The under-visited ancient city of Chunhuhub and its ambiguous modern identity

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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.

Meaning “next to the root” in Yucatec-Maya, Chunhuhub is a rarely visited Puuc-style Maya archaeological site.

Aerial view of Chunhuhub’s “El Palacio,” within the site’s main core. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Chunhuhub is near the town of Bolomchén, in the state of Campeche — or Yucatán, depending on who you ask. 

Charming hand-drawn sign pointing the way to Chunhuhub. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This ambiguity has to do with territorial disputes between the three states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula. 

According to an aging INAH plaque at the entrance of the archaeological site, Cunhuhub belongs to the state of Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

People in the nearby community of  Xculoc have differing opinions on the issue of what state Chunhuhub really belongs to. That being said, after interviewing a handful (admittedly not a very scientific sample) I came away with the sense they identify more as Yucatecos. 

“This had always been Yucatán, then it was Campeche, then briefly Yucatán again and now Campeche once more. It’s a bit funny, but if you ask me the site really belongs in Yucatán,” said a man named Don Pedro.

The ruins of a spectacular hacienda full of birds is just a couple of kilometers from the entrance to Chunhuhub archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

According to almost all maps (including Google Maps), Chunhuhub is within the state limits of Yucatán and actually belongs to the municipality of Santa Elena.

Like many ancient Maya cities in the region, Chunhuhub likely was a vassal state under the control of either Uxmal or Santa Rosa Xtamapak. Pictured, Santa Rosa Xtampak. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To make things even more confusing, there is another place on the peninsula named Chunhuhub in the state of Quintana Roo. But fortunately, for this second Chunhuhub, no territorial disputes exist.

Like many sites in the Puuc region, Chunhuhub appears to have reached its zenith sometime in the 5th century, though it had likely been occupied for several hundred years before that. 

When exploring archaeological sites it’s important to keep in mind that what we see today is but a snapshot of history mostly approximating the time during which it was abandoned. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When arriving at the site, you will likely discover that you have the entire place to yourself. According to the INAH guard, Don Pedro, often a week will go by without any visitors.

I stalked Chachalaca for about 15 minutes before getting the opportunity to get my shot. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There is something so special about having an entire archaeological site for yourself as it allows you to really soak everything in without distraction, besides it also makes birding much easier.

Through the site, visitors are likely to notice several ancient underground water reservoirs or chultunes by the Yucatec-Maya name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The famed Austrian explorer Teoberto Maler was among the first people to report on the existence of Chunhuhub in the early 20th century, as the site appears to have been missed by the even more famous duo of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who explored the region in the 1840s.

Illustration by Frederick Catherwood of the nearby Bolonchén Cenote in 1844. Photo: Courtesy

The archaeological site itself is made up of several mostly unrestored mounds that form several plazas. 

An ancient mound near the entrance to the archaeological site of Chunhuhub. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

The most restored and grandiose structure at the site by far is a palatial complex near the site’s core.

With smooth vertical walls at the bottom, decorative geometrical friezes, flat cornices and frets as well as small cylindrical columns that emulate the reeds of traditional Maya homes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure itself lay upon a large artificial platform and is made up of several different constructions, with the two restored main sections connected by a now collapsed vault.

A vaulted corridor would have allowed access between El Palacio’s two main sections to a likely ceremonial quadrant behind the plaza-facing structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Behind the complex’s exquisitely restored Puuc facade, one can observe the remains of several other structures. But most of these do not appear to have received any restoration work.

The remains of what was likely once a ceremonial chamber towards the back of the “El Palacio” complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A great many sculptures and stelae have been found within El Palacio, but these have been moved to a small museum sheltered by a hut at the entrance of the site. 

A stela eroded by time faces an unrestored mound in Chunhuhub’s modest but extremely interesting little museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Personally, I feel that removing these pieces from their original location robs visitors of a bit of context, but I am sure the decision was made for good reasons likely to do with the risk of pillaging.

The small hut houses several carved stones bearing hieroglyphic text as well as decorative elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are so many stone artifacts at the site that several have been placed inside the site’s small reception area, and even out front of the bathrooms  — which is quite a nice touch.

A Maya stela sits between the men’s and women’s bathrooms at Chunhuhub archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

If you want to visit Chunhuhub, driving yourself there will likely be your only real option, as I am not aware of any organized tours to this part of the Puuc Valley. 

A map shows the location of Chunhuhub on the outskirts of the town of Xculoc. Image: Google Maps

Driving to Chunhuhub from Mérida is likely to take just over two hours, but the road is quite scenic and full of interesting sights. The road to the site is good, something that can not be said for all of the archaeological sites in the region. 

There are a handful of roads you could take to get to Chunhuhub from Mérida, but I recommend the old highway to Campeche which passes through Santa Elena, and the Puuc route. Pictured, Kabah Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

On your way to Chunhuhub, you will pass several other archaeological sites including Uxmal and Kabah, in case you are feeling ambitious. 

If you are planning to visit Chunhuhub on the same day as other sites, leave as early as possible. Drives in Yucatán’s midday sun can get truly exhausting. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Entrance to Chunhuhub is free, and the site has surprisingly good facilities including a good-sized parking lot (which is extremely underutilized) and clean bathrooms. Opening hours are from 8 a.m, to 5 p.m.

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