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Saturday, July 31, 2021
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El Rey: Archaeology in the heart of Cancun’s hotel zone

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 Cancun’s hotel zone, not for the beaches or parties, but archaeology.

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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.
A Mayan temple stands at El Rey archaeological site on Cancun’s hotel zone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Rey is a Maya archaeological site tucked inconspicuously into Cancun’s bustling hotel zone in the municipality of Benito Juárez.

Evidence suggests that El Rey began as a small fishermen’s settlement sometime in the 2nd century CE. But the bulk of the construction observable today was likely not erected for several hundred years after the settlement was established.

When visiting El Rey, it is impossible not to notice the towering hotels of Cancun’s hotel zone visible just above the tree line. It really does make for quite a striking contrast. 

El Rey, Cancun’s often ignored archaeological site, is complete with a Hilton hotel towering over the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Rey likely rose to prominence with the expansion of commercial routes on the Yucatán Peninsula during the classic period. Like Xcambó, the city was an important center for the production of salt, which was essential to cure meat and seafood. 

One structure dates to El Rey’s later period of construction starting in the 10th century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Rey gets its name from the discovery in 1909 of a sculpted stone head depicting the likeness of a local ruler or king. The large stone head likely dates to the late post-classic period and can be seen in Cancun’s archaeology museum. The original name of the site is unknown, but some archaeologists suggest that it may have been Cancuen, meaning “nest of snakes.”

A stone sculpture found at El Rey is housed in Cancun’s archaeology museum. Photo: Courtesy

By the time the first Europeans arrived in Yucatán in the 16th century, most major Maya city-states had fallen long before. However, settlements along what today is Quintana Roo’s Caribbean coastline continued to thrive, likely due to the abundance of natural resources and easy access to sources of protein in the area. 

When exploring El Rey, keep your eyes peeled for birds such as flycatchers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The architecture of the site is dominated by a style known as Costa Oriental, recognizable for its low-lying structures, single chambers, and flat roofs. The vast majority of the population of the settlement would have lived in homes made from perishable materials, closely resembling homes still being built by Maya communities today across the Yucatán Peninsula. 

A stone stairway leads up to a ceremonial platform in the center of El Rey’s largest plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At El Rey, visitors are able to explore the ruins of 47 stone structures, though a few of these have been reduced to foundations. Most structures at the site can be found in two self-contained plazas, but the remains of smaller buildings can be seen buried in the surrounding vegetation. 

Waterbirds visit the ruins of a heavily eroded structure in El Rey, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The tallest structure at the site is a small pyramid near the center of the largest of the two plazas. In 1975 archaeologists discovered the burial of a nobleman or lord within the pyramid, complete with a copper ax and ritual ornaments made of seashells and bone. 

A small step pyramid, 5.5 meters tall, remains at El Rey archaeological site in Cancun, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Adjacent to the pyramid is a large artificial platform housing a single chamber with two doors. Remains of the structure’s colorful decor survive on an interior wall, but unfortunately, access is restricted.

Archaeologists from Mexico’s Institue of Anthropology and History (INAH) work to preserve frescoes at El Rey archaeological site in Cancun, Quintana Roo. Photo: Courtesy

The site’s only known stone residential complex, known as the Palace, is made up of an artificial platform and a series of 18 pillars that once held up its roof. Atop the platforms, it is possible to make out niches that likely housed ceremonial altars.

If you go

Given its location on Cancún’s hotel zone and its easy accessibility via public transit, El Rey is perhaps Mexico’s most easily accessible archaeological site. Despite this, most visitors to Cancun have no idea that it even exists. You could perhaps point to this fact as an indictment of the way in which the tourism industry commodifies Maya culture when it’s profitable, but relegates Maya heritage and its descendants to the background when it’s not.

A map shows the location of Cancún on the Yucatán Peninsula and El Rey on Cancun’s hotel zone. Image: Google

The site itself lays on a marshland that will sometimes partially flood during the rainy season, so make sure to pack some mosquito repellent. The abundance of water also attracts a fair amount of local fauna, so keep your eyes peeled. 

A semiaquatic red-eared slider spotted in El Rey archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink, other than water. 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 Rey remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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