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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Chen Hó, one of Mérida’s oldest Maya suburbs, sheds new light on the city’s ancient past

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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.
Drone photograph of Chen Hó’s largest structure and possible ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Chen Hó is one of Mérida’s most frequented archaeological sites and is often described as the city’s first suburb. 

Map of the remains of the ancient settlement of Chen Hó including its name written in Maya script. Graphic: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As older settlements under the control of  Ichcanzijó (The Maya city located where Mérida’s contemporary Centro is today) have been unearthed, the title of “oldest suburb” is perhaps not the most accurate but paints an exciting picture.

Residential structure to the south west of Chen Hó’s ceremonial temple. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Chen translates as well, while Hó is likely a reference to Ichcanzijó, often shortened to Jó or T’hó.

Because of its location much closer to the core of Ichcanzijó, the settlement which once existed in what today is the Itzimná neighborhood is a better candidate for the title of “Mérida’s first suburb.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The remain of Chen Hó exists today in a park called Parque Recreativo de Oriente, in Mérida’s southeast.

Aerial photo showing several of Chen Hó’s structures surrounded by the Parque Recreativo de Oriente. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is almost certain that the structures that still exist at the site are but a handful of the original extent of the settlement, as the rest was likely destroyed long ago. 

Remains of severely damaged structure in Chen Hó, which was not possible to restore any further. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest monument at the site is a multi-level elevated platform, which is the only real candidate at the settlement to be primarily ceremonial or religious.

Major excavations and restoration work in Chen Hó kicked off in the 1990s. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The structure shows evidence of several niches, which were likely home to elaborate stucco maks dedicated to local rulers or deities (Likely Kín or Itzamná).

Masks such as those found in Acancéh likely would have adorned structures in Chen Hó. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Surrounding the temple we can observe four large residential complexes, with evidence of what were likely kitchens and private water reservoirs.

One of the most interesting features found in several of these elite residences is the remains of ovens which are particularly useful in dating techniques such as carbon dating. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because of the central location of these structures, it is fairly safe to assume that they were home to Chen Hó’s political and religious elite.

In Mesoamerica, it was common for city elites to live within the core of the ceremonial center, while everyone else resided further afield. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeological evidence suggests that Chen Hó was occupied for at least five centuries, beginning in roughly 250 C.E. 

Chen Hó’s ceremonial center, which would have been much larger before its pillaging, would have been surrounded by corn and squash fields and homes made from perishable materials, not that different from traditional Mayan houses still seen in Yucatán’s countryside today. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As its name implies, the site has a well that would have been of great importance to the settlement. Though cenotes do exist within Mérida at not too far a distance from Chen Hó, having this well would have made life a lot easier. 

Wells and water reservoirs in Yucatán are often used to take advantage of small caves of fissures in the earth that make their construction easier, as the entire peninsula sits on difficult-to-dig-through limestone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Architecturally, Chen Hó is consistent with Izámaleño style architecture, which of course finds its greatest expression in the city of Izamal.

One of the hallmarks of Izámaleño architecture includes depictions of the sun god Kín, especially in the form of stucco or stone masks mounted on temples. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The park is a popular spot, especially early in the morning for joggers, and dog walkers — though many of these passersby have little understanding of its antiquity.

The Parque Recreativo de Oriente is pet-friendly, but dogs must be kept away from the ancient monuments. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Why exactly Chen Hó was abandoned, or at the very least experienced severe population loss, is unknown but likely had to do with the consolidation of Ichcanzijó’s assets in the face of growing competition by nearby city-states. 

When visiting a site like Chen Hó it is important to remember that what we see are but the bare remains of what once would have been a vibrant center filled with artisans, merchants, laborers, and structures completely covered in stucco and painted in bright colors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Chen Hó from any place in Mérida is quite easy as it is well within city limits and accessible via the Avenida Fidel Velásquez.

If you decide to drive or take a taxi/ridesharing service finding the location is easy as it’s listed on Google Maps as both Sitio Arqueologico Chen Hó, and Parque Recreativo de Oriente. Graphic: Google Maps

The Parque Recreativo de Oriente is also a great spot for a picnic with a fantastic view, but remember to properly dispose of your trash and keep pets in check. 

Sign at Chen Hó offering up some information about the site for visitors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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