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Sunday, December 4, 2022

An amazing secret west of Mérida: the city’s largest pyramid

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Ya’axtal Park in Mérida, Yucatán is one place people regularly pass by. But few have any idea of the archaeological wonders it hides within.

View from the top of Xoclán’s pyramid in western Mérida, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The park is frequented mainly by joggers, dog walkers, and families out for leisurely strolls in the early mornings and evenings. 

Today, city workers meticulously maintain Ya’axtal Park, making for a fantastic spot to enjoy an early-morning walk. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But Ya’axtal Park is more than just an ordinary green space; it is home to the largest archaeological site within Mérida’s city limits. 

The ruins of an ancient Mayan structure lay in the backyard of a home adjacent to Ya’axtal Park. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The original name of this remarkable archaeological site has been lost to time. It has taken on the name of the nearby Hacienda Xoclán, which in Yucatec-Maya translates as “sunken foot.”

A contemporary carved glyph in Mayan script was found on Ya’axtal Park grounds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But the archaeological remains of Xoclán are not all contained within the park proper, as several structures can be found in the surrounding area in roundabouts and the backyards of nearby homes. 

The remains of a Mayan structure sit on a nondescript roundabout near Ya’axtal park. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The fact that so many of these ancient Maya structures have survived is a minor miracle, especially given its location roughly 2.5 miles from downtown Mérida. 

Remains of Mayan structures dating to the 9th century A.D. in Mérida’s west. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While today, Xoclán and downtown Mérida are connected via several avenues and streets, during antiquity, a Sacbé (or Mayan road) served as the main artery between these two settlements.

The remains of the Sacbé, which connects Xoclán with the core of ancient Mérida, or Ichcanzijó, suggest extremely close ties between these two ceremonial centers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The ancient settlement also includes a limestone quarry that has been in continuous use for at least a millennia and floods during the rainy season, which is why the park is known to many locals as El Parque Unidido, or Sunken Park. 

The limestone quarry at Xoclán was likely used not just by its nearby city but also to extract materials for structures for other towns and villages. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At what is now considered the core of the archaeological site, we find the remains of an acropolis or central plaza, surrounded by structures on all sides. 

The remains of Xoclán’s acropolis within Ya’axtal park, also known as the Parque Eco-Arqueologico de Poniente. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The tallest structure in the acropolis also happens to be the tallest Prehispanic structure within Mérida’s city limits.

This 35-foot-tall pyramid sits upon an artificial platform several feet tall and is accessible via a wide surviving staircase. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The pyramid was likely a lot larger during antiquity, as it shows obvious signs of having been pillaged for construction materials from the colonial period onwards. 

The largest pyramid in Mérida during antiquity was likely a structure dubbed by colonial authorities as “El Imposible,” or “The Impossible,” which stood on what today is the intersection between Calle 50 and 67 in today’s Centro. A plaque commemorates the leveling of the ancient pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The most restored structure in the acropolis area is a residential complex to the east of the complex.

Given its location so close to the Xoclán’s pyramid, it is likely that this structure served as a residence for the city’s ruler, likely installed by the lord of Ichcanzijó. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Roughly half a mile from the acropolis sits another large architectural complex, though the structures found here do not appear to have received any restoration.

Large mounds with carved stones lay testament to the history of ancient Xoclán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The same complex is also home to a cenote known to have been used by the Prehispanic inhabitants of Xoclán.

Xoclán’s cenote now has a large ceiba tree growing out of it and is covered with debris and surrounded by a gate to avoid people entering and getting stuck. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Xoclán’s archaeological site is easy by taxi, ride-sharing apps, or public transit from just about any point within Mérida.

Map showing the location of Xoclán archaeological site within Ya’axtal park in Mérida’s west. Map: Google Maps

As the archaeological site sits within a city park, entrance is free, and it is possible to gain access 24 hours a day, though early mornings before the heat kicks in is the best time to visit.

Aside from archaeology, Ya’axtal Park is home to several species of birds and is a great spot to relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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