The site contains a number of temple-pyramids and governmental palaces around a series of plazas, and a ballcourt for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. The site was originally fortified with walls.
The site is open for tourist visits and has a small museum.
Zaculeu is the K'iche' language translation of the Mam name for the settlement: Saq = white and Ch'och' = land (Zac Tz'otz). The K'iche' name was applied when K'iche' men conscripted by Alvarado participated in the siege of Zac Tz'otz'.
Zaculeu was first occupied in the Early Classic Period, and the buildings from this era show the influence of Teotihuacán. The largest constructions date from the Classic Era. To these were added other plaza groups and buildings in the early and Late Postclassic in an unbroken history. Zaculeu has been used as a ceremonial site by Mam Maya continuously to the present.
The K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj conquered Zaculeu around 1450, and the city remained under K'iche' dominance until the Spanish Conquest. At the time of the Spanish invasion, the main population was situated in Xinabahul, also spelt Chinabjul, now the city of Huehuetenango, but Zaculeu's fortifications led to its use as a refuge during the conquest.
The refuge was attacked by Gonzalo de Alvarado y Chávez, cousin of Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, in 1525, with 40 horsemen, 80 Spanish footsoldiers, and some 2,000 native allies from central Mexico. The city was defended by the Mam king Kayb'il B'alam commanding some 5,000 (the chronicles are not clear if this is the number of soldiers or the total population of Zaculeu).
After a siege lasting several months the Mam were reduced to starvation and finally surrendered to the Spanish. After this Zaculeu was abandoned, and the new city of Huehuetenango established some 5 km away.
In the late 1940s the United Fruit Company sponsored archeological excavations and restorations of the structures. The later included recoating a number of the buildings with white plaster, as it was known that many were originally, but this has seldom been redone in restoring Pre-Columbian buildings.