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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Chunyaxché, the pride of the Petén Maya in the Caribbean

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

Nestled between the highway to Tulum, the Caribbean sea and Lake Muyil lay the ancient Mayan city of Chunyaxché.

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

In the Yucatec-Maya language, the name translates as “the trunk of the great ceiba.”

The ceiba was sacred in Maya cosmology, as its high branches, sturdy trunk, and deep roots were believed to represent the universe itself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The entirety of the site lies within the biosphere Sian Ka’an, which roughly translates to  “gate of heaven” or “a place where heaven begins.”

Howler monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles and several species of colorful birds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

When walking into the Chunyaxché, it is easy to forget how close you are to the hustle and bustle of the Mayan Riviera and just wander the jungle while you explore the ruins.

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 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. 

Given its location, one would expect the architecture of Chunyaxché to follow the template of Costa Oriental architecture Quintana Roo’s coast is known for. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By the 5th Century CE, Chunyaxché had become an important center for trade and likely carried out diplomatic relations with major city-states in the Yucatán including Chichén Itzá and Cobá

As during this time Tulum was still in its infancy, not reaching prominence until the 8th century, it is likely that Chunyaxché was the largest and most prestigious city on the Caribbean coast. 

When entering the site, the first structure you are likely to be drawn to is Structure 81-13, known more commonly as El Castillo. 

At El Castillo in Chunyaxché archaeologists have found large stashes of obsidian, which is not native to the Yucatán, but rather Guatemala — further shoring up the hypothesis of the city’s likely relationship with a Central American power. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Castillo’s relatively narrow base and wide staircase resemble a miniature versión of several temples found in Tikal.

From the top of El Castillo in Chunyaxché there is a view of the remains of a ceremonial platform at its base, which likely house a stelae or large stucco mask. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Perhaps the most unique element of El Castillo’s architecture is a circular concave tower atop its roof. 

The exterior of the tower atop Chunyaxché’s Castillo is adorned with small flat stones resembling the spine like thorns of the ceiba tree, though these elements are not as prominent as they once were. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Nicknamed the Pink Palace, Structure 8 at Chunyaxché is flanked by several smaller structures and was likely the civic hub of the ancient city. 

Much of the architectural complex surrounding Chunyaxché’s “Pink Palace” has been overtaken by vegetation, making the approach feel somewhat ominous. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

When entering the Pink Palace you will notice the remains of eroded estelle, as well as doorways leading to several chambers within.

One can only imagine what the interiors of Chunyaxché’s Pink Palace must have looked like in its prime, with its walls covered in stucco and colorful depictions of lords and deities of the Maya pantheon. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The area surrounding the Pink Palace is also full of smaller structures that likely served as residences for the city’s nobility. 

Though it is common to find elite residences within ceremonial centers across Mesoamerica, it is likely that these were built for status more than anything else, as life within their confined stone walls was likely quite humid and uncomfortable. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another of Chunyaxché’s most notable buildings is the recently restored Temple 5, though very little research has been published regarding this structure.

Temple 5 has recently undergone considerable reconstruction efforts, so if you visit, this photo from 2017 may seem unrecognizable. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Given its location 20 miles south of Tulum, getting to Chunyaxché is quite easy. The roads are good, though construction along this route is frequent.

A map shows the location of Chunyaxché near the coast of Quintana Roo, within the Sian Ka’an biosphere. Image: Google Maps

A few tour companies based in the Mayan Riviera offer day trips out to Chunyaxché, often as part of a package which also includes the archaeological site of Tulum.  

Though Chunyaxché has undergone several archaeological reconstruction projects, many of its grand structures remain relatively untouched. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Chunyaxché is 45 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

When visiting Chunyaxché, you are likely to have the site all to yourself, especially if you get there early. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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