Despite its grandeur and importance to the history of the early Maya, the archaeological site of Dzibanché is sparsely visited, in large part due to its remote location far from Yucatán Peninsula’s more popular tourist routes.
Recent research suggests that Dzibanché was one of the largest early Maya cities in Mesoamerica and may have been the first capital of the Kan, the first great Maya dynasty. The dynasty of Kan, which means “serpent,” would later move its capital to the great city of Calakmul.
Dzibanché is located in southern Quintana Roo, roughly 80 kilometers to the west of Chetumal.
It is believed that the area surrounding Dzibanché was occupied by pre-Mayan peoples as far back as the early second millennium BCE. The site’s earliest structures found at the site date to the 2nd century BCE, but it is likely that even more ancient structures were built during the archaic period, but were demolished to make way for newer edifications.
While many of Dzibanché’s oldest structures tend to conform to Peten-style architecture, later constructions tend to feature elements from Río Bec architecture, as well as the talud-tablero style imported from central Mexico.
Meaning “writing on wood,” Dzibanché was discovered by the explorer and physician Thomas Gann in 1927. The site was named after the sculpted lintels found within Temple VI, also known as the Lintel or Owl Temple.
Deeper into the site is a ceremonial center flanked by relatively low-lying structures adorned with stucco and stone masks.
Across the ceremonial center stands a massive pyramid known as the Cormorant Temple. This pyramid is covered in vegetation and moss but still manages to project a true sense of majesty.
Though it is no longer possible to climb the pyramid itself, you can follow a path around it that leads to another ceremonial center built atop a yet higher artificial platform.
Approximately two kilometers from the core of Dzibanché is the great Kinichná pyramid, or “house of the sun god.” Though INAH classifies Dzibanché and Kinichná as separate sites with their own entrances, in reality, they were part of the same city-state we now know as Dzibanché.
On your way to the Kinichná pyramid, observe the ruins of several large structures which lay in agricultural fields well outside both archaeological sites, but were once clearly part of the same great city.
It is hard to not be impressed by the size of the Kinchná pyramid, as from its base it is not even possible to see the top. Like other massive structures in Mesoamerica, including those at El Mirador and Toniná, Kinichná’s grand pyramid resembles a multi-story ceremonial complex more than a conventional or step pyramid.
The pyramid itself is made up of four large terraces each containing niches and vaulted chambers. In many ways, each of these levels served as their own mini-acropolis, complete with distinctive ornamentation and temples.
It is still possible to climb this great pyramid, but if you do so please make sure to take your time and exercise extreme caution.
If you go
Some tour companies based out of Chetumal offer day trips to Dzibanché. Other than that your best bet is to drive. Departing from Chetumal, most of the way to Dzibanché is fairly easy going. It is only after an hour or so of travel westward that things start to get a little more complicated. The last 20 kilometers or so of the journey are slow going as the road after the exit is poor and only runs in one direction. After you take this exit you will only have one opportunity to stock up on water and other necessities in the town of Morocoy, so make sure to make a stop to provision yourself if you did not come prepared.
The entrance fee is 65 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. Note that the ticket you purchase at the gate to enter Dzibanché is also valid for visiting Kinichná, though technically they are listed as different archaeological sites.