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The ancient Mayan ‘rainbow city’ of Ch’el still guards its secrets

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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.
Ch’el may look like a ton of rubble, but discerning eyes know better. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Ch’el is an archaeological site of the Mayan civilization located within a 19th-century hacienda of the same name. 

Haciendas sprung across Yucatán from the late 18th through the early 20th century to produce and export sisal, a lucrative crop used to make henequen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though it is best known by its contemporary name Sihunchen, the site’s original name is thought to have been Ch’el, sometimes spelled Che’el or Chéel, which translates to “rainbow” in the Yucatec-Mayan language.

The remains of a pre-Hispanic structure, likely a ceremonial platform in Ch’el / Sihunchen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Carnegie institution carried out an archaeological survey of Ch’el in 1941, but subsequent restoration efforts were extremely limited. 

A hand-drawn map of the archaeological site of Ch’el is found at the site’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As a result, Ch’el appears today as a ruin, as it has for many centuries.

A narrow cave feeds into a ceonote in Ch’el in the municipality of Hunucmá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This is not to say that visiting the site is not enjoyable. It is just that this is the sort of place best enjoyed by those with a real taste for archaeology. 

View of group E, taken from the top of Sinunchen / Ch’el’s pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Visiting a site like Ch’el requires a good deal of imagination and knowledge of Mesoamerican architecture, as, for the most part, its collapsed structures do not look like much more than piles or rocks to the untrained eye. 

The remains of an altar near the core of Sinunchen / Ch’el in Hunucmá, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because so little research has been done at Sinunchen / Ch’el, relatively little is known about the site — though it is thought to have been a vassal kingdom of either Dzibilchaltún or Tzeme.

Dzibilchaltún was once thought to have not been much more than an outpost of T’ho (ancient Mérida), but now we know it was indeed much more ancient. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is often speculated that Ch’el may be almost as ancient as Dzibilchaltún, which would place its construction firmly in the pre-Classical period, which stretches as far back as the second millennia BCE.

Extremely old pottery fragments are on display at Sinunchen / Ch’el’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

However, several of Ch’el’s architectural groups, including Group E, were likely built in the second century CE.

It has been hypothesized that Ch’el’s Group E was, in fact an astronomical complex dedicated to tracking the erratic path of the planet Venus. Pictogram representing Venus as seen in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Contextual evidence such as the large number of ceramic vessels and cenotes found at the site suggest that Ch’el was an important agricultural center capable of producing large surpluses.

Group E is the largest architectural complex at Ch’el / Sihunchen, but much more research and excavations are needed before its true function can be ascertained with any degree of certainty. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The surplus of crops such as corn and squash were likely sent to either Dzibilchaltún or Tzeme in the form of taxes.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the site is its pyramid, which is modest in size compared to larger sites such as Calakmul or Palenque, but is nonetheless well worth a visit.

If you plan to climb the structures Ch’el, be very careful, as many of the stones are much looser than they appear. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

If you used Google Maps to find your way to the site, make sure to search for Sihunchen Aldea Maya, and not just Sihunchen — as that will take you to a small town south of Mérida in the municipality of Abala.

A map shows the location of Ch’el / Sihunchen on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google

Ch’el is located within the municipality of Hunucmá and can be spotted from the highway en route to beaches such as Sisal or Celestún. 

A highway sign shows the way to Sihunchen (AKA Ch’el). Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Today, the site is within the ground of an eco-tourism complex, so gaining access to it requires paying a fee (which seems to vary) or entering as part of a birding group.

Because of its many cenotes, birding in Ch’el / Sihunchen is quite remarkable, especially in the early hours of the morning. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The eco-tourism complex also has comfortable cabañas for rent, which are particularly nice if you plan to start your day of exploring extra early. 

The only cenote at Ch’el / Sihunchen open to swimmers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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