Dzibanché and the forging of the great snake dynasty

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 one of the greatest cities of the early Maya and its truly awe-inspiringly beautiful temples in Quintana Roo.

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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.
An aerial view of the main ceremonial center at the ancient Maya city of Dzibanché. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Built in the 2nd century BCE, the Lintel or Owl Temple is one of the most striking constructions at Dzibanché, and one of its many pyramids. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Though many of Dzibanché’s great temples have been restored to something resembling their former glory, a great many mounds are still observable in and around the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Few examples of Maya wood carving still survive, making the discovery at Dzibanché all the more significant. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
An aerial view of the Lintel or Owl Temple in Dzibanché, a beautiful classic-era Maya pyramidal structure. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Deeper into the site is a ceremonial center flanked by relatively low-lying structures adorned with stucco and stone masks.  

Thatch roofs have been set up to help preserve stucco reliefs and stone masks found on temples 13 and 14. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Damaged stone masks were found in Dzibanché’s main ceremonial center complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Within the Cormorant Temple, archaeologists have found a series of interior chambers containing the final resting place of several of Dzibanché’s great lords. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Visitors will notice the remains of stucco reliefs, some of which still have sections in their original, yet faded red paint. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Once upon the artificial platform, you will notice the presence of several fairly large structures. Many of these have yet to be reconstructed. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Shrubs and large trees cover much of the pyramid of Kinichná’s massive stairway, but there is still plenty of room to climb — just remember to watch your step. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Climbing the great Kinichná pyramid, with only its first terrace yet in view. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The second level of the Kinichná pyramid features two temples complete with vaulted corridors and a frieze held up by cornices. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The Kinichná pyramid is so massive and the jungle which surrounds it so dense that its true size can only truly be appreciated from above. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

All drone photographs for this article were taken before INAH’s strict rules regarding their use came into effect. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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