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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Kankí, the Maya city where the stone eyes of ancient gods burn as hot as the sun

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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.
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Kankí may be only 10 miles or so from the Mérida-Campeche highway, but it feels a world away.

Kankí’s main ceremonial center is surrounded by collapsed structures but has more than enough to pique your interest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

After making your way along the narrow path carved through corn fields, and likely getting lost more than once, you will finally arrive at one of Campeche’s most under-visited archaeological sites.

Believe it or not, this is probably the clearest sign pointing to the archaeological site of Kankí, and this is despite the fact that it is slanted to the side, making it of little use. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Kankí itself is well hidden among corn fields. To make things even more complicated, the signage is quite poor and feels almost deliberately obtuse. 

You will know you have finally made it to the right place when you spot a small cabin that serves as a visitor registration center.

When signing in, you are likely to notice that you are the first visitor in several days. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The archaeological site of Kankí shares its name with a nearby community in the municipality of Tenabo and is likely named after a local species of agave, recognizable for its small yellow flowers. 

Archaeological evidence suggests Kankí was founded sometime during the 1st century CE, though the surrounding area was likely inhabited centuries before. 

An onsite map of the restored sections of the ancient city of Kankí. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

When walking into Kankí, you will find yourself surrounded by ancient mounds. The best route to take is a narrow footpath through the brush on your right-hand side.

When walking around the site, make sure to watch your step as loose stones are everywhere, to say nothing of flimsily boarded-up cisterns known as chultunes and geological formations which would be very unpleasant to fall into. 

These wells can be found all over Kankí, so if you go off the main path, pay particular attention to your footing. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The first structure you are likely to come across is a single-story Puuc-style residential complex known as Structure 6.

Kankí’s Structure 6 contains upwards of seven chambers and access points, though in its heyday it was probably even more impressive.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most notable aspects of Kankí’s Structure 6 is just how irregular it is in its design. Some of its doorways are made up of fairly standard corbel arches while others are extremely small and supported by lintels. 

You may expect to see this sort of architectural variety in larger palatial constructions, but it feels somewhat odd in a residential complex. 

My old time friend and partner in many expeditions to remote sites, Roque Arcudia, stands in front of a miniature door for scale. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Following the path past Structure 6, you will make your way to the core of the site. From this vantage point not much more than stacks of rubble are visible, but if you climb your way up the top, the ceremonial complex will soon begin to reveal itself. 

Collapsed structures with protruding Corbel arches seem to be everywhere in Kankí, to the point where they are almost its most prominent feature. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once you have climbed to the top of the large mound of rubble, a grand structure topped with an elaborate crest will come into view. 

This back-facing section of the structure is exquisitely preserved and features many of the characteristics one would come to expect of Puuc art and architecture. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Crests are a fairly common feature in Maya architecture, but because they are freestanding, most do not survive to this day.

This crest features a Puuc-style cornice and several other elements one would expect, most notably a single (completely) surviving elaborate stone mask. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The bottom half of this grand structure, including its entrance and several of its niches, are buried under rubble, but with a little imagination, it’s still possible to picture what it must have looked like in its heyday. 

Because this is the Puuc region, after all, one’s first instinct is to attribute this mask to the rain god Chaac. However, this may not be the case. 

During the first couple of days of May at height of the dry season, the sun passes directly behind the eyes of this mask, making it resemble the Solar fertility deity known as Kin Ich Ahau, or the lord with eyes of fire.

Image of the sun passing directly behind the impressive mask on the south-facing wall of Kankí’s ceremonial center. Photo: INAH

The phenomena then repeats itself in early August, (from the 5th through the 7th) announcing the arrival of the rainy season, a good omen indeed.

Despite being located in an area rich with easily accessible water, the people of Kankí (and most other Mesoamerican cities) relied heavily on rain for their crops and way of life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.com

Then again, another possible interpretation regarding the identity of the deity represented on the mask in question is that it is meant to represent both Chaac and Kin Ich Ahau, as both these important figures are ultimately two sides of the same coin. 

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“The deities Chaac and Kin Ich Ahau are closely related and contrasted in Maya cosmology. They both bring life in their own way and understanding this is central to getting into the mindset of the ancient Maya,” said INAH archaeologist Florentino García Cruz during a recent conference. 

To the left of the south-facing wall, you will notice a narrow corridor framed by a large arch leading out of the ceremonial center. 

This corridor was likely one of several access points to Kankí’s ceremonial center, but today is the only one that survives. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Several other structures are observable at Kankí, but the vast majority have not been restored to any degree, and as the area surrounding the “landscaped” area of the site is quite perilous, I would not recommend venturing out too far unless you are particularly fit and experienced with this sort of terrain. Again, watch out for falling into caves and wells!

An unrestored structure in Kankí located near the main ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Kankí is roughly 10 miles from the Mérida-Campeche highway, but getting there will take some doing. 

A map shows the location of Kankí in the municipality of Tenabo, Campeche. Image: Google Maps

Keep in mind that online maps do not differentiate between the town of Mankí and the archaeological site, so don’t waste your time driving around town seeking ruins. 

Because of the abundance of water in the region, Kankí is overflowing with wildlife, especially birds. Photo:  Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As you enter the town you will notice a sign pointing to a small dirt road. Keep right until you reach the second turn and then take the smaller dirt road to the left of the illegible sign for roughly five minutes.

Keep in mind that the terrain on the way to Kankí can be quite rough and that not all vehicles may be up to the task. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because of the difficulty accessing the site and the fact that it is so obscure, no tour companies that I am aware of are organizing trips to Kankí. Your best bet is to spend the night in Campeche to get there good and early, or include Kankí in to a circuit of other sites including other sites in the region like Tohcok, Chunhuhub, and Xtampak

Lodging is also available in other towns such as Hechelchacan and Bolomchen,  but don’t expect five-star resorts.

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