Why is Ancient San Miguelito Cancún’s Obscure Maya Wonder?

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.
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an Miguelito’s largest structure, La Piramide.
San Miguelito’s largest structure, La Piramide, stands proud long after the city fell. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tucked between five-star resorts along Cancún’s hotel zone sits the remains of the Prehispanic settlement of San Miguelito.

Though the site opened to the public in 2012, it is rarely visited, and most tourists and even locals are unaware of its existence. 

San Miguelito, Cancún
The ruins of a temple in the “southern group” of San Miguelito, Cancun, Quintana Roo, México. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Mexico

The site is named after a coconut plantation that existed in the same spot in the 1950s. The settlement’s original name has been lost to time.

San Miguelito dates to the late post-classical period as its structures are estimated to have been built between the 11th and 13th centuries. 

San Miguelito, Cancún
The nearby site of El Rey, on the lagoon side of Cancún, is directly next to a golf course. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As with older settlements in the region, including El Rey, El Meco, and Xelha, San Miguelito’s architecture is consistent with the Costa Oriental style.

Tulum Maya ruin
Tulum is the most famous example of Costa Oriental architecture, though dozens of other sites dot Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

One interesting aspect of San Miguelito’s architecture is that most (if not all) of its structures show evidence of having been topped by thatched roofs. This is instead of the more laborious corbel arched ceilings of previous eras. 

San Miguelito, Cancún
Hypothetical rendering of a structure at San Miguelito: Photo: Courtesy

While one could perhaps see this as a sign of a loss of architectural sophistication, remember that Yucatán’s northeastern coast is hurricane-prone. Maintaining stone and mortar roofs would have been tremendously difficult for a settlement of this size. 

San Miguelito, Cancún
When walking through San Miguelito, you easily lose yourself and think you are somewhere in the middle of a dense jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

By the 10th century, most of the major regional city-states in northeastern Yucatán, such as Cobá and Chunyaxché had begun to lose the ability to control vast swaths of territory. As a result, smaller chiefdoms began to emerge to fill the power vacuum. 

Both San Miguelito and nearby El Rey belonged to a chiefdom known as Kuchkabal or Ekab, which roughly translates to “dark soil.”

San Miguelito, Cancún
Sculpture of cacique, or chief found in the Kuchkaba region near San Miguelito. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Given the amount of salt in the soil along the coast, it is unlikely that the surrounding San Miguelito area was suited for traditional Mesoamerican crops like maize, squash, and beans. Though it’s possible, and even likely, that the settlement cultivated these staples further inland, the community likely relied largely on seafood for their own consumption and trade. 

Visiting the archaeological site today, one follows a reasonably straightforward looping circuit of roughly 15 surviving structures divided into five main architectural groups. 

The first group one sees when following the path is the Chaac Group, after the architectural allusions to the Mayan rain god of the same name.

The largest structure within the Chaac Group was likely an elite residential complex or administrative center, as it contained several chambers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Related: This rare, enduring blue was invented by the Maya

Next found on the path is called the Dragon’s Group because the figures of the mighty feather serpent Kukulkán were first mistaken for dragons.

A stone sculpture of Kukulkán inside San Miguelito’s onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But perhaps the most interesting feature of the Dragon’s Group is the surviving, though highly damaged, murals found within the largest structure of the complex. 

As one approaches the end of the path laid out by INAH, a large pyramid comes into view.

San Miguelito’s pyramid is a five-level tier construction topped with a ceremonial altar, likely covered with a thatched roof.

San Miguelito, Cancún
The pyramid at San Miguelito is the largest structure at the site and shows architectural inspiration drawn from Mexico’s central valley. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though historical records regarding San Miguelito during the 16th century are scarce, there is good reason to believe the settlement was still going strong by the time the first Europeans began to arrive in the western Caribbean. 

If you go

Map of San Miguelito in Cancún
A map shows the location of San Miguelito in Cancún’s hotel zone. Image: Google

The archaeological site of San Miguelito is within a museum complex in Cancún’s hotel zone, the Museo Maya de Cancún

The museum is well worth a visit, and admission is included in the 95-peso ticket to enter San Miguelito. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Doors close at 4:30 p.m.

Museo Maya de Cancún
The Museo Maya de Cancún is in the resort city’s hotel zone. Photo: INAH

The facilities at the museum are good and include clean bathrooms and more than enough space for parking. 

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