Xcaret – Quintana Roo – Mexico



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Xcaret – Quintana Roo


This is situated on the coast, on a steep cliff composed of a fossil reef overlooking a tiny cove which in ancient times may well have been a port and shelter for sailing vessels. Nowadays, the archaeological site has been absorbed into a theme park. From Cancun, take federal 307 to Tulum in the south and the turn-off to Xcaret is 7 km after the town of Playa del Carmen. The archaeological area is inside the Xcaret Park.

History of the explorations

Herbert Spinden and Gregory Mason first reported the site in 1926. In the 1940s, the explorer and photographer Loring M. Hewen visited Xcaret accompanied by the archaeologist E. W. Andrews IV. The latter returned in 1956 to undertake research at the site. In the 1970s, Anthony P. Andrews continued and supplemented the work begun by his father. In the 1980s and 1990s, Maria Jose Con Uribe of the INAH led a new research project at Xcaret aimed at delimiting and mapping the site, as well as excavating and consolidating the buildings. Nowadays, Xcaret has been transformed into a theme park incorporating the archaeological area.

Pre-Hispanic history

We do not know the origin or meaning of the name Xcaret, but we do know that in pre-Hispanic and colonial times it was called P’ole, derived from the root p’oi, meaning merchandise, dealings and contract with traders. The Chilam Balam de Chumayel refers to Pole as the first point where the Izta stopped en route to Chichen Itza. It is also referred to as the point of departure for pilgrimages to worship the goddess Ixchel on the island of Cozumel. The present-day name would appear to be a corruption of the Spanish word caleta, meaning cove.

The earliest human settlement dates back to the Late Preclassic, denoted by a few ceramic fragments and several low platforms. At that time, there were various fishing villages and farming communities along the coast. A population increase appears to have occurred in the Late Classic, although the site experienced its heyday in the Postclassic. The architecture of the large platforms with rounded corners, combined with the presence of ceramic traditions from the north of the peninsula, suggest a cultural development highly typical of coastal sites. Meanwhile, the presence of various types of polychromy and objects of jade, obsidian and quartz indicate close ties with sites in the central Maya area, such as the Guatemalan uplands. Although the site was relatively insignificant during the Classic period, it nevertheless shows a well developed political, economic and social organisation.

The population increase occurred in the Postclassic, when like other sites along the coast the city gained in importance, principally by trading marine resources and taking advantage of the circumpeninsular trade network stretching as far as Honduras. Due its situation opposite the Island of Cozumel, Pole became the principal port of departure for the numerous pilgrims who sailed across the sea in canoes to the famous shrine dedicated to the goddess Ixchel. During the early years of the colonial period, it remained an important port of entry and departure between the mainland and Cozumel. The runs of a small 16thcentury church date from this time.

Site description

The settlement adopts a linear layout along the coast, forming groups of buildings and isolated temples on the sea shore. A wall runs parallel to the coast, separating or protecting most of these groups. The residences are situated around the site.

Group A.

This is situated on a rocky promontory at one side of the cove, near a cenote and protected by the wall that separates it from the sea. The only entrance in the wall is situated at this point. The group consists of ten structures, nine on an artificial platform forming a plaza, and the tenth at a lower level. The constructions have a religious function and must have originally been decorated inside with bright colours and symbolic scenes. Some temples contain altars for offerings or figurines. The platform supporting the twin temples corresponds to the Classic period, which is distinguished by finer stonework and rounded corners. The remainder of the constructions in this group date from the Postclassic.

Group B.

This comprises large, low platforms which form plazas and once supported wood and palm constructions. The most outstanding element of the group is Building B-3, which is composed of three inter-connecting rooms once covered by a vaulted roof. Adjoining this building is a small temple, B-2, from the Postclassic period. The remainder of the platforms, all with rounded corners, correspond to the Classic period and were used for civic and religious activities. Some of them were also used as burials for high-ranking dignitaries. The most common forms of burial were to place the individual directly in the ground or inside rudimentary cists. In most cases the individual were laid down with a plate over their faces and some form of offering. More often than not, the skulls had been subjected to cranial deformation and the teeth sawn to points. Most of the burials date from the Late Classic and a few from the Postclassic.

