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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Off the beaten path, the great city of Chacmultún awaits

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 head a couple of hours south of Mérida to explore the ruins of Chacmultún.

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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 red soil and stone give Chacmultún its name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city of Chacmultún, in the municipality of Tecax, is roughly 120 kilometers southeast of Mérida.

Because of its distance from any large cities, Chacmultún receives very few visitors. But its isolated location and unique geography make it the perfect day trip for archaeology aficionados who want to enjoy exploring ruins without all the hubbub. 

The area is also great for people interested in birdwatching, especially if you arrive early. If you want to spend the night in the region you could do so in Tekax or Maní. Maní is also home to a restaurant called Principe Tutul Xiu, which has long been a favorite among people in Yucatán for its regional cuisine.

A yellow fly catcher flaps its wings and poses for a picture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Chacmultún means “mounds of red stone” in the Yucatec-Mayan language. The origin of the moniker clearly comes from the reddish tone of the soil and of many of the stones used in the city’s construction. Its name in antiquity is unknown. 

A habitational structure in Chacmultún, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site was discovered in the 19th century by the famed explorer Teoberto Maler but was not excavated until the 1970s. The habitation of Chacmultún dates back to the 3rd century BC, but the city reached its peak in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. There is evidence that the city had trade links with other important contemporary centers such as Oxkintok and Uxmal, with which it also shares its dominant Puuc architectural style. 

A tree grows on the ruins of a ceremonial platform in Chacmultún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Many of Chacmultún’s most imposing structures were built atop hills. While this practice is very common in other regions of Mesoamerica, it is very rare in the extremely flat northern Yucatan. 

Looking over the valley and rolling hills of the western Puuc. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When you first arrive at the site you will see a large artificial terrace with several Puuc-style structures atop. Some of the structures have been more reconstructed than others, likely to give visitors a sense of the stages of archaeological restoration. 

Continuing down the path you will see a prehispanic ball court, or pok ta pok, and several other low-lying structures, some of which have been almost entirely reclaimed by the jungle. 

A Maya ball court in Chacmultún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

You will then reach a large structure belonging to the Cabalpak group. The place resembles structures in other ancient cities such as Labna or Sayil, but only the first story has been restored.

The Cabalpak palace complex in Chacmultún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the left, you will see a large pyramidal structure off in the distance. On your way to the structure, you will pass crop fields belonging to the people in the nearby village. Depending on when you visit, you are likely to see squash, corn, or beans growing in the field, much in the same way they have for thousands of years. 

The red path to Chacmultún’s pyramid lookout. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Climbing the pyramid and the hill on which it sits can be a bit of a challenge, but is well worth it. Make sure to watch your step, as many of the stones are likely to come loose under your weight. Fortunately, there are a good deal of trees to hang onto and help you keep your balance. 

Beware of the loose rocks on the way up the hill and pyramid at Chacmultún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The view from the top is quite spectacular as is the architecture of the Puuc-style construction itself. 

The top three floors of the Chacmultún structure pierce the thick jungle canopy. 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 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

There is not much in the way of services at the site other than a bathroom, so make sure to bring some water, sunblock, a hat, and a sturdy pair of comfortable walking shoes. 

Signage to help you find the site is fairly lacking.

From Mérida, make your way to the town of Tekax, make a right turn on Calle 72, and then again on Calle 70. Continue down the road to the village of Kancab and from there head south for a couple of kilometers.

As of April 2021, Chacmultún remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates. 

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