Playa del Carmen has a big secret to tell, and its name is Xaman Há

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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.

Playa del Carmen is best known for its party atmosphere, luxury resorts, and anything-goes (well almost) vibe. But like many spots in the Yucatán peninsula, this resort town hides a treasure trove of fascinating archaeological remains. 

Over a millennia before the arrival of tourists from around the world, Playa del Carmen was a very different place. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During Maya antiquity, Playa del Carmen was known as Xaman Há, which in the Yucatec-Mayan language, roughly translates as northern waters.

Aerial photograph of Xaman Há’s Group 1 among a large residential complex and just around 250 feet from the ocean. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like other Caribbean coastal urban centers including Isla Mujeres, El Meco, Tulum, and El Rey, Xaman Há was an important trading and transit post connecting the northern Yucatán Peninsula with city-states in what today is Central America. 

Despite being surrounded by some of Mexico’s most expensive real estate, INAH has made sure to allow for large swaths of vegetation to grow around Xaman Há. Photo: Carlos Rsoado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xaman Há is also notable for being located directly across from Cozumel, Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, which was host to important pilgrimage sites dedicated to the goddess Ixchel. 

Structure in Group 1, with a condominium visible in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Architecturally, Xaman Há conforms to the Costa Oriental architectural style, which is characterized by relatively low-lying structures, masonry vaults, flat roofs, and single chambers (with notable exceptions, of course). 

While exploring Xaman Há, I took the liberty to ask 20 groups of tourists what they knew about the site. Only two groups identified the remains as Prehispanic ruins, while the rest either assumed they were replicas or they had not noticed them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though Costa Oriental architecture is not as obviously influenced by the architecture of Nahua-speaking civilizations from central Mexico, we can still observe several of these hallmarks including colonnaded halls, serpentine columns, and the use of decorative and trim recess lintels. 

Illustration of “El Templo” in Xaman Há, Q Roo. Credit: Steve Radzi / Mayavision.com

The channel surrounding Cozumel and Playa del Carmen is also notable for likey being one of the first geographical areas in which Europeans and the Maya established contact. 

Cornice moldings and stucco remnants survive on a handful of Xaman Há’s structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While circumnavigating Cozumel, the Spanish Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described in 1519 the presence of several towns and villages of considerable size on both the island and the mainland, as well as making note of their encounters with Maya people aboard wooden canoes. 

What was once a coveted hub of commerce in ancient Mesoamerica is now the most transited aquatic corridor in all of Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Playa del Carmen did not really begin to develop as a tourist destination until the late 1990s. As by this time protocols were already in place to protect Mexico’s cultural heritage, many ancient structures survived the transformation from small fishing village to tourism mecca. 

But despite this fact, the archaeological remains found in Playa del Carmen are still fairly easy to miss, unless you know what you are looking for.

A small artificial platform topped with either a small temple or residential structure in Xaman Há, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The surviving structures are split up into three main groups, which we will call Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3. (Note: not an official INAH designation.)

Map showing the three main groups of archaeological remains viewable to visitors in ancient Xaman Há, modern Playa del Carmen: Map: Google Maps / Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Because it sits in an open area surrounded by condominiums and tennis courts, Group 1 is the easiest architectural group to visit. 

Group 1 features five structures arranged atop an artificial platform. All of the structures have been partially restored and can be seen up close, though climbing them (as with all the structures in Xaman Há) is forbidden. 

East to west view of Group 1 in Xaman Há, in what is today Playa del Carmen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The best preserved and most restored structure in Group 1 was likely an elite residence, featuring a large chamber, column, and remains of stucco.

Steps leading up to the artificial platform in Xaman Há’s Group 1. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatan Magazine

Another of the most impressive structures in Group 1 features a beautifully restored entranceway that would have led through what is now a collapsed vault.

As a result of the conditions, archaeologists found the structures of Xaman Há, in several cases the only section of the building which could be accurately restored was their main point of access, thus creating the false illusion that all of these structures would have been quite similar. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xaman Há’s Group 2 is encircled by a tall chain-link fence which is almost always closed. This makes entering and exploring the site impossible, but it’s still possible to make out several of the structures from outside the gate. 

The largest structure in Group 2 is visible from outside the gated perimeter. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The structures in Group 2 are notable for their positioning in what is called an “E grouping,” which suggests an astronomically significant alignment, often with reference to the planet Venus. 

During excavations in Xaman Há archaeologists discovered a handful of engravings and references to the worship of the fertility goddess Ixchel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In Group 3 we find a beautifully restored lone temple in what is today Playa del Carmen’s 5th Avenue. The survival of this structure is all the more impressive given that this area is one of the most coveted corners of real estate in all of Mexico.

A lone surviving structure in Playa del Carmen 5th avenue has weathered the ravages of time, hurricanes, and the interests of developers, with much help from the INAH. You really must give credit where credit is due. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go 

Getting to Playa del Carmen is extremely easy from just about every point on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Map showing the location of Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán Peninsula. Map: Google Maps

Once in Playa del Carmen, visiting its ancient architecture dating to the Post-classic is quite simple and can be done entirely on foot.

If you see this condominium building near Xaman Ha’s group A, you are on the right track. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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