Kulubá, the grand Maya capital of Yucatán’s east

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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.
The view while approaching Kulubá’s Group A. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

With strong ties to some of the Peninsula’s most powerful city-states, Kulubá is believed to have ruled northeastern Yucatán with an iron fist.

Perhaps given its remote location, Kulubá appears to have been spared the pillaging so many other Mayan sites are subject to and as a result, still possesses extremely well-preserved architectural features and decorative elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The origins of Kulubá have proven difficult to establish with any real degree of precision, though its architecture suggests the city saw its first major construction boom sometime in the 3rd or 4th century C.E. That being said, archaeological evidence of settlements of Maya peoples in the area surrounding the site goes back at least another thousand years.

By the late Classical period, Kulubá seems to have entered into a political arrangement with Ek Balam, as with Chichén Itzá during the post-Classic period. 

Maya roads known as sacbes connected Kulubá with other powerful city-states in the region including Chichén Itza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given its location and control over smaller settlements along the coast, it is likely that Kulubá played an important role in controlling and taxing goods coming from coastal cities in Quintana Roo and Central America, both by land and sea. 

One of these coastal outposts was called Chikinchel but is now known as El Cuyo, which is a tiny fishing village and a growing getaway hotspot.

El Cuyo’s lighthouse was constructed directly atop an ancient Mayan structure. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Kulubá itself is quite large and the restored sections of the ancient city are divided into three areas: A, B, and C.

Aerial view of Area A of Kulubá’s Group A in Yucatán, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The first of these areas and the most visited by far is made up of a large Puuc-style palace, complete with several rooms and a corbel arched ceiling. 

The palace in Kulubá’s in Area A contains several chambers which were likely used either as elite residences or administrative centers for the great city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Adjacent to the Palace is another large structure, again with several rooms containing several chambers and niches, though on a smaller scale.

Like with the Palace, a great deal of Puuc-style ornamentation survives on the facade of this smaller yet still extremely impressive construction. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Directly across from the palace it is impossible to miss what is likely a section of facade removed out of concern for its conservation. This elaborately adorned section of the facade includes a couple of ornate rain god masks as well as a pronounced cornice and mosaics. 

This section the of facade in Kulubá has been placed under a thatched roof to protect it from the elements. Note the detached hooked noses of the rain god masks sitting at the base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Kulubá’s Section B is just to the right of the main entrance to the site and is made up of a highly ornate structure that has obviously received a good deal of restoration over the past few years. 

In the interior of this magnificent structure, we can see archeologists have added a wooden support beam over the entrance, and removed its ancient, and likely severely damaged ancient counterpart. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The exterior of this temple is even more impressive than its interior and features several exquisitely preserved elements.

A handful of stucco masks still survive in Kulubá and are truly a sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The facade of this structure also still possesses impressive amounts of its original paint, especially in tight spots where the architecture itself has protected it from the elements.

Red paint on the facade of the largest structure in Kulubá’s Group B. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To the south of groups A and B it is possible to explore a third architectural complex, though if it was not pointed out to you it is extremely unlikely that you would find it on your own.

This third architectural complex is located to the south of groups A and B and is accessible via a small side road to the right of a small chapel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This extremely lush jungle path is full of songbirds and spider monkeys, so make sure to make your way slowly and quietly to take it all in.

Like all paths surrounding Kulubá, the path to Group C is extremely narrow and better navigated on foot or by bicycle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When arriving at Group C is difficult to not be impressed. The size of the structures, combined with their layout and unique features is nothing short of astonishing, even for the most seasoned traveler.

Unlike groups A and B, Group C appears to have been constructed at a later date and lacks many of the hallmarks of the Puuc region, presenting instead the telltale signs of Teotihuacan influence — likely through the lens of its relationship with Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

From atop the large temple which dominates Group C, it becomes obvious that even more structures are hiding in the dense jungle below.

The unrestored ruins of twin pyramids flank Group C. Even with all the vegetation, they are covered in, it is obvious that these were once extremely imposing structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the most interesting structures in the jungle within Group C is a circular platform reminiscent of temples dedicated to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl found in central Mexico. 

Though this type of circular ceremonial platform is most common in central Mexico and is derived from the Teotihuacan style, other similar structures have been found across the Yucatán Peninsula, including in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

If you were to simply glance at a map, it would appear that getting to Kulubá from Tizimín would be quite quick and easy — and you would be mistaken. 

Map indicating the location of Kulubá in the municipality of Tizimín, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo: Google Maps

Though the first section of the road is not bad at all, once you reach the detour to Kulubá in the direction of Tixcancal, things start to get hairy, fast. 

The deeper into the jungle you go, the more challenging the road becomes, especially during the rainy season. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Unless you have great faith in your vehicle you are probably better off ditching your car and making the trek through the last few kilometers of the jungle on foot. 

Kulubá is not officially open to the public, but visits are allowed. When you arrive at the main gate look for a gentleman who goes by the name of “Willy” to open the gate. Depending on how busy he is tending to cattle, Willy may offer you a tour, and if he does, make sure to take him up on the offer as you are likely to miss much of what makes this site so amazing without his knowledge.

Willy has been the groundskeeper at Kulubá for 19 years and seems to know every nook and cranny of the ancient city. Make sure to tip him well. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When visiting Kulubá it is a good idea to wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, as the area is full of cattle and the ticks which inevitably follow. I have heard stories of these annoying insects making the site almost impossible to enjoy, but during my most recent visit just a few days ago this was certainly not the case.

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