Tahcabo — The Forgotten Ancient City of Cacao and Honey

The northeast of the Mexican state of Yucatán is among the least explored areas on the peninsula. When visitors do make it to the area, they usually dart directly to the beach, either at Río Lagartos or El Cuyo.

But the inland of this neglected region has plenty to offer those with an adventurous spirit and a love for Prehispanic archaeology. Kulubá is by far the best-known archaeological site in the area and the only one that has been restored, but if you know where to look, the countryside is full of dozens of ancient settlements, each with a unique story to tell. 

A section of a collapsed and reassembled facade is decorated in the Puuc style in Kulubá, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One such site is Tahcabo, located in the tiny community of the same name. The name Tahcabo in Yucatec-Maya loosely translates as “the place we harvest honey,” which makes sense as the Maya text known as the Chilam Balam describes the settlement as an important center.

Today, Tahcabo is a small and extremely isolated town. In antiquity, it was one of the most important honey production centers in Yucatán, with much of its golden nectar making its way to Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As it happens, sinkholes known in Yucatec-Maya as k’oopo’ob, and rejolladas in Spanish, provide a humid environment for the harvest of cacao, something which the Maya were well aware of. 

The Maya used cacao in a variety of ways, including to prepare a frothy beverage used during ritual ceremonies and, in some cases, even as a form of currency. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though no structures at Tahcabo have been restored, INAH and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have undertaken excavations at the site. Based largely on pottery fragments, archaeologists believe that Tahcabo’s origins date back to the 6th century BCE. However, the remains of the structures found at the site suggest that the community continued to modify existing structures and grow well into the 12th century CE. 

Like at countless other Maya settlements, structures at Tahcabo underwent several improvements over the millennia. Photo: Archaeological Institute of America

Though other ancient structures can be found in the surrounding countryside, today Tahcabo is dominated by a large mound believed to have once been at the center of the community’s ritual life. 

Time has not been kind to Tahcabo, but within its ancient mound, there are still likely many discoveries to be made. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One reason for the poor state of the once grand pyramid at Tahcabo is the colonial-era church that today lies directly next to it. Like at so many other sites in Mesoamerica, ancient temples were pillaged to build structures intended to serve the new regime.

When trying to imagine the size of the main pyramid at Tahcabo, one need only look around at all the sculpted stones on the church directly next to it, as well as a handful of other structures built during the colonial era. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But as fate would have it, the colonial church itself also fell, this time during a siege during the Caste War, in which indigenous Maya rose up in the middle of the 19th century.  

The colonial-era church in Tahcabo is impressive. The roots of large trees have intertwined themselves into its stone-and-mortar construction. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Caste War of Yucatán was a brutal conflict that raged in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico from 1847 to 1901. It was a rebellion of the Maya people against the Hispanic elites who had long held political and economic control of the region. The war’s roots can be traced to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, which established a system of forced labor and exploitation of the indigenous Maya.

There are several caves and cenotes in Tahcabo, but getting to them is perilous, as the stones leading the way down are very loose. If you decide to check them out, make sure to wear shoes with good treads and exercise extreme caution. 

The region surrounding Tahcabo is home to countless caves and cenotes, but visitors are probably better off finding locations with proper stairways and ropes to facilitate the descent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Inside Tahcabo city hall is a small community museum that displays a handful of artifacts from Maya antiquity to the early 20th century. 

The gate to Tahcabo’s community museum is usually closed but a police officer or some other official will open it up for you if you ask kindly. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The museum is small but certainly worth a visit and because it receives so few visitors locals are particularly keen on telling you all about it. 

An intact Maya vase dating to the classic period found at Tahcabo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because of the great number of cenotes in the region, the region is overflowing with wildlife including exotic birds and even ocelots. 

Despite their name suggesting otherwise, spectacled amazon parrots are indigenous to the Yucatán Peninsula and much of Central America. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatan Magazine

If you go

Getting to Tahcabo is not difficult but is out of the way. Just before entering Tizimin, take the exit south to Calotmul and continue for about 10 minutes. Then, turn east onto a particularly beautiful road for another 10 minutes or so. As this road leads only to Tahcabo, it is impossible to miss.

Even during the dry season, this region of Yucatán is especially beautiful, in part due to its isolation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Keep in mind that these country roads are not meant for high speeds and that cell phone reception is spotty at best, so exercise caution.

Tahcabo is just south of the regional capital of Tizimín and fairly close to the large archaeological site of Kulubá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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.
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