Nestled in the dense forest of the Biotopo San Miguel la Palotada in the foothills of the Buenavista escarpment, the Maya archaeological site of El Zotz features pyramids, palaces, plazas, and a ball court. Occupied from the Preclassic to the Early Postclassic period of Maya civilization, the most spectacular constructions date to the Early Classic and include the acropolis known as El Diablo, which incorporates a temple richly adorned with stucco reliefs and polychromy. El Zotz, the Mayan word for bat, is also known for one of the very few carved wooden lintels, with hieroglyphic text, to have survived from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
A preserve for several endangered species, the Biotopo is under acute threat from agriculture, poaching, forest-fires, and illegal extraction of non-timber forest products; all of these activities impact the archaeological resources as well. Deforestation and looting pose constant challenges, a pyramid is in danger of collapse from unstable trees, and the progressive erosion in a looters’ trench is damaging the stucco façades of structures within El Diablo. Many tourists visit El Zotz as part of eco-tours to Tikal, which is nearby and was the city’s historic rival. Such ecotourism, which is operated by guides from the local community, presents an important opportunity for enhanced and integrated stewardship of the archaeological and natural resources. El Zotz thus has the potential to serve as a model for promoting conservation and community engagement, and for ensuring the protection of this important piece of Guatemala’s cultural heritage for generations to come.