Comalcalco is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the state of Tabasco, inside the modern town of the same name.
Several details make Comalcalco a real oddball in the context of Mayan cities. For one, it was likely the westernmost major Maya settlement. The name Comalcalco is actually not Maya at all but rather Nahuatl and means house of the comales — a smooth, flat griddle typically used in Mexico. However, the original name of the site was Joy Chan, meaning round sky.
But the thing that really makes Comalcalco stand apart is the materials from which the city was constructed. Unlike virtually every other Maya city or settlement, Comalcalco was built using bricks rather than limestone masonry. The city is near the coast in an area full of swamps and mangroves where workable stone is in short supply and difficult to quarry. The bricks are of irregular sizes and were made by cutting large sections of clay instead of using molds. On your way to the site, notice that many contemporary structures in the surrounding area still use this technique to this day.
The foundation date of the city is not known, but it is believed that Comalcalco reached its greatest splendor sometime in the 5th century CE and was completed along with other major cities such as Palenque and Yaxchilán.
The clay bricks used in the construction of the city’s many structures give Comalcalco a unique look. However, an architectural style similar to that of Palenque was apparently superimposed onto its temples. It is likely that these modifications were made during a time of a close alliance or perhaps occupation by Palenque. Evidence suggests that following the conquest of Palenque by Tonina, the city’s elite fled to Comalcalco to continue their rule in exile. Later in its history, Comalcalco came to be dominated by Nahua groups migrating from central Mexico — as evidenced by the Nahuatl name the city is known by today.
When entering the site, the first structure you will likely notice is the large pyramid known simply as Temple I. This structure has a central stairway that rises 20 meters and passes through 10 tiers in the Talud-tablero style of Teotihuacan influence. Like many other notable structures at the site, most of the stucco on this temple has been lost. The good news is that this allows us to appreciate its unique brick construction.
At the top of the temple, we can observe several large pillars and walls which were once used to support a large sanctuary chamber.
Other notable constructions include Temples VI and VII which sit on a 35-meter tall artificial platform known as the Great Acropolis.
The acropolis and its structures are all well known for their elaborate altars and stucco work.
The Great Acropolis is also notable for its extensive funerary vaults and the discovery of the largest burial ground found in the region to date. Archaeologist discovered three chambers which contained the skeletal remains of 116 high-ranking individuals, most of whom exhibited cosmetic features associated with Mayan elites such as cranial deformation and teeth filling and incrustations. The burials are thought to date to either the late classic period (8th century CE) and also included 50 ceramic funerary urns.
Adjacent to the archaeological site there is a great museum that houses artifacts from the site. The quality and state of preservation of these artifacts is stunning. Visitors can examine sculptures of marine animals and birds as well as funerary urns and masks. Additional sculptures depict the city’s elite.
The archaeological site is located well inside the modern city of the same name and is walkable from the local bus station terminal, but taking an organized tour is likely a better option. Hotels in nearby Villahermosa are likely to have the information of tour companies organizing day trips. But since the site does not receive a large number of visitors — especially international — you may have to hire a private driver. As drivers in Villahermosa and the surrounding region are aggressive (even by Mexican standards) renting a car is not advisable.
If you go
As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 65 pesos Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents with official ID.
As of mid-May 2021, Comalcalco remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.