Group C.

This comprises low platforms, two of which were once surmounted by masonry temples. Two constructions share the same platform; one has two bays and a colonnaded entrance. Four structures connected by a low wall form a closed precinct around an altar. Some structures show at least two construction phases and functions, being used initially as a dwelling and then as a burial. The structure at the north end of the group contained the tomb of several individuals and an offering comprising ceramic vessels. The entire group seems to have been built and used during the Postclassic.

Group D.

This is situated on the edge of a small cliff, adjacent to the outer wall. The main structure is a three-tier circular volume with a Postclassic temple at the top. Part of an earlier construction (Late Classic) has been exposed. Situated to one side, a small temple, now minus its flat roof and part of its walls, complements the group.

Group E.

This is one of the most important groups at the site and contains the tallest structures. Three of its buildings are connected by a wall, which disappears a few metres further north. The excavations have confirmed that the group was built during the Early Classic because older constructions were found beneath the two tallest buildings, accompanied by objects made of shell, conch, jadeite, obsidian, etc. Both structures E-3 and E-4 adopt a circular plan, although in the former case the front was subsequently modified to make it look square. The small temple at the top of Structure E-4 was also circular, with an apse-shaped room inside and a flat roof. By contrast, the temple at the top of E-3 is square-plan. The remainder of the buildings (E-l, E-5 and E-6) are from the Late Postclassic. Structure E-6 is of particular note in that it consists of a double temple – a small adoratorium inside another – and its interior and exterior walls were painted in bright colours.

Group F.

This consists of three structures on a platform with a double balustraded stairway culminating in finial blocks. The main temple is among the largest found at Xcaret and contains a great altar or throne. Its roof was vaulted and the interior and exterior walls painted blue, red and orange. The small temples next to it are from a later period. This group is situated a few metres from the Spanish church, and materials from the colonial period were found nearby.

Group G.

This small church dates from the 16th century and consists of a nave, semicircular apse and three altars: one in the middle, one at the side and one at the rear. It is oriented east-west and is accessed by three flights of steps on the north, south and west sides. It is surrounded by an atrium wall. The roof was made of wood and palm leaves. The church nave was used as a place of burial and over 150 individuals have been found there. The church is one of the earliest Spanish constructions found on the east coast.

Group H.

This is one of the finest examples of the isolated coastal temples that can be found all along the east coast. It offers a clear view of the island of Cozumel and was a landmark for Maya seafarers. It stands on a platform that once had a stairway at the front.


Yum Kax Group (AD 250-600).

This group emerged at the beginning at the Early Classic, when the site is known to have maintained ties with other regions in the Maya area, such as northern Yucatan and the Peten-Belize region.

Ek Chuah Group (AD 600-1200).

In the Late Classic, the cultural links that Xcaret maintained with sites on the coast and further inland are reflected in the ceramic materials. During this period it traded with a number of nearby and distant settlements in the Chontalpa and Peten-Belize regions, as well as the inland of the peninsula. There are also marked ceramic influences from the Puuc region.

Ixchel Group (AD 1200-1650).

During the final stage of its cultural development, in the Postclassic, there appears to have been greater inter-regional homogeneity in terms of ceramics, complemented by colonial ceramic materials between 1528 and 1650. This confirms that during this last stage Xcaret was one of the principal coastal settlements in the region.

