Kabah, the powerful hand of the Puuc valley

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 explore the history and archaeology of a city whose name is literally synonymous with power, Kabah.

Detail of Kabah's Codz poop, also known as temple of the masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Kabah was likely the second-largest city of the Puuc region after Uxmal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

An hour-and-a-half south of Mérida and 20 minutes from Uxmal is Kabah, a Maya archaeological site in the Puuc region of western Yucatán.

Kabah, which means “powerful hand,” is one of the city-states directly referenced in the Maya text known as the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

On approach, the right hand side of the highway is heavily landscaped and contains the majority of the site’s most notable features. Much of the section to the left is covered with vegetation and is great for exploring, spotting birds and making out ancient temples buried beneath mounds of rubble and vegetation. This is not to say that this section does not contain any restored structures. 

Two Maya noblemen oversee the grandeur of Kabah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most famous structure in Kabah is the Codz poop — meaning rolled matting — also known as the temple of masks. The facade of the temple is covered with elaborate stone masks depicting the rain god Chaac. The repeating rain god mask design is unique to Kabah, although the Chaac mask motif itself is extremely common all over the peninsula, and a characteristic feature of Puuc architecture. 

Detail of Kabah’s Codz poop, also known as temple of the masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Flanking a group of large structures in the northern quadrant of the site is an architectural complex known as the palace. The structure is made up of two levels containing more than 30 rooms and a heavily adorned facade. The remains of two sets of staircases are also viable on its exterior. 

Architectural complex known as the palace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the left of the highway and at the beginning of the sac-be — the Maya white road — sits an ancient arch. In ancient times, this sac-be connected Kabah with the regional superpower Uxmal. Archaeologists working at Kabah in the ’50s noted that the interior section of the arch was painted red, although the colors have sadly faded away since.

Ancient arch at Kabah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Further into the bush you will likely come across several structures of varying size and states of restoration. 

Vegetation is quick to grow on ancient structures if it is not dealt with quickly. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though Kabah does not get as many visitors as nearby Uxmal, the site can get fairly busy, especially during the high season. Bathrooms are located next to the ticket counter. Near the entrance you will likely find vendors selling wooden crafts and licensed tour guides.

Scene depicting a nobleman from Kabah victorious over his opponent, likely a prisoner of war. 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. When inside the site, it is obligatory to wear a face mask and be mindful of social distancing. The entrance fee is 55 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.