In the second in our series of articles on the Maya World, we showcase the ancient cities in southern Quintana Roo. This area of jungles and wetlands had over one million inhabitants during the Mayan Classic period. To put this in perspective, the population estimate for the entire state in 2011 was in the region of 1,400,000 people! For those who like going off the beaten track, a visit to the archaeological sites in the area surrounding the state capital Chetumal also offer the chance to see toucans, spider and howler monkeys and other forest creatures.
From Tulum take Highway 307 bound for Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Bacalar and Chetumal. There are hotels in Bacalar and Chetumal.
A 20-minute drive south of Tulum, Muyil (also known as Chunyaxche) is located on the shores of a lagoon with the same name and is the largest of the 23 archaeological sites found to date in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
In ancient times Muyil was a trade enclave with links to cities deep in the Yucatan and ports along the Caribbean coast and in Central America. The Maya dredged and widened a natural canal running through the wetlands between the city and the sea to create a trade route for their canoes.
Climb the waterfront observation tower for a spectacular view of the jungle and the lagoons of northern Sian Ka’an.
Continue along Highway 307 and Chacchoben is the next archaeological site on the list, well to the south of the historic town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and only 85 kilometers from Chetumal. Look for the turn-off marked “Chacchoben” near the village of Limones.
Chacchoben, which means “red corn” in Maya, is the largest archaeological site found to date in central Quintana Roo. The buildings known as the Great Acropolis, the Vias and Group II have been restored and work is continuing at the site. Ceramic incense burners and traces of glyphs associated with time keeping, planets and the equinoxes and solstices point to its importance as a ceremonial center.
Archaeologists have discovered that Chacchoben was inhabited from around A.D. 200 and reached its peak in A.D. 700. It was abandoned and later resettled during the Post-Classic period. By studying the architectural style they deduced that it had links with cities in the Peten region of northern Guatemala.
Located on the shores of Chetumal Bay, 16 kilometers to the north of the state capital, the archaeological site of Oxtankah has temples dating from A.D 200-600 and much simpler later buildings built around AD 1000. The ruins of a Spanish chapel built some time during the 16th or 17th century, also lie at the site.
The most famous archaeological site in southern Quintana Roo, Kohunlich was first reported in 1912 by Raymond Merwin, who called it Clarksville in reference to a nearby logging camp. The name “Kohunlich” is derived from the English words “cohune,”a native palm tree,and “ridge” and you can see cohune palms growing in the jungle surrounding the ruins.
Excavation work has revealed that the city was founded around 200 B.C. and reached its peak during the Classic period of Mayan history (A.D. 200 – 1000). Building work appears to have ceased around 1200.
Kohunlich is famous for the huge stucco masks that flank the staircase of the Temple of the Masks. Archaeologists believe that they depict the city’s rulers who chose to identify themselves with the sun god, Kinich Ahau, to legitimize their rule. Jaguar figures appear above and below the faces: the lower one symbolizes the nocturnal sun during its journey through the underworld, while the upper one is linked to the diurnal sun. Other important groups of buildings are the Acropolis, the Courtyard of the Stelae, the Palace of the King, Merwin Plaza and the elite residential areas known as the 27 Steps Complex and Pixa’an.
Take Highway 186 west from Chetumal for 60 kilometers, the turn-off for the archaeological site is signposted. Follow the signs for another 9 km through the village of Francisco Villa. There is a hotel at the site.
In southern Quintana Roo, Dzibanche is an ancient city that is still revealing its secrets. Discovered in 1927 by Thomas Gann, Dzibanche means “writing on wood” in Maya, a reference to the calendar inscriptions found on the carved lintel of zapote wood above the doorway to Temple VI.
Experts believe that Dzibanche was the largest and most important city in the south in ancient times and may have been involved in a power struggle with other city-states in the region such as Calakmul in Campeche. The city reached its peak between A.D. 300 and 1200.
The archaeological site covers an area of 40 square kilometers and apart from the groups of temples, palaces and plazas; there are traces of ancient terraced fields and irrigation ditches, agricultural innovations which enabled farmers to raise crop yields to feed the city’s growing population.
The most important groups of buildings are the Temple of the Lintels; the Gann Plaza, which is flanked by the Temples of the Cormorants, Captives and Toucans; Xibalba Plaza, the site of the Temple of the Owl and the North and South Palaces.
An outlying district of the city, Kinichna (“House of the Sun” in Maya) is located about two kilometers north of Dzibanche and is dominated by a temple called the Acropolis.
The tombs of a man and a woman were discovered in burial chambers deep inside the Temple of the Owl (Temple I) and the Cormorants (Temple II), respectively. The quality of the offerings of pottery and jade found with them indicates that they were members of the ruling class. A polychrome incense burner with the face of an owl on the lid led to Temple I being renamed Temple of the Owl.
Dzibanche is 81 kilometers northwest of Chetumal. Take Highway 186 to the Morocoy turn-off at Km 58. Morocoy is 14 kilometers from the main road, continue for a further two kilometers on the road to San Pedro Peralta and then turn left when you see the signpost to Dzibanche, it’s a further seven kilometers to the site on a dirt track.
Thomas More Travel can assist members who want to go off the beaten track with private trips to destinations such as southern Quintana Roo.