Maria Jose Con Uribe

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp 438-440

Getting there – and getting in:

From Playa del Carmen. Take a colectivo from the centre of town which goes along the main road towards Tulum and get off at the Xcaret stop. This is a few kilometres from the park but there’s a free, shuttle bus that leaves from the underpass. Follow the directions to the shuttle. On arrival at the complicated car park of the theme park get off the shuttle head left through the car park to wards the high wall around the park and look for a very large and high gate. It is recognisable in having a huge (now ornamental) padlock. The INAH ticket office window is to the right of this gate.

I thought that the archaeological site was separate from the theme park but it is fully integrated into it and the re are four or five locations with original Mayan structures. Many of the tourists think that they are re-constructions – as is everything else in the park. You will have to be accompanied by someone from INAH. This means you get a guide but it is also restrictive in that you only have the time the guide is prepared to give you. When I visited she had to shut the ticket office and accompany me. I have no idea if anyone arrived only to find the ticket office deserted.

I assume this happens whenever anyone wants to visit only the archaeological site.


20d 34’ 45” N

87d 07’ 10” W


M$90 – as I had a camera (rather than a phone) I was also charged the ‘video’ fee of M$50. And because I had a ‘guide cum chaperone’ I also gave her a tip.

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Tulum – Quintana Roo – Mexico

Tulum Entrance:


More on the Maya

Tulum – Quintana Roo


Built on a clifftop on the shores on the Caribbean Sea and surrounded by mangroves and sand dunes, Tulum is situated 131 km south of Cancun on federal road 307 between Puerto Juarez and Chetumal. Tulum was the name given to the city in 19th century and it means ‘wall’ or ‘palisade’, a reference to the defensive wall that surrounds it on three sides. According to 16th-century sources, the original pre-Hispanic name appears to have been Zama (‘dawn’).

History of the explorations

The first reference to Tulum was probably made by Juan Diaz, the chronicler of Juan de Grijalva’s expedition, as they sailed along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1518. In his account, he recalls having seen a city as large as Seville. In 1579, in his Relaciones de Yucatan, Juan de Reigosa refers to Zama as a walled city in ruins. At the beginning of the Caste War in 1847, Tulum lay in rebel territory and by 1871 had become one of the sanctuaries for the worship of the ‘talking crosses’, with Maria Uicab as the main priestess.

Pre-Hispanic history

Tulum is the most representative site of the East Coast architectural style. Although it was built between AD 1200 and 1550, it contains elements such as Stela 1 (AD 564) and Structure 59 with architectural characteristics from the Classic era, which suggest an earlier occupation. Tulum is regarded as one of the principal Maya cities of the 13th and 14th centuries, during which time it was a key site on the trade route and a strategic location for exploiting the rich marine resources of the eastern Yucatan coast. Because of its strategic location, some researchers believe that during its peak Tulum must have been an important nexus between the maritime and terrestrial trade of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is also thought to have enjoyed political independence from other provinces until the arrival of the Spaniards and its subsequent abandonment in the 16th century. Some of the architectural characteristics observed at Tulum denote influences from other regions in both the Maya area and Mesoamerica. For example, there are reminiscences of Toltec elements like the ones found at Mayapan and Chichén Itzá, most notably the use of serpent columns. Similarly, although the style of the murals on the buildings has Maya iconographic elements, it is nevertheless very similar to the Mixteca codices from the central plateau.

Site description

The ruins of the ancient city of Tulum are scattered on a band of some 6 km along the coast and include the core area as well as the simple wood and palm dwellings of the ordinary citizens. The core area is approximately 400 m long and 170 m wide, and is surrounded by a fortified wall on three sides; the fourth side is a cliff overlooking the sea, which provided natural protection. The walled enclosure displays a certain urban layout of its buildings and is crossed from north to south by a causeway. In addition to is defensive function, the fortified wall also turned Tulum into something of a sacred precinct with restricted access. This large wall may well have stood over 4 m high and its five vaulted gateways are still visible today: two on the north side, two on the south side and one in the middle. There are also two watchtowers at the north-west and south-west corners.

Interior precinct.

