit: Benjamin White

We know people still lived in Joya de Ceren when the eruption occurred, and that they left in somewhat of a hurry, as many of their valuable household possessions were left behind. The archaeological investigations have recovered incense burners, spindle whorls, grinding stones, ceramics, bottles, and all sorts of agricultural products. They even found the remains of a duck still tied to a post.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The volcanic eruptions lasted many days. Joya de Ceren was buried beneath metres of ash. And it remained that way, completely undisturbed, for 14 centuries.

Then one day, in 1976, a construction worker unearthed some rather strange finds. The construction project he was working on stopped. An archaeological investigation was commenced.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

The remains of the shaman’s (or shawoman’s) hut. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Structures of interest in the village include a shaman’s hut (or shawoman’s hut – it’s thought that this role might have been fulfilled by a woman), where fortunes were foretold and traditional medicines practised.

There was also a sweat house, which functioned in more or less the same way as a modern-day sauna.

Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

The remains of the sweat house. Photo credit: Benjamin White

You won’t find any sights at Joya de Ceren to rival those of Pompeii.

What you will find is a small, perfectly-ordinary, 7th Century Mesoamerican village, which in spite of its mundane nature and appearance, is utterly fascinating.

Practical information on reaching Joya de Ceren:

Joya de Ceren can be reached as a day trip from San Salvador. There is a direct bus that can drop you right at the entrance to the site. The bus trip takes about one and a half hours. More transport info here.

Read more on the Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on El Salvador:

San Salvador – worth a visit?

More on the Mayan Empire:

Chichen Itza, Mexico – posterchild of the Mayan Empire

Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, Mexico – built overnight by a superhuman dwarf

Copán, Honduras cashed up Mayan outpost builds Hieroglyphic Stairway

Ek’ Balam and X’ Canche, Mexico – the perfect Mayan ruins / cenote combo

Tikal, Guatemala – Mayan ruins and… the Millennium Falcon?

More on Central America:

Costa Rica:

Cahuita NP – toucans, agoutis, capuchins, howlers, and idyllic beaches 

Tenorio Volcano NP – how blue is Río Celeste in the wet season?


Guatemala City – colonial capital that offers tourists… fresh goat’s milk?

Semuc Champey – long way to go to see a waterfall. Is it worth the effort?


Macaw Mountain – toucans, toucanets, aracaris, and… macaws

Lago de Yojoa – dangerous? no! sleepy, serene, safe? yes!

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2 thoughts on “Joya de Ceren, El Salvador – preserved beneath metres of ash, just like Pompeii

  • Karen White

    Still looks an interesting place to visit. Maybe it’s good that there aren’t any bodies – maybe they all got away – hopefully!!

    • Benjamin White Post author

      I remember reading that the site would have been covered in ash in just a few hours, and the sky would have been black, the air full of soot, so getting away would have been difficult, especially for the elderly or physically impaired. But it seems they managed it.