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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Paraíso: One of Yucatán’s best-kept archaeological secrets

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 make our way into the tiny community of Paraíso to explore one of the most unique sites in all of Yucatán.

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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.

Because of its remote location, most in Yucatán have never even heard of Paraíso — let alone visited.

The village of Paraíso has only about 500 inhabitants and is part of the municipality of Maxcanú. At the most western point of this unassuming community is the chapel of Santa Bárbara. As you approach the small church, you will immediately realize that this small Catholic temple is far from ordinary. 

First impressions can be deceiving at Paraíso’s Santa Bárbara Chapel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

What makes this church so interesting has little to do with the church itself, but rather the large amount of Maya artifacts that decorate its facade and surrounding walls. The story of how exactly the chapel came to house such a collection is not exactly clear. However, according to locals, the artifacts were brought to the church by members of the community for protection from pillagers in the late 19th or early 20th century. 

Further to the west of the church are the remains of a hacienda and beyond that are foundations of what was once the core of an ancient Maya settlement. It is likely that the carved stones of the ancient temples were used in the construction of the hacienda — as had been common practice for centuries. 

Section of a ruined hacienda near the chapel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Fragments of hieroglyphic writing or decorative elements can be found in several churches in Yucatán including the Tercera Orden on Calle 60 in Mérida or San Antonio de Padua in Izamal. What makes the chapel of Santa Bárbara so special is how these artifacts were placed so purposefully, perhaps even reverently. It is more than a little ironic that these artifacts would be preserved on a church, given the centuries of destruction the Catholic church inflicted on Maya civilization. 

Diverse ancient Mayan artifacts placed in the walls of a hacienda near Acanceh. Notice the ad hoc placement in comparison to the chapel at Santa Barbara. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The straits up to Santa Bárbara church are flanked on both sides by two large carved stone stelae. These carvings contain hieroglyphic writing as well as images of high-ranking male figures. These and other stelae found nearby are shown to be dancing and are adorned with headdresses representing the rain god Chaac — likely engaged in a rain dance or fertility ritual.  

Stelae depicting a dancing man in rain god garb. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The wall surrounding the church is also adorned with various pre-hispanic elements such as a series of four glyphs and a human figure in a style similar to sculptures found at nearby sites such as Yaxcopoil or Oxkintok. It is likely that this figure was once part of a column that held up a vault within a Puuc-style temple. 

A rounded human figure of a man with his hand on his chest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance to the temple itself is also flanked with Maya sculpture, but this time the figures are standing on top of platforms adorned with hieroglyphic writing. These two male figures were carved into circular columns in the Puuc style and are depicted holding some kind of staff. Both figures also seem to be wearing a mask with a human skull encrustation and elements reminiscent of sculpture found in Kabah

Two ancient Maya nobles guard the entrance to a Catholic temple. Now that’s not something you see every day. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Whoever placed these figures at this location also chose to emulate European architecture by adding a circular column topped with a capital. Both these elements are also pre-hispanic in origin. 

Puuc columns made to hold up a capital depicting what appears to be a human skull. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

On the western side of the church, we can observe yet more stelae featuring male human figures. These sculptures have been topped with elements likely extracted from another location of the same ancient settlement. The first of these elements — from left to right — seems to have been made into a makeshift Christian cross. The origin of the figure in the middle is unknown, but the one on the far right was likely a ballcourt marker. 

Maya stelae on the western end of the temple. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Paraíso is 95 kilometers from Mérida and 25 kilometers from Maxcanú, but the road down these final 25 kilometers are down a fairly poor road, so take it slow.

Reconstructed Maya structure near the entrance to nearby Maxcanú. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The town itself is cute but lacks services apart from a couple of small convenience stores. The nearest public bathroom facility is at the gas station on the exit to Macanú. 

Visiting the site is free as it is not maintained by the INAH. Keep in mind that Paraíso receives virtually no visitors, so if you notice people in the town looking at you oddly, don’t be alarmed. They are just wondering what the heck you are doing there. Just make sure to not be too noisy and be respectful of the town, its people, and the church. 

Day trips out to Paraíso from Mérida work very well as part of an excursion out to other interesting sites in the area such as Oxkintok. Bring a good hat, sunblock, and plenty of water.

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