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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

El Meco, a hidden archaeological gem north of Cancún

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we travel to El Meco, a second-century side site, just minutes north from the hustle and bustle of Cancún.

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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.
El Castillo and ceremonial platform at El Meco in Cancún Viejo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Meco is a Mayan archaeological site just eight kilometers north of Cancún’s downtown but feels worlds away from the craziness of the enormous resort city. Despite being on the mainland, El Meco actually sits in the municipality of Isla Mujeres, in an area known as Cancún Viejo, or old Cancún. The original name of the site is unknown but was christened with its current name by agricultural workers in the area.

Pristine Caribbean beaches directly across from El Meco in Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Although it is a fairly small site, El Meco makes for a very pleasant visit, especially given the fact that you will likely have it entirely to yourself. You will find ample shade courtesy of the surrounding vegetation, and even a few picnic tables.

Three Magnificent frigatebirds flying above El Meco near the coastline. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like El Rey, El Meco began as a small fishermen’s camp sometime in the 2nd century CE. Given inscriptions found at the site, it is likely that El Meco was administered directly by the city Coba, to which it would send the bulk of the resources extracted from the sea. 

El Meco is surrounded by large trees and lush vegetation to the west and the Caribbean sea to the east. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city appears to have been abandoned from the 5th to the 9th century, but was then re-occupied by people moving in from further inland, likely sent by the lords of Chichén Itzá and later Mayapan.

Archaeologist bringing faded Mayan murals back to life in El Meco Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Meco belonged to a large network of coastal cities and outposts along the Caribbean coast, constructed in an architectural style known as Costa Oriental. The settlement also functioned as an important port, as it lay just six kilometers across the water from the important shrine to the goddess Ixchel on the island now known as Isla Mujeres.

Carved artifacts found in El Meco´s main plaza during excavations in the 1980s. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As Mesoamerica was without pack animals of any sort, the comparative ease and speed of travel over water played a decisive role in trade. Limited archaeological evidence and pictographic representations of sea-fearing vessels are limited to relatively simple canoes capable of carrying roughly seven people, carved out of a single trunk. 

However, given the numbers of people and goods being transported, it is likely that larger ships were indeed built, but simply did not survive in the archaeological record. This theory is given further credence by the account of Ferdinand Columbus, who tells of his encounter with a Mayan ship carrying 25 men, as well as cargo. 

It is possible to observe recreations of Mayan canoes at tourist parks like Xcaret, but a lack of sources makes it difficult to affirm their authenticity. Photo: Courtesy

There is good reason to believe that El Meco remained active until the arrival of Europeans to the Peninsula in the 16th century. Accounts by Francisco de Montejo also seem to suggest that the Spanish may have occupied the settlement and used it temporarily as a base of operations in the region. But no archaeological evidence supporting this claim survives.

The archaeological site of El Meco is made up of a small plaza, featuring a structure known as El Castillo, a five-level tablero talud style temple.

Given its tablero talud architecture, it is unlikely that El Castillo was built before the 9th century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At the base of the structure, it is possible to observe the remains of large serpent heads reminiscent of those found at the base of the Pyramid of Kukulkán.

Detail of one of the two stone serpent heads at the base of El Castillo at El Meco archaeological site in northern Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the northwest of El Castillo, we can make out a narrow structure with stone columns protruding upwards, which served as support beams for a flat roof.

Costa Oriental architecture dominates in El Meco, as well as most other sites on the coast of Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the core of the site, it is also possible to make out evidence of a staircase that led up to a vaulted area on a second floor. There are several other smaller structures to explore, and even a handful laying outside of the archaeological site, on the other side of the highway — though these have not been restored and are not open to the public. 

Though most of this structure has succumbed to time, archaeologists have still been able to piece together a model of what it likely looked like. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Access to the El Meco is quite easy, as it lay on the road between Puerto Juñarez and Punta Sam. It is even possible to take public transit departing from downtown Cancún. The area around the site is full of great seafood restaurants and beautiful beaches, so you may as well make a full day of it. 

A map showing the location of El Meco, on the northeast the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google

The entrance fee is 55 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. El Meco remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

Tip: Although the site is currently closed, if you are in the area, stop by anyway as you can see the core of the site through the gate on the road. 

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