This is the name of the group of 12 buildings surrounded by a second, albeit smaller, defensive wall that restricted access. Inside this area is the Castillo, the most important building at Tulum, built with its back to the sea on the highest part of the cliff. The product of several construction stages, it is higher and larger than any of the other buildings at the site. A wide stairway with balustrades leads to the temple at the top, which contains two room accessed via three serpent columns. The façade displays two zoomorphic masks at the corners and three niches, the middle one of which contains the figure of a diving god. Flanking the stairway are two adoratoriums and at the foot of it a platform that was probably used for dance rituals. Another important building in this group is the Temple of the Initial Series, where the earliest date thus far recorded for Tulum was found. Also of great importance is the Temple of the Diving God, which is composed of a platform and a single-room building with interior benches. This temple is a good example of the ‘fallen wall’ characteristics of the architecture from this period. The main façade and the interior still display traces of paint, and the former a niche with a diving god. Flanking the causeway or main path in Tulum are a series of primarily residential constructions, such as the house of the columns, an L-shaped building with a large interior and a colonnaded entrance that once supported a flat roof. Another interesting example is the palace of the halachuinic, ‘great lord’, with a portico, three rooms and shrine within. The façade of this building also displays a niche with an image of the diving god and traces of the original paint. In the centre of the city, almost opposite the Castillo, stands the Temple of the Frescoes, one of the most interesting buildings in the Maya area in terms of its pictorial representations. It is the product of several construction phases; the original building was a room with an altar and richly painted walls, and a diving god in the central niche on the façade. It subsequently gained a portico or gallery on three of its sides, which is the construction we see today; it has four columns at the front and two pilasters to the south, flanking the entrance. The main façade contains three niches with representations of the diving god and figures with feathered headdresses. At every corner of the building is a giant mask of the god Itzamna, the lord creator of all things. The small temple on the roof of this building corresponds to the final stage of construction. The paintings inside make reference to different gods, mainly associated with farming and the underworld. In front of it stands Stela 2, nowadays greatly eroded but which once displayed the profile of a dignitary wearing a bird headdress. Situated opposite the former building is the House of the Chultun, a residential construction. The three entrances, defined by columns, lead to a large interior space which once had a flat roof made of wooden beams and lime concrete. Like most the buildings at Tulum, the façade displays a diving god. At the south-west corner of the building we can see a chultun, a type of cistern for collecting rainwater, from which the house takes its name. Situated in the northern section of the settlement are the House of the North-west and the House of the Cenote, as well as various adoratoriums near the coast the temple of the wind god. The former construction has three entrances flanked by columns, while the House of the Cenote stands on the natural vaulted roof of a cenote and also has three colonnaded entrances. Both constructions are thought to have served as family tombs. The Temple of the Wind God stands on a natural elevation at the edge of the cliff. Its semi-circular platform and the small altar inside suggest that it may have been dedicated to the wind god. Six small adoratoriums are situated to the north-east, so tiny that they must have fulfilled some religious function. Finally, situated at the south-east corner of the city is a group of elite residences.

Jose Manuel Ochoa Rodriguez

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp445-447

Further Information:

Tulum – Rand McNally

Tulum – Rough Guide

How to get there:

From Tulum town. The entrance to the site is about 3 kilometres from the centre of the modern tourist town of Tulum. You might want to consider hiring a bike for the visit. The actual entrance to the site is a long way from the entrance on the main road, having first to pass what sounds like an horrendous ‘theme park’ and then you have to run the gauntlet of a huge shopping and eating complex. A bike will allow you to pass quickly through all this tat.


20d 12′ 52″ N

87d 25′ 44″ W


First there’s a charge of M$58 to enter the ‘biosphere’. This at a control on the approach road to the site. Then it’s M$90 to actually enter Tulum ruins.

It starts to get busy very soon after opening (at 08.00) and by 09.00 small guided groups start to arrive which soon make the small and quite compact site feel crowded.

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