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Journey into the wonderous Kohunlich and its exotic jungle

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 journey into the south of Quintana Roo to explore the magnificent city of Kohunlich and its lush jungle.

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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.
The Temple of Masks in Kohunlich Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Kohunlich is in Quintana Roo about 65 km west of the capital city of Chetumal. The city was first inhabited by the Maya in the 2nd century BC but saw most of its monumental construction erected between the 3rd to 4th centuries AD. 

Archaeological surveys of the site have found more than 200 large structures at Kohunlich and a great many smaller constructions such as ceremonial platforms and stone foundations for thatched homes. 

Ceremonial altar in Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

One of the first things one notices upon approaching the ancient city is the thick vegetation and abundance of exotic-looking Cohune Palms, which dominate much of the landscape. Oddly enough, the name Kohunlich is not Mayan or even Spanish, but rather a variation on the English name it was originally given by inhabitants of the area, which was “Cohun Ridge.” The original name of the city remains unknown.

Cohune Palms tower across the entirety of Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado vand er Gracht.

The area surrounding Kohulich is extremely lush with vegetation and full of interesting birds. If you hear howls coming from the nearby jungle, don’t be alarmed. The howler monkeys that inhabit the jungle are very peaceful with humans — just make sure to not feed them or else they may follow you. 

Howler monkeys are known in Mexico as Mono aullador or saraguato. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.
A hawk perches on a branch in Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kohunlich is its open layout that allows you to freely roam the site on a number of trails. You will find yourself strolling down a small jungle path, when boom, all of a sudden you are standing next to an enormous pyramid and wondering how something so large could have snuck up on you. 

Rio Bec structure with collapsed chamber. Is likely to have had two large towers darting up from each site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Given the lack of easily accessible fresh surface water, the urban design of Kohunlich features an efficient system of water collection and storage. Several cisterns are in place, a fairly common sight in the region’s large settlements. Some sections of these cisterns can still be seen overflowing during the rainy season.

Water lilies grow around the overflowing ancient water cisterns known as choltunes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

When entering the site you will first see a large central plaza, known as the Acropolis, which is ringed by several large pyramids and ceremonial platforms.

A large acropolis complex in Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Kohunlich is a good example of Rio Bec architecture, though some elements of the Chenes style are also observable.

In antiquity, ancient structures big and small would have been covered in stucco and adorned in red paint. Photo: Carlos rosado van de Gracht.

The city also has several smaller plazas, ceremonial centers, ballcourts and residential complexes.

A ballcourt or Pok ta Pok in Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most famous feature of the site is without a doubt the Temple of Masks dedicated to the sun god. The facade of this large structure once featured eight large sun god masks along its central staircase. Only five survive to this day. Fortunately, the remaining stucco masks depicting the solar deity Kʼinich Ajaw are in remarkably good condition with traces of original paint still being clearly visible.

Lord Kʼinich Ajaw looking majestic in Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entire top section of the Temple of Masks is covered by a thatched roof designed to protect the valuable artifacts which lay below it.

Archaeologists often cover delicate sections of structures with thatched roofs. They are inexpensive and have the added benefit of being lightweight, so they are unlikely to damage the structure if they were to collapse due to a storm. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The temple itself is also quite impressive and worth walking around with a keen eye.

The imposing walls of Temple of Masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 70 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents (with ID).

Signage to the site is fairly good from both Chetumal in the east and Xpujil in the west. Many tour companies operating in Chetumal offer day trips at competitive prices. While some sites are closed because of the pandemic, Kohunlich is among those that are open.

The site’s facilities are surprisingly good given its remote location. The bathrooms are large and kept fairly clean, and the folks at the INAH ticket booth have water and soft drinks for sale. if you are lucky, they sometimes even have working public WiFi. 

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