Discover Xcambó, Yucatan’s great Maya port

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore the archaeological site of Xcambó.

Xcambó’s largest structure, the temple of the cross. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ride to Xcambó, just off Yucatán’s Gulf coast in Dzemul, is half the fun.

To get to the site from Mérida, take the highway north and then make a right at the large roundabout just before you enter Progreso. From there it’s another 30 minutes or so, but you may want to take it slow as the area is quite beautiful and full of birds. Sometimes you can even spot pink flamingos.

Pink flamingos soar over the mangroves and salt flats surrounding Xcambó. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Grach

Archaeological evidence suggests that Xcambó was founded as a commercial and administrative center in the third century C.E. Although its remains are no longer visible, the site possessed a large dock which stretched out into the ocean to facilitate the work of fishermen. The area was also used for the production of salt which was essential to cure meat and seafood. 

It is also believed that compressed “salt cakes” were sometimes used as a form of currency to facilitate trade within coastal regions. In the Maya language, the word Xcambó can mean “Celestial Crocodile” or “Place where barter is done.”

The pinkish soil observable in the area surrounding Xcambó points to its elevated salt content. Photos: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structures at the site are built using rectangular stone blocks, which would have been covered in stucco and painted in vibrant colors. An example of this stucco work can be seen on the structure known as the “pyramid of the masks.”

One of the better preserved stucco details remaining at Xcambó.  Photography: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Most of the large structures at Xcambó feature flat terraces, which suggests they were topped with structures made out of perishable materials. 

Elevated structures and platforms at Xcambó.  Photography: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure known to archaeologists as NE-24 is thought to have been used as a sauna of sorts, complete with a large stone basin to produce steam. 

Image from Magliabechiano codex depicting a Meso-American ceremonial sauna known as temazcal or tuj.

The main core of the site is made up of several step pyramids that form a sort of plaza. The largest of these is known as the “temple of the cross,” as an anachronistic Christian wooden cross now tops the structure.

Main plaza at Xcambó, viewed atop the temple of the cross. Photography: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

However, this cross is not the only Christian element present at the site, as a chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe was built among the ruins of the ancient city in the 20th century. 

Christian chapel in Xcambó. Photography: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Funerary deposits containing objects such as Jaina figurines, pottery and obsidian were discovered when excavating the archaeological site in the 1990s. 

Surviving vaulted Maya archways. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xcambó received a fairly steady stream of visitors, but their site is seldom crowded. There are few amenities available at the site, but the folks at the ticket desk often sell water and cola. 

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. When inside the site, it is obligatory to wear a facemask and be mindful of social distancing. The entrance fee is 80 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

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.