Exploring Dzibilchaltún is easiest for early birds

Temple of the Seven dolls in Dziblichatún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about these marvels of antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. Given the state of the current sanitary emergency, it is perhaps wise to start things off with one of the most accessible archaeological sites in the region, Dzibilchaltún.

When thinking of the Yucatán, for many the first image to come to mind is the pyramid of Kukulkán in Chichén Itzá. Although Chichén Itzá is by far the most visited historical attraction on the peninsula, there are another 54 interesting archaeological sites spread across the Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche.

Located roughly halfway between Mérida and the port city of Progreso, Dzibilchaltún is the site of an ancient Maya city settled in the third century BC — placing its foundation in the era referred to by archaeologists as pre-classical. In the Yucatec-Maya language Dzibilchaltún means “the place where they wrote on stones.” However, its even harder-to-pronounce original name seems to have been Chi’ y Chaan Ti’ Ho.

Those who have only visited ever Chichén Itzá will find much smaller crowds at Dziblichatlún. However, the site can get fairly busy, especially when passengers from cruise ships docked in Progreso swarm in. It is nice to visit the site right as it opens at 8 a.m. and avoid the heat and large groups of visitors. This is when you can best enjoy the native wildlife. 

Keep your eyes open for birds such as the Yucatán Jay. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Before entering the archaeological site itself, it is a good idea to visit its museum. On the way to the museum, you will walk through a path lined with large stone artifacts and sculptures found during an excavation in the region. These include large stelae with easily visible hieroglyphics and Chac mool; a characteristic stone statue of a reclined man holding a vessel. The museum is divided into two rooms containing artifacts from the site and an exhibit on the conquest of Yucatán by the Spanish.

Maya Chac mool laying just outside the Dziblichatún museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Temple of the Seven Dolls is the most famous structure in Dzibilchaltún. The temple received its name when in the 1950s archaeologists discovered seven small figures buried within the structure. These “seven dolls” present physical deformations, which for the Maya represented divine favor. The figures can be seen at the site’s museum.

Aside from its architectural beauty, the temple is also famous for its sunrise on the spring equinox (March 21), during which the sun passes directly through its doorway. This event typically attracts thousands of spectators, many of whom believe the astronomical event to be spiritually invigorating.

The Seven Dolls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another interesting  feature at the archaeological site includes its Sacbé, white road in Maya. These Maya roads connected city states throughout Meso-America  and served as important commercial and military routes. The structure known as “La Capilla” or the chapel, was actually built during the colonial period and serves as a great example of religious syncretism in Yucatán.

“The Chappel” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The “creatively named” Structure 36 is an uncovered pyramid located in the section of the site known as the “gran plaza,” made up of four platforms with a height of roughly 10 meters. Archaeologists believe that this was one of the last structures built at the site and dates to the 9th century. 

Pyramidal Structure 36. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Many Yucatecos consider a visit to Dzibilchaltún incomplete without a dip into the Xlacah cenote. This is particularly true on Sundays, when the entrance to the site is free for nationals and foreigners residing in Yucatán. Unlike many other cenotes, Xlcah is completely above ground, which makes getting in quite easy (though slippery). The cenote is roughly 40 meters wide and 100 meters long and a wonderful way to end a day trip to Dzibilchaltún on a hot day. Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article, the cenote remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Xlacah cenote in 2020, before the COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Dzibilchaltún is open to the public every day of the week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The site reopened to the public in early January 2021, after being closed for many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The site has very good facilities including clean bathrooms and a couple of shops.

Facilities at Dziblichaltún site include a shop, a small restaurant, bathrooms and a ticket booth. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to introduce 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.