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Marvel at the great Oxkintok and the mystery of its labyrinth

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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.
Oxkintok makes for a great day trip from Mérida, but just remember to bring a hat, plenty of water and sunblock. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The prehispanic city of Oxkintok is located in the municipality of Maxcanú in an area surrounded by soft rolling hills and a great many caves. The archaeological site is located 80 kilometers from Mérida and usually takes about an hour to reach.

Many people heading out to Oxkintok decide to also check out the Calcetok caves, located just five minutes east. Just keep in mind that the Calcetok caves can be quite grueling to explore as they require visitors to move through on all fours at several points. If you are up for it, just make sure to bring old clothes you don’t mind ruining.

Because the site does not lay on the Puuc route, Oxkintok gets only a small fraction of the visitors of other sites in the immediate region, such as Uxmal or Kabah. The core of the city is split up into three areas known as the Ah-Dzib, Ah-Canul and Ah-May groups.

In Yucatec-Mayan the name Oxkintok derives its meaning from three words. The first two of these, Ox and Kin, are fairly straightforward and mean three and sun/day respectively. However, the word tok can carry many meanings such as to lean, fall or burn, as well as to puncture, bleed or snatch away. 

A very Puuc multi level structure in the Ah-May group at Oxkintok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Although the area enclosed and the archaeological site is fairly large, the city of Oxkintok was much larger still. Evidence of several large structures several kilometers away from the core of the site can be seen off the side of the road on the highway to Campeche. 

Habitational structures can be found both inside and outside of the city core. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most famous feature at Oxkintok is without a doubt its enigmatic labyrinth. The structure is divided into three levels and contains several maze-like corridors. In the center of the bottom level, archaeologists found a richly adorned burial, likely belonging to one of the city’s great lords. The interior of the structure is not open to the public, which is understandable as the inside is completely dark and could be dangerous.

The labyrinth at Oxkintok is not open to the public, but once in a blue moon tourists are let in with a guide. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The three levels of the labyrinth are said to symbolize the heavens, earth and underworld. It is unknown if the structure was built to serve exclusively as a tomb or if it also served some other purpose. Some archaeologists have suggested that that the labyrinth may have served as a sort of ritualistic trial for up-and-coming noble youths of the city. 

This particular geometric pattern is only seen at Oxkintok, inside the labyrinth. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeologists have been able to divide the basic chronology of Oxkintok into six distinct phases thanks to the extensive amounts of pottery found at the site. It would seem Oxkintok was first occupied as early as the sixth century B.C. and reached its era of greatest splendor sometime in the fifth century A.D. The last phase of construction in the city appears to have taken place sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries.

A view of Oxkintok from atop its largest pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site also features several anthropomorphic stone pillars. Given that the shapes wrap around the pillars, the proportions are not exactly realistic. This style of sculpture can also be observed in other smaller sites in the area, including the facade of a very interesting church in the nearby community of Paraiso. Check back in a few weeks for more on this particularly interesting piece of history. 

A round, anthropomorphic column at Oxkintok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike other large urban centers in the region, there is no evidence of war or famine to explain why Oxkintok was abandoned. But all evidence points to a sudden migration out of the city sometime in the late 14th century.

One of the many orbel arches in Oxkintok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site is seen as an example of the transition from traditional Classic Period architecture to the Puuc style. It is truly an interesting mix of early, late and terminal classic techniques. The Puuc influence is the most immediately apparent with the use of corbel arches and stone carved geometric designs. 

A Mesoamerican ball court at Oxkintok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site also features many of the characteristics one would expect to see during later periods of occupation, such as a ballcourt and several elevated platforms and pyramids consistent with the talud-tablero architecture imported from central Mexico.

Example of talud-tablero architecture at Oxkintok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As of late March 2021, Oxkintok remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. The entrance fee to both sites is 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

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