Archaeology in Cancún and the Mayan Riviera

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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.

For travelers, the Yucatán Peninsula is synonymous with pristine beaches and a vibrant culture that traces its roots back thousands of years. 

Every year millions of visitors flying into Cancún take day trips to Chichén Itzá to see Mexico’s most famous archaeological site for themselves. But what most of these people ignore is that archaeology can be found just about anywhere on the peninsula, sometimes right next to five-star hotels.

Chichén Itzá is a must-see archaeological site in the Yucatán, but it is far from the only one. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gacht / Yucatán Magazine

While staying in Cancún or the Mayan Riviera, chances are ancient treasures are right around the corner for those who know where to look. While some sites on this list are essentially single temples, others encompass enormous ancient cities. 

If you are interested in learning more about any of these amazing historic sites, click on the links to check out more detailed articles (including maps). 

So get ready, and let’s start exploring.

The archaeological 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

Archaeology in Cancún

Before it became Mexico’s most popular tourist destination, the area surrounding Cancún had already been an important center of commerce for the Maya, especially during the post-classic period. 

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Cancún translates as “snake pit,” but don’t worry, snake encounters these days are extremely rare. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

El Rey

Tucked between luxury hotels and a golf course in the middle of Cancún’s hotel zone, El Rey is a Maya archeological site discovered in 1909 and believed to have been known as Cancuen, to which the modern name “Cancún” likely owes its name.

Given its location in Cancún’s hotel zone and its easy accessibility via public transit, El Rey is perhaps Mexico’s most easily accessible archaeological site. Despite this, most visitors to Cancún have no idea that it even exists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

San Miguelito

Like El Rey, San Miguelito belonged to the chiefdom of the Ekab that dominated the northeast of the Yucatán. 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.

San Miguelito’s largest structure, “La Piramide,” stands proud long after the fall of its city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

El Meco

El Meco is a Mayan archaeological site just eight kilometers north of Cancún’s downtown but feels worlds away from the craziness of the enormous resort city. Although it is a fairly small site, El Meco makes for a very pleasant visit, especially since visitors will likely have it entirely to themselves. You will find ample shade courtesy of the surrounding vegetation and even a few picnic tables.

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

The Scorpion Temple

Though today the Scorpion Temple sits between luxury hotels on Cancún’s beach and directly across one of Mexico’s most exclusive malls, during antiquity, this construction was part of a settlement likely called Yamil Lu’um. Because it lay directly across from the ocean, this particular temple has undergone quite a bit of damage over the centuries due to countless hurricanes, so the fact that it is still standing at all is quite remarkable. 

Event tourists staying at hotels next to this ancient site often ignore it, assuming it’s a contemporary replica, but it most assuredly is not. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magzine

Archaeology in Playa del Carmen

Though considerably smaller than Cancún, Playa del Carmen still receives millions of tourists each year. As you now probably expect to read, the resort town is also home to several archaeological remains, several of which are open to the public.

Ancient temples are just about everywhere in Playa del Carmen if you know where to look, even along its most famous shopping district known as La Quinta Avenida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During Maya antiquity, Playa del Carmen was known as Xaman Há, which in the Yucatec-Mayan language, roughly translates as northern waters. Today, the core of  Xaman Há is split into two sections, separated by shops, restaurants, and the ferry terminal. 

In the first of these two sections, you will find a large plaza featuring five Mesoamerican constructions facing toward the beach and adjacent to luxury apartments. 

Like other Caribbean coastal urban centers — including Isla Mujeres, El Meco, Tulum, and El Rey — Xaman Há was an important trading and transit post connecting the northern Yucatán Peninsula with city-states in what today is Central America. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The second plaza of Xaman Há is surrounded by a fence and is open only sporadically. Fortunately, most structures can be seen quite well without getting inside. That said, it’s well worth asking the site’s guardian to get in. 

The largest structure in Group 2 is visible from outside the gated perimeter. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Isla Mujeres

Overlooking a great cliff 70 feet above the Caribbean Sea on the southernmost tip of Isla Mujeres sits a single temple dedicated to the cult of the great Maya goddess Ixchel. Though during antiquity Isla Mujeres was an important pilgrimage site, today only this single temple remains on the Island, though several contemporary statues and images of the goddess Ixchel have been installed for those who wish to pay their respects to the queen of the Maya pantheon. 

The cliffs on Punta Sur, in Isla Mujeres, are a sight to behold. It is easy to understand why the Maya of antiquity converted it into an imposing ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There are plenty more archaeological sites along the Mayan Riviera and further south on the Peninsula’s coast, so if you enjoyed this article, make sure to share it and check back soon for  Part 2.

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