The new and the old meet in Acanceh

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 make our way to discover the wonders of Acanceh.

The Temple, or pyramid of Masks in Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
The old and the new are both readily visible in Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Long before the hustle and bustle of mopeds and rickshaws arrived in town, Acanceh had already — for well over a millennia — established itself as a player in the region. Meaning “deer grunt,” Acanceh, 30 kilometers southeast of Mérida, likely had its origins in the 3rd-century C.E. and was likely an outpost of T’Hó (ancient Mérida) or Izamal. 

Over 300 Maya structures have been identified in Acanceh, pronounced ah-kan-kay. During the colonial period, many of these buildings were leveled, leaving nothing but their foundations. Fortunately, a few fascinating structures survived the destruction and can be visited today. 

The most iconic structure in Acanceh, the Temple of Masks, is located right in the middle of town along the main road. During excavations in 1995, archaeologists uncovered five enormous stucco masks over two meters tall, likely representing the sun god, Kinich Ahuau, or perhaps local rulers wearing sun god ornamentation. 

The Temple, or pyramid of Masks in Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This style of stucco mask was a common decorative motif in Mesoamerica and would have been painted using vibrant colors. INAH has placed a metal roof over the masks to protect them from further deterioration, though some masks are in much better shape than others.

Two of the five masks in Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A survey of the pyramid also reveals the presence of two ritual burial sites complete with ceramic and jade offerings.

The mask on the west quadrant of the temple is one of the best conserved of its kind in Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Atop the pyramid, you can make out a smaller structure just behind it. This smaller pyramid is not open to the public, but resembles the Temple of the Masks in its architecture. 

The second, smaller, pyramid is visable from the Temple of Masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Three city blocks to the south of the Temple of the Masks is a structure known as the Stucco Palace. As its name suggests, this building is adorned with stucco. Three city blocks to the south of the Temple of the Masks is a structure called Friezes, representing stylized birds, reptiles and monkeys.

Stucco frieze in Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Stucco frieze depicting a bird, likely a buzzard, in Acanceh, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure is surrounded by a gate, so you will have to ask the INAH guard to let you in. 

Stucco Palace in Acanceh, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Acanceh makes for an especially great stop on the route to cenotes such as Cuzmá, Homún and Yaxbacaltun. Also keep your eyes open for the church just past Acanceh in Eknakán, one of the few examples of Gothic architecture in the Yucatán. 

San José Gothic Church in Eknakán, Yucatán. Photo: File

Entrance to both the Temple of Masks and the Stucco Palace is free. Visiting hours are between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., but sometimes the guards may not be there, so you may have to wait for them to come back around. 

As of March 2021, the site at Acanceh remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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.