Did you know that you can actually start your Mayan discoveries right here in Cancun and then venture further afield to Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba and all the other majestic ancient cities scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula and southeast Mexico? Cancun is one of the gateways to the Maya World and it has its own slice of Mayan heritage. Several small archaeological sites lie in the midst of ultramodern resorts and even the name Cancun has its roots in the Mayan language. Although there are different interpretations of the ancient meaning of the word “Cancun,” the most widely accepted is that it means “nest of serpents.”
Archaeologists have discovered that the Cancun area was first inhabited in the Late Pre-Classic period, from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100, with a second spell of activity associated with maritime trade in the Post-Classic period A.D. 900 to 1520. A chain of archaeological sites headed by El Rey dots Cancun Hotel Zone and there is another cluster of ancient temples at El Meco, along the coast road between Puerto Juarez and Punta Sam. In the last couple of years, archaeologists have also found vestiges of Mayan settlement in areas where new residential projects are springing up on the outskirts of Cancun.
Begin your Maya morning in Cancun with a visit to the Maya Museum and go on to El Rey and El Meco.
Ancient and Modern in Cancun Hotel Zone
Cancun Maya Museum
Inaugurated in November 2012, the Cancun Maya Museum provides a fascinating introduction to the ancient Maya civilization and has become a must-see for visitors and local people alike. Located in the Hotel Zone at Kilometer 16.5 of Kukulcan Boulevard opposite Captain’s Cove restaurant, it lies next to San Miguelito, a cluster of ancient Mayan buildings hidden in the forest. Admission to the museum also includes entry to the archaeological site.
The Museum has three galleries: the first is dedicated to the Maya of the state of Quintana Roo, the second to the Maya World and important aspects of the ancient culture and the third is used for seasonal exhibitions featuring artifacts on loan from other museums in Mexico.
The tour of the Quintana Roo gallery begins with exhibits on the region’s earliest inhabitants, thousands of years before the Maya. It features a video representation of what life must have been like for nomads like the Woman of Naharon whose 14,000-year-old skeleton was found in a flooded cave in the Tulum area. This prehistoric find, and others like it are forcing experts to rethink their ideas on how and when the Americas were first settled. The next displays include artifacts unearthed during excavations of the earliest settlements in the state that date from the pre-Classic period of Maya history and more sophisticated ceramics, jade, stelae and other treasures from major city states such as Cobá, Dzibanche and Kohunlich. The ports of Tulum, Pole and Cozumel, which played an important role in Mayan trade, are also represented. There are also exhibits of household goods, incense burners, figurines of deities and animals and objects dating from the Colonial period and the 19th century Caste War.
The second gallery is dedicated to aspects of Mayan civilization, such as art and architectural styles, religion, the measurement of time, hieroglyphic writing, agriculture, trade and links with other Mesoamerican cultures. It features exhibits of sculptures, ceramics, masks and jewelry from archaeological sites in the neighboring states of Yucatán and Campeche and further afield in Chiapas and Tabasco.
The Museo Maya de Cancún is the latest museum in the INAH (Mexican Institute of Anthropology & History) museum network and was designed by leading Mexican architect, Alberto García Lascurain. Dutch artist Jan Hendrix created the sculpture of the Mayan jungle on the esplanade.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday. Admission is currently $59 pesos per person and includes entry to the San Miguelito archaeological site. There is a bookshop and café on the premises.
Located in the forest next to the new Cancun Maya Museum and in front of The Royal Caribbean and The Royal Islander, San Miguelito dates from A.D. 1250-1550 and is comprised of four clusters of stone platforms that would have been crowned by palm thatched huts, the ruins of palaces and a temple with traces of the original decoration. A small pyramid at the site is thought to be associated with the larger site of El Rey nearby.
As you look up at the concrete towers and glittering glass pyramids of resorts in the Cancun Hotel Zone, it is difficult to imagine what the island must have looked like in ancient times. Yet there’s one spot where you can spend a couple of hours in solitude listening to the birds, with the sound of traffic muted to a distant hum, and think about the area’s long-lost inhabitants and their sophisticated culture. The place is called El Rey or Ruinas El Rey and it is the name given to a cluster of temples in a forest clearing looking out over the lagoon.
Located on the shores of Nichupte Lagoon next to the Iberostar Cancun Golf Club, El Rey is the largest of the island’s Mayan sites. Archaeologists believe that it may have been settled as early as 300 B.C. and they have found evidence of small stone platforms that were once crowned with thatched wooden huts. In the centuries that followed, the inhabitants of this tiny community would have grown their own corn and other subsistence crops and earned their livelihood from fishing and salt making, commodities that they traded with Mayan communities inland.
With a strategic location on the Caribbean coast, El Rey reached its peak as a trade center from AD 1200 and 1350. The site was abandoned with the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century.
There are 47 buildings at El Rey, including temples, meeting halls and residences for the ruler and his court that are clustered around two plazas and along a sacbe or ancient path. The most important structure is a temple known as Building 2, where excavations unearthed the tomb of a nobleman surrounded by grave goods including a copper axe, bracelets and carved shell and bone jewelry.
Traces of ancient murals are still visible on the walls inside some of the lesser temples and palaces.
The name “El Rey” refers to a stone and stucco head with a carved headdress which was found at the site and is thought to be that of an ancient leader or priest.
Start your Mayan discoveries at El Rey and during your visit keep a look out for bright orange orioles, flycatchers, hummingbirds, doves and parrots and for herons and egrets in the surrounding mangroves. The colonies of iguanas invariably spotted sunbathing on the rocks or nibbling on the white fruit of the cordia or ciricote tree are an added attraction for visitors who cannot resist taking their photos.
Other Mayan Sites in the Hotel Zone
Located opposite La Isla Shopping mall and between two resorts, Yamil Lu’um is a small temple overlooking the Caribbean. There are also several tiny Mayan shrines on the Cancun Golf Course and its original name, and that of the adjacent residential area, is an allusion to the ancient culture, as Pok-Ta-Pok means “ball game” in Maya.
Elsewhere in Cancun: El Meco
The largest archaeological site found to date in the Cancun area is El Meco. This site lies just to the west of the coast road between Puerto Juarez and Punta Sam, a 10-minute drive north of Downtown Cancun.
El Meco dates from A.D. 300 and the evidence found at the site indicates that the earliest inhabitants were fishermen. The site was later abandoned and was resettled in the 11th century. This second wave of settlers engaged in trade, taking advantage of the coastal location and the Caribbean maritime route, and El Meco prospered during the post-Classic period, which ended with the Spanish Conquest in 1521.
Archaeologists believe that El Meco was also a religious center and was associated with the shrines on the nearby island of Isla Mujeres, which like their most famous counterparts on Cozumel, honored Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility.
To date, 14 buildings have been restored at El Meco, the most important of which is known as El Castillo. The tallest Mayan temple in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres area, it is noteworthy for its staircase bordered by the carved heads of serpents and offers impressive views of the Caribbean and the Chachmochchuc lagoon. Other structures in the ceremonial plaza include lesser temples, a shrine and civic buildings.
While El Meco can be visited in an hour, it is a lovely spot to linger in the warm sun, watch the birds and iguanas and enjoy the view.
Preliminary studies of the shoreline on the other side of the highway revealed evidence of residential areas and the ancient harbor, but the area has not been excavated yet and is closed to the public.
If you liked this article you’ll enjoy reading our other articles about Mayan archaeological sites in the states of Quintana Roo and the Yucatan.