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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Hochob, the mysterious Maya city on the hill

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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.
Hochob’s Monster of the Earth facade is one of the best preserved examples of Chenes architecture in the entire region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hochob is a Maya archaeological site in Hopelchén, within the Mexican state of Campeche. The name Hochob is translated to English as the place where corn grows, or the place where the corn is — hinting at the city’s main economic activity. 

It is impossible to overstate the centrality of corn to the flourishing of the Mayan civilization, or life on the Yucatán Peninsula today. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city seems to have been founded in the 3rd century CE, but it is likely that the area had already been settled by Maya farmers centuries before. For most of its history, we assume that Hochob and other nearby settlements such as El Tabasqueño were dependent politically and militarily on the Chenes capital of Xtampak.  

Though Hochob is a fairly compact site, it is really jam packed with several interesting structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from the information archaeologists have been able to glean from the site’s impressive monuments, little is known for certain about Hochob. The city has an aura of mystery surrounding it as decipherable hieroglyphic inscriptions capable of shedding more light on its past are extremely rare. 

The ancient city was first explored and documented in the 19th century by renowned explorer Teobert Maler. Maler published his photographs of Hochob along with some crude maps in the Italian magazine Globus in 1895.

Ilustration of Hochob’s Monster of the Earth portal complex by archaeologist Paul Gendrop. Photo: Courtesy

Its architecture is concentrated above the aforementioned hill, though small unrestored structures including residential complexes can be spotted in the thick jungle.

The area surrounding the ceremonial center is extremely flat and overgrown with vegetation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hochob’s ceremonial center was built atop a natural hill that was landscaped and flattened. This practice is not that unusual in more mountainous areas such as the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala, but fairly rare for the Yucatán Peninsula. This natural platform is 30 meters / 98 feet tall and extends roughly 200 by 50 meters, or 656 by 164 feet.

he dominant architectural style at the site is Chenes, though obvious hints of Puuc-style ornamentation also stand out. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The stone mosaic work on structures such as the Monster of the Earth facade is impressive and has survived the ravages of time remarkably well, with more than a little help from INAH archaeologists of course. 

A front facing view of Hochob’s exquisite Monster of the Earth facade portal Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As we have mentioned in articles about Ek Balam, Tonina, and Xtampak, Monster of the Earth facades are symbolic gateways between the earth and netherworld realm, known to the ancient Maya as Xibalba. Though they do not appear exclusively in Chenes sites, they are considered a hallmark of Chenes architecture. 

Plaques at the site note that the facades of these types of portals represent the sky god Itzamná, though this interpretation is not universally shared. Other plausible interpretations suggest that the monster of the earth is not really a deity per se, but rather an anthropomorphic/zoomorphic representation of Xibalba or the earth itself, only loosely associated with Itzamná or Kukulkán. 

Because of their narrow design, the Chenes style pyramids of Hochob are sometimes said to resemble miniature versions of those found in Tikal — though this resemblance is only superficial. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Directly across from the Monster of the Earth portal, we see two beautifully adorned pyramids with partially complete roof crests. These two pyramids are connected by a horizontally laid-out structure containing several chambers. 

Crests are a common feature in Chenes architecture, as well as other styles, as they make structures seem even larger than they really are. They were covered in stucco and painted with bright colors, usually red. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike other pyramid structures at the site and in the Chenes region as a whole, these two pyramids come complete with usable stairways, though they are admittedly quite steep, so exercise great caution if you describe climbing them. As always, look out for loose rocks. 

Remains of the facade of the structure adjacent to Hochob’s Monster of the Earth portal. The teeth of the mask’s lower mandible are clearly visible as are a few other surviving elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Although Hochob is fairly remote, access is not as difficult as you may think, as it sits only a couple of kilometers off highway 261. The turnoff to the site can be found to the right of the tiny community of Chencoh and is challenging terrain, but fortunately only goes on for about 2.5 kilometers. 

Map showing the location of Hochob on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

As the site is administered by the INAH, it has a small hut that serves as a ticketing booth and usually has water for sale. That being said I would advise that you bring your own. You don’t want to be caught without enough water in this extremely hot and humid region. 

Ticketing booth and shelter for Hochob’s INAH guardians. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Most visitors to Hochob visit the site in conjunction with nearby Tabasqueño on their way to archaeological sites further south, such as Becán and Calakmul. This is a good strategy but requires that you start your day very early or find accommodation in one of the nearby communities. 

Squirrel Cuckoo hiding in the Hochob’s foliage. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee is 45 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. Hochob remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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