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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Archaeology in the Riviera Maya and beyond

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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.

In Archaeology in Cancún and the Mayan Riviera, we explored several archaeological sites in the heart of Mexico’s Caribbean tourism mecca.

A lone temple in the community of Limones, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Today we continue making our way down the Riviera Maya and further down Quintana Roo to discover yet more archaeological gems along this dazzling coast.

(Click the links for more detailed articles. For location information, check out our customized Google map.)

Archaeology in Cozumel

Cozumel is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island and one of the country’s largest cruise ports. But aside from its stunning beaches, Cozumel offers visitors the opportunity to visit San Gervasio and several other fascinating yet under-visited archaeological sites.

The Ka’na Nah pyramid at San Gervasio Cozumel resembles several other structures of the terminal Postclassic, such as those found at other nearby sites on the mainland, including El Miguelito. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The best way to explore archaeological sites in Cozumel is to rent a car or scooter because taxis on the island are surprisingly expensive. 

Historically, Prehispanic structures such as the temple found at El Cedral would have been demolished to build churches or chapels, but at El Cedral, this was not the case. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


A view of the Tulum archaeological site with the Temple of the Frescoes in the foreground and the Castillo in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Well, this is a fairly obvious one, but the importance of Tulum to the Postclassic Maya world simply can’t be denied. 

Representations of the Descending God have been found at several sites in Quintana Roo but are most prominent in Tulum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Tulum archaeological site lies on the outskirts of the tourist resort town of the same name on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo. In Yucatec-Mayan, the word Tulum means wall, but in antiquity, the city was known as Záma, meaning sunrise — making reference to its orientation facing the east.

The beaches just off Tulum’s cliff, topped with ancient temples, are a truly amazing sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


Xcaret is a Mayan archaeological site located on the Caribbean coast within the privately owned theme park of the same name. In the Yucatec-Mayan language, Xcaret means “small inlet.” But in antiquity, the name of the port city was P’ole’, which was derived from the root p’ol, which means “merchandise” or “deal of merchants.”

Xcaret’s pyramid is open to people wishing to climb it and is a popular location for photos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Now, for the elephant in the room. Getting into Xcaret is expensive, with the cheapest entrance option ringing over US$110. Although the archaeological site is officially owned by the Mexican government and administered by INAH, it is not possible to bypass the fee levied by Grupo Xcaret.

The remains of what was likely a residential complex in Xcaret. Note the surviving decorative elements near the top of the structure on the left side. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


The ruins of Chac-hal-al are located in the resort community of Puerto Aventuras, in the middle of an area full of luxury homes, marinas, and apartments. Though only the structure is clearly visible, it is possible to make out the remains of ancient collapsed buildings and carved stelae.

The sole remaining temple at Chac-hal-al is visible from across a small inlet on the Caribbean. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The surrounding area is also home to several cenotes, which would have provided the inhabitants with plentiful fresh water during antiquity. 

A cenote opposite a small jungle path to the main temple. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


Despite being on the Caribbean coast, where hurricanes and powerful storms are common, many of Xelha’s murals have survived the ravages of time remarkably well. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xelha is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located on the coast of Quintana Roo. The word Xelha comes from the Yucatec Maya roots xel (spring) and ha’ (water) and is usually translated as “water spring” or “where the water springs.”

The site is on the right-hand side of the Cancún-Tulum highway, near a theme park of the same name. But unlike nearby Xcaret, Xelha is not contained within private property.

The remains of a mural depicting a jaguar survive inside this structure known as “casa del jaguar,” but its view is badly obstructed by a protective mesh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


Akumal is a popular tourist destination for scuba divers and is also home to several large all-inclusive hotels. The tourist side of the town lay on the coastal side of the highway while the town itself is on the other side. This is where archaeology is to be found.

A Mayan temple complex lay in an otherwise empty lot at the end of a dead-end road on the right when approaching from the east. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because it is so exposed, this temple complex has been the victim of vandalism several times. Though, thankfully it has now been restored and locals have become much more vigilant.

The inner temple still has traces of stucco as well as red and blue paint, which is quite stunning. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


Chunyaxché is also commonly known as Muyil, and is even listed as so on several tourist maps and some road signs — perhaps because it is easier to pronounce and spell. Despite its location within the municipality of Tulum and its proximity to many of Mexico’s most visited resort cities, Chunyaxché receives relatively few tourists.

Chunyaxché’s El Castillo stands proud near the coast of Quintana Roo, despite millennia of hurricanes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht  / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeological evidence suggests Chunyaxché was founded sometime in the 3rd Century BCE, likely as a vassal kingdom of a larger city-state further south, such as Caracol or Tikal

The remains of a partially reconstructed structure between El Castillo and the Pink Palace at Chunyaxché. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The reason for this hypothesis is the fact that despite its relatively northern location on the Yucatán Peninsula, Chunyaxché displays many hallmarks of Petén, which originated in northern Guatemala and Belize.

But wait, there’s more!

This list only scratches the surface of the archaeological treasures in the Riviera Maya. Temples can be seen peaking through the canopy of sites on private property.

Temple in the massive site of Tankah, which is unfortunately still closed to the public. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is always a temptation to jump a fence here or there, but that could land you in a whole lot of trouble. That being said, where there is a will, there is a way. Do some research, and you may just get lucky enough to be granted access to a private ruin. 

The fantastically preserved facade of a Costa Oriental temple in Rancho Calica, near Playa del Carmen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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