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Saturday, January 22, 2022

The beautiful and enigmatic Chacchobén 

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 to the south of Quintana Roo to explore the ancient city of Chacchobén and its lush jungle.

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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.

Chacchobén (chak-CHO-ben) is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, surrounded by spectacular lakes and lagoons, including the nearby lagoon of seven colors in Bacalar.

The pyramid known as Estructura is one of three pyramids found at Chacchobén and features a wide central staircase. It is still possible to climb the pyramid, which is nice since it offers a great view of the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city shares its name with a tiny community of roughly 700 people, about 10 kilometers to the north, and means “place of red corn” in the Yucatec Mayan language. However, this name was given to the archaeological site in the 20th century, as its original name has been left to time. 

Unlike the yellow corn we are used to today, corn, or maize, in Mesoamerica came in a variety of colors, including red and blue. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Chacchobén was first settled by the Maya sometime in the second century BCE. During the first few centuries of habitation, architecture at Chacchobén seems to have been limited to perishable huts constructed atop stone foundations in the areas surrounding bodies of water. 

The abundance of water allowed the inhabitants of ancient Chacchobén to transform an out-of-the-way settlement into a prosperous city fueled by agricultural production. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By the 2nd century CE, Chacchobén experienced a considerable demographic boom which brought with it the construction of monumental architecture and greater social stratification. This trend seems to have continued until the 7th century when the city took the form visible to visitors today. 

A map of Chacchobén’s core pinpointing the location of its most important structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After the fall of the city, and centuries after the arrival of the Spanish, the legacy of Chacchobén was lost until in the 1940s a farm was established in the area and reports of ancient structures began to emerge.

Large artificial platform leading to the core of Chaccobén’s ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the 1970s research at the site began with the assistance of the Royal Ontario Museum, but excavations did not begin in earnest until 1994 under the supervision of the INAH, which excavated the site and opened it to the public in 2002.

Pyramidal structure in Chacchobén near the southern end of the site’s ceremonial core: Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Chacchobén covers an area of approximately 70 hectares, but the core of the site open to visitors is much smaller and can be visited in fewer than a couple of hours.

View from the top of Structure 1 in Chacchobén, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

The architecture at Chacchobén suggests that it may have been a vassal kingdom of a major Mayan city-state in the Peten region, perhaps Tikal or Caracol

Chacchobén’s architecture resembles that of sites found in Belize and certain regions of Guatemala much more than those found further north on the Peninsula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Similar architectural influences can be seen at other archaeological sites in the region, including the pyramid at Limones, Quintana Roo. 

More than an archaeological site per se, the pyramid found at Limones is the only surviving structure of the ceremonial center contemporary known by the same name. The Limones pyramid sits on the side of the highway and sits in the backyard of a small restaurant, which is actually quite good. As they say, “solo en Mexico.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A handful of stelae of other textual sources have been discovered at the site. But because of centuries of neglect in the humid jungle, these stone slabs have become badly eroded and are illegible. Due to this fact, not much is actually known about the site outside of contextual clues and information gathered from techniques like radiocarbon dating and poetry fragment analysis.

Badly eroded fragment of a stelae discovered in Chacchobén, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When visiting the site today, visitors are able to explore several architectural groups which feature three angularly edged pyramids, as well as several ceremonial centers and residential complexes.

Remains of a residential complex in Chacchobén, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Some of the structures at Chacchobén, still show signs of the original red paint that covered the site’s temples and must have created a dramatic contrast given the surrounding jungle. There are also a few instances of surviving fragments of stucco, though these are relatively few and far between — especially when compared with relatively nearby sites like Kohunlich.

Surviving traces of red paint and stucco protected by a thatch roof on a pyramidal structure in Chacchobén, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The jungle surrounding the site is exuberant and packed with all sorts of exotic birds and small mammals, as well as lush vegetation. 


Chacchobén is accessible on the Chetumal-Cancún highway and fairly easy to find, as signage is abundant. If you don’t have a car, tours to the site, usually bundled in with tours to other nearby sites, are readily available from Chetumal, Bacalar, and Mahahual.

A map shows the location of Chaachobén on the South Eastern end of the Yucatán Peninsula, near the border with Belize. Image: Google Maps

Given the ease of access to the site, Chacchobén has become a popular destination for tourists in the area, though it could seldom be described as crowded. 

The facilities at Chacchobén archaeological sites are quite good and include a visitor center with clean bathrooms, a couple of small shops, and even free Wifi. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The sense of wonder one experiences when walking through Chacchobén is accented by the site’s thick jungle, which has over the centuries encroached on its temples. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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