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Thursday, June 30, 2022

The beauty of Xcalumkín, a lonely Maya city in the hills

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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.
Xcalumkín’s Puuc architecture and its beautiful vistas make it the perfect destination for a day trip. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Just 15 miles off the Mérida – Campeche highway, among the region’s rolling hills, lay the ancient Maya city, Xcalumkín.

Like several other sites in the region, Xcalumkín attracts few visitors, making it a perfect spot to explore and photograph ancient ruins at one’s own pace and without worrying about people swerving into your shots. 

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There is some debate regarding the meaning of the name Xcalumkín, as some specialists insist that it roughly translates as “the place of good soil that receives the sun,” while others’ translations are closer to “window/entrance of the sun.”

At the entrance to the Xcalumkín, you will find a small structure that houses several objects and stelae excavated at the site — presumably to protect them from the elements.

This sort of small storage area/museum has become the norm at smaller sites in Campeche and is quite charming, though no information regarding the objects is usually available. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once you have entered the site, the first structure you will notice is a good-sized temple atop a large pyramidal platform.

Is this a large pyramid or a natural formation topped with a Puuc-style temple? Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But upon further inspection, it becomes evident that this base is, in fact, a natural formation used by the Maya to construct temples on higher ground, much like in Chacmultún.

From ground level, this structure does not appear to be much more than a pile of rubble, but once atop the hill, its beauty and complexity become evident. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Another aspect of this structure built upon a natural hill that is not obvious when observed from ground level is that the hill was clearly flattened and landscaped to make room for an entire ceremonial complex — of which remains can be seen — not just a single structure. 

A view of the rolling hills of northern Campeche in the background with the remains of an entrance to yet another temple atop a hill in Xcalumkín. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Moving deeper into the site, you will notice a Puuc-style structure known as El Templo de Los Cilindros, or Temple of Cylinders.

El Templo de Los Cilindros in Xcalumkín, Campeche exhibits many of the hallmarks of Puuc architecture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As this temple has only been partially restored, only a few of its chambers are still accessible — though archaeological evidence suggests it was once much larger with up to 12 different rooms and niches.

Past El Templo de Los Cilindros, you will come upon what was likely the civic and ritual core of Xcalumkín, known today as La Serie Inicial. 

This ceremonial complex, flanked by structures on all sides, features several elegant Puuc structures complete with large staircases, corbel vaulted ceilings, and stone columns adorned with facades. 

The largest of these structures is a step-pyramid-like structure topped with a ceremonial structure containing several niches.

Given its position within the ceremonial complex, it is likely that this temple served an important role in Xcalumkín’s religious and ceremonial life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though relatively small, the structure to the east of this complex is perhaps one of the best-preserved/reconstructed on the entire site.

This Puuc-style structure resembles several others in the region but is especially reminiscent of the House of the Iguana in Uxmal, just on a smaller scale. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The area surrounding the Grupo Inicial complex is full of other structures of considerable size, though the vast majority of them remain unrestored. 

Aside from its elegant exterior, the interior of this temple is just as impressive and makes for some beautiful shots. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xcalumkín is also home to several artificial wells, known as chultunes, as well as cenotes which provided the ancient city with the lion’s share of its water supply.

The main cenote at Xcalumkín may, in fact, not be a true cenote but rather a geological cavity or cave which the Maya dug through until reaching water level. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Past the cenote is a structure known as the Temple of the Lintels, but the carved stones that presumably once adorned this structure have long since been looted.

Some historical sources claim that stones, including lintels from Xcalumkín, were pillaged as far back as the 16th century and used in the construction of large bastions which line Campeche’s coastline. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the foundries of the Xcalumkín archaeological site are far from small, ancient structures are easy to spot up to 10 kilometers away from the entrance.

Many of these structures lay outside the boundaries of the archaeological site and were built upon natural hills and likely served as strategic vantage points.

The remains of an ancient temple atop a natural hill are roughly 10 miles from the Xcalumkín archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

I am not aware of any tour companies offering guided visits to Xcalumkín, and public transit is not available, so if you intend to visit, you will have to do so by car.

I took an aerial shot of the road to Xcalumkín while stopping to photograph ancient architecture outside the site proper. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Fortunately, getting to the site is fairly easy and only requires a 15-mile eastward detour through Hecelchakán.

A map shows the location of Xcalumkín in the municipality of Hecelchakán, Campeche. Image: Google Maps

Entrance to the sight is free and there are ample parking spaces and bathroom amenities.

A severely eroded stone sculpture sits between access to the men’s and women’s bathrooms in Xcalumkín. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

For those not aware, the exit to Xcalumkín is also near the town of Pomuch, which is well known in the region for its particular take on pan dulce.

Pomuch is famous for several things, but when the name comes up in conversation, people think of pichon, a.k.a pan de Pomuch, which is filled with ham, cheese, pimento, etc., and plenty of jalapeños. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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