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Thursday, January 26, 2023

The ancient city of Dzibilnocac and its great towers

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 set out to explore the Chenes region and the great ancient city of Dzibilnocac.

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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.
My father Jorge Carlos Rosado Baeza trying to find some shade after checking out Dzibilnocac’s Palacio complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Dzibilnocac is a Mayan archaeological site just outside of Vicente Guerrero in Hopelchén, Campeche. In the Yucatec-Mayan language, Dzibilnocac means painted vault, though the name is sometimes also translated as the great painted turtle.

The tiny community of Vicente Guerrero, also known as Iturbide, has a population of just over 3,000 and feels a world away from the trodden path forged by the tourism industry — because, well, it is.

The further you delve south on the Yucatán Peninsula, the more likely is that you will run into exotic fauna, such as this lovely hocofaisán (Crax Rubra) photographed near Dzibilnocac. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The surrounding area is also home to a handful of Mennonite communities that trace their ancestry to the Low Countries and southern Germany.

Campeche’s Mennonite communities are usually made up of around 100 people. Mennonites center their lives around agriculture and the observance of their religious faith. Photo: Courtesy

Dzibilnocac is in an area known as Chenes (“well” in Yucatec-Mayan), which begins to the south of the Puuc valley and hill range dominated by cities like Uxmal and Kabah. Like many of the sites in this region, Dzibilnocac displays a wide range of architectural influences including Chenes and Puuc and Rio Bec.

A damaged Puuc-style rain god mask on the facade of El Palacio complex in Dzibilnocac. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the site you will immediately be greeted by the unrestored remains of what must have once been a large temple complex.

Most ancient structures in Dzibilnocac still lay in ruins, but that does not mean that they do not have stories to tell. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Once inside the archaeological site proper, your attention will be immediately drawn to a (mostly) restored structure sitting proudly in the center of the ceremonial complex. This structure, known as Estructura A1 or El Palacio, dates to the 5th century CE, and is a great example of Twin Tower Chenes architecture.

Temple A1, or El Palacio, dominates the core of Dzibilnocac’s large ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

At both ends of this massive complex sit two temples or towers lined with decorative stairways which are too narrow and steep to be climbed. Though only one of these two towers has been restored, they would have presumably been near mirror images of each other.

At the top of the tower on the east side of the complex is a small room covered in Chaac (rain god) masks and images of the sky deity, Itzamná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure’s main platform is nearly 80 meters long and 30 meters wide. At its center is a temple accessible via a large staircase built upon four distinct platforms. At its base sits what would appear to be a niche, likely used to house a large painted stucco mask thought to be depicting Lord Itzamná. On both sides of the staircase sit relatively small rooms decorated with a protruding and slanted cornice — characteristic of Puuc architecture.

Similar structures Dzibilnocac’s Palacio can be found throughout the Chenes area. Their highly impractical design suggests that their use was almost entirely ceremonial. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Aside from El Palacio, one of the few restored structures at Dzibilnocac is a circular stone platform. Given its location near the center of the ceremonial center, it is likely that this platform was built to support a large stela.

Though circular structures are far from the norm in Mayan architecture, they can be found in several other Mayan sites and regions such as El Meco, near modern-day Cancún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from Dzibilnocac’s Mayan ruins, the town also has several interesting structures dating back to Yucatán’s Caste War.

Several structures dating from the Caste War can be spotted in Vicente Guerrero — most of which were built by the Mexican armed forces. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Caste War, or Guerra de Castas, was a 19th-century conflict between the native Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula and the dominant socio-political class made up of people of European ancestry. This conflict is widely seen as the last large-scale Mayan revolt on the Peninsula.

A 19th-century military structure, erected atop a Mayan temple in Vicente Guerrero, likely dates to the fifth century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Evidence of Maya occupation in Dzibilnocac dates back to the fifth century BCE. During this early period, the settlement was made up of mostly small raised artificial platforms topped with simple dwellings made from materials extracted from the surrounding jungle.

Though the region’s great Mayan cities fell long ago, the ancient past continues to mold modern notions of identity in the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

The only feasible way to get to Dzibilnocac is to drive there yourself or book a private tour. I would recommend the latter. The archaeological site is roughly two hours away from Campeche and three from Uxmal. Dzibilnocac is best visited as part of a tour of sites in the northern Chenes area including Santa Rosa Xtampac, Hochob and El Tabasqueño.

Map showing the location of Dzibilnocac on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

If you do decide to drive yourself, make sure to plan out your route in advance. Roads can get quite spotty, especially during the rainy season, and signage is far from optimal.

You are better off looking for signage for Vicente Guerrero than Dzibilnocac. Once you make it into town just continue down the main road to find the site, or ask a local “¿Donde pirámides del pueblo?” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is also a good idea to fill your gas tank at every opportunity as stations in the area are not exactly plentiful. Small hotels can be found in Hopelchén, which is an ideal home base to explore this fairly remote region.

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink other than water. The entrance fee is 65 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents (with ID).

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