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Sunday, July 3, 2022

The (almost) forgotten city of El Tabasqueño

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 journey deeper into the Chenes region to uncover the mysteries of El Tabasqueño.

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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.
El Tabasqueño is a Chenes Mayan archaeological site located in the municipality of Hopelchén in the state of Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Because El Tabasqueño is located in a fairly remote area that is jam-packed with archaeological sites, it is visited by only the most adamant lovers of Mayan archaeology. According to the guard at the site, oftentimes weeks go by without a single visitor.

To get to the core of the archaeological site from the parking lot, you will have to walk a few hundred meters through a narrow jungle path dotted with the ruins of unrestored temples.

Walking through the jungle is one of the best parts of visiting remote archaeological sites, so don’t just breeze through. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Tabasqueño was first documented in 1887 by the famed explorer Teobert Maler in 1887 who produced several rough maps, notes, and illustrations of the site for later publication in Europe. 

The site was named in the 19th century (rather underwhelmingly) after a person who lived nearby and was from the state of Tabasco. Unfortunately, the original name of the ancient city has been lost to time. 

During antiquity, El Tabasqueño’s temples would have been covered in stucco and painted bright red. Now only small glimpses of these decorative remains survive. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

According to archaeological evidence, the city seems to have been founded sometime in the 2nd century CE but saw its height of construction and population between the 7th and 10th centuries. Given its location and proximity to other comparable sites in the region, it is fairly safe to assume that El Tabasqueño was either a vassal or satellite city of the Chenes capital of Xtampak.

Like several other sites in the Chenes region, El Tabasqueño is notable for mixing Chenes style architecture with elements of other styles, most notably Puuc. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most striking architectural complex at the site is a two-story temple with a stunning Chenes-style zoomorphic facade, adorned with rain god masks, sitting atop a multiple-chambered structure. Though these types of zoomorphic facades are fairly common in the region, the example found at El Tabasqueño is notable for its size and height perched atop another structure. 

The base structure exhibits several Puuc-style architectural hallmarks and was likely erected before the zoomorphic facade was added during a later phase of construction.

The interior El Tabasqueños chambers have been restored and are a great place to sit for a few minutes while taking in the beauty of the ancient city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The upper section of the temple is an example of the Monster of the Earth facade architecture, though with a few variations.

Like the Snake Mouth Portal found at Xtampak, this temple depicts the Monster of the Earth (or a variation thereof) — but may in fact convey a different meaning to that of its ground-level counterparts at sites like Hochob or Chicaná. This is all to say that the long-established view that zoomorphic Monster of the Earth facades are always to be interpreted as passageways/portals to the underworld (Xibalba) is likely an oversimplification. 

Another notable aspect of this temple at El Tabasqueño is the fact that the facade is accessible via two sets of stairways on either side of the complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Tabasqueño was probably a major agricultural producer. That is because the number of underground wells (or chultunes) found at the site is larger than what one may expect from a city of its size. 

Large amounts of concave metates or lu-ka used for grinding grain and corn also attest to El Tabasqueño’s agricultural past. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Opposite the site’s main temple complex is a structure exhibiting many of the hallmarks of tablero talud architecture imported from central Mexico. This likely suggests a later construction date than that of the rest of the restored structures at the site. The structure possesses a central chamber accessible by a steep stairway and ramp.

A central chamber is accessible by a steep stairway and ramp. Though ramps are not unheard of in Mayan architecture, they are relatively less common than stairways. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the left of the structure is a rather curious, towering structure 3.5 meters tall. Its intended use is not immediately obvious. Although thought to have been a tower, possibly used to track the movement of planets and stars, it might also have been the base for a stucco stelae.

Similar towers to the one found in El Tabasqueño have been found at the sites of Canchen, Puerto Rico, and Nocuchich — all of which were also documented by Teobert Maler. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

El Tabasqueño is 170 km or 105.6 miles away from Mérda and 123 km or 76 miles from the city of Campeche. Take Highway 261 to Dziblachén. Keep your eyes peeled for the signage and turn down the easily overlooked designated road. If you make it to Dziblachén you will have overshot it by 6 km. The road is not much more than a path, but fortunately, it only goes for a couple of kilometers. 

A map shows the location of El Tabasqueño on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

Most visitors to El Tabasquelo visit the site in conjunction with nearby Hochob on their way to archaeological sites further south, such as Becán and Calakmul. This is a good strategy but requires that you start your day very early or find accommodation in one of the nearby communities.

The entrance fee is 45 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. Hochob remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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