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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Poxilá is the most impressive Mayan ruin that you’re not allowed to see

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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 majestic ruins of Poxilá, Yucatán are virtually unknown to almost all visitors and residents of Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As anyone who follows this column knows, the breadth and depth of Maya ruins in Yucatán state alone is simply too much for any one person to truly grasp.

This of course does not keep one from trying, but the amount of pyramids deep in the jungle, temples in backyards, and structures hiding in plain sight in abandoned lots (even in Mérida) mean that the number of ruins to be found in the state is seemingly boundless.

Yucatán is home to 17 archaeological sites officially open to the public and directly administered by the INAH. The total number of sites is unknown but is in the thousands. Pictured, fall equinox at Dziblichaltún, one of the most visited Maya ruins in the state. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Even those of us who have been at this for decades are sometimes shocked when we come across a massive site we had no idea existed, especially when it has already been exquisitely restored. How could this be?

The archaeological site of Poxila is not open to the public, which is a real shame, especially considering how grand it is. Photo: Fernando Sanz 

This is exactly what happened last week when I visited the community of Poxilá in the municipality of Umán, just to the west of Mérida. 

I had been tipped off by an archaeologist friend, Arturo Victoria, that there was an impressive monumental complex within Hacienda Poxilá that we should check out. So we slowly made our way to the hacienda, making several stops to photograph unrestored structures on the side of the road.

Archaeologist Arturo Victoria poses in front of an unrestored structure on the side of the road. It belonged to a settlement known as Kizil. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When we arrived at the community of Poxilá we noticed the remains of Prehispanic construction topped with a cross across a large Ceiba tree. Knowing that such structures never exist in isolation, I knew there must be more to see.

An unrestored Mayan structure with still visible steps and a cross placed at its top. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The week before we began our journey I had attempted to contact the administration of Hacienda Poxilá in order to be granted access to the grounds and told them I would be happy to pay a fee. But after an initial back-and-forth, they began to ignore my messages and phone calls. 

The western portion of the plaza is partially blocked from view by vegetation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Frustratingly we were not let into the hacienda as they argued admission was reserved for pre-paid event guests. Now, of course, any venue has the right to restrict admission, but when Prehispanic architecture is within the property, Mexican law demands accommodation be made.

Archway at Hacienda Poxilá where my colleague and I were once again denied entrance. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As we were not allowed entrance it was time to deploy the drone I had brought along to see what I could make out, and boy was I surprised.

The acropolis or plaza at Poxilá is truly impressive and was likely surrounded by a great many other structures which were almost surely pillaged and destroyed over millennia. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A massive Mayan acropolis opened up before us. The acropolis sits upon a 2.5-meter-high artificial platform measuring 300 by 350 feet that supports a series of large temples and huge structures coming in at 265 feet long and 140 feet wide. 

Remains of stucco can be seen near the base of the main structure at Poxilá’s acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The main area of the structure is made up of four levels with a massive central staircase that leads up to a circular topped platform which during antiquity was likely covered by a perishable structure. 

Aerial view of Hacienda Poxilá in the municipality of Umán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It was hard to imagine that an acropolis this size was not open to the public. After doing a little research I was able to learn that the owners of the hacienda and the INAH have been in conflict for some time over the issue of public access to the site and that things have apparently reached a stalemate. Under Mexican law, only INAH is legally entitled to charge admission to heritage sites, though the letter of the law is not always followed.

Several attempts to contact Hacienda Poxilá for their side of the story brought no response. 

A large ceiba, sacred to the Maya of old, sits in front of Hacienda Poxilá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from its size and beauty, the Poxilá acropolis is also noteworthy for its architecture and antiquity. Given its location, one would expect to find Puuc-style architecture, dating from the 8th century or so. But as it turns out, this impressive complex appears to be much more ancient and exhibits features of Petén-style architecture dating from the middle Preclassic; roughly between the 4th and 6th century B.C. 

Because this style of architecture, especially during this time period, is closely associated with sites in northern Guatemala, southern Campeche, and Belize, the question of what exactly it’s doing in northern Yucatán is completely astounding. 

The American archaeologist Wyllys Andrews believed that Poxilá was built by migrants moving in the south who were initially drawn to Yucatán seeking trade opportunities. 

Trade networks in ancient Mesoamerica were extremely sophisticated and transported goods across thousands of miles by way of sac-be (Mayan roads) as well as by sea- and river-faring vessels. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeological research suggests that Poxila covered an area of approximately 90 acres. Though outside of the acropolis a handful of other structures survive in backyards and in the town’s public spaces, the vast majority have been pillaged out of existence. 

Even if you don’t have a drone it is possible to catch a glimpse of the hacienda from the back of the property and peering over the wall. But it sure would be much nice to be able to actually get a closer look in person instead of having to resort to technology.

A peek through the vegetation at a platform on the eastern section of Poxilá’s massive acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you have had the opportunity to personally visit this fascinating site, tell us about your experience at carlosrosado@roofcatmedia.com.

If you go

Getting to Hacienda Poxilá from downtown Mérida is quite easy as it’s only a 40-minute drive. 

Hacienda Poxilá southeast of Mérida. Photo: Google Maps

But as mentioned earlier, the difficult part is not making your way to the hacienda but rather gaining access to the ruins. 

Thank you to the archaeologist Arturo Victoria for his collaboration on this piece.

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