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The rise and fall of the ancient city of Oxtankah in the bay of Chetumal 

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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.
Structure III or el Palacio at Oxtankah Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Today, the ancient city of Oxtankah sits mostly forgotten on the lush but often overlooked southern tip of Quintana Roo. In its heyday, Oxtankah was among the most prosperous centers in the region and the largest city in the Bay of Chetumal. Later in its history set the stage for some of the first conflicts between the Yucatec-Maya and their would-be European colonizers.

A map at the entrance to Oxtankah archaeological site points out the location of several of its most important structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Oxtankah is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, on the outskirts of the small fishing community of Calderitas, just north of the state capital of Chetumal. In the Yucatec-Mayan language, Oxtankah can be interpreted to mean “among three villages,” or alternatively “among the breadfruit tree” — known locally as the ramon. 

The name Oxtankah was given to the site in the 1930s by the archaeologist Alberto Escalona Ramos. The true name of the ancient city has been lost to time.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Oxtankah was first settled by Mayan peoples sometime in the 6th century BCE as a fishing village. During the 2nd century CE, likely in part to its control over maritime access to the Bay of Chetumal, Oxtankah appears to have experienced a significant boom in its population and economy. At about this time we begin to see the first examples of monumental construction being erected at the site, as well as a large port on the nearby island of Tamalcab, which it also controlled. 

Elite residential complex made up of three rooms near the core of Oxtankah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Oxtankah would remain an important Mayan center of commerce for 2,000 years until the arrival of the Spanish and the eventual conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula. 

The island of Tamalcab was of great strategic importance as the easily navigable open waters which surrounded it served as an ideal gateway for valuable commodities to and from the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Google Maps

Aside from fishing and commerce, Oxtankah has another advantage as the city was located near several cenotes which provided an endless source of water for the cities population, crops, and domestic animals. However, despite its ready access to freshwater, the city also constructed a large series of chultunes or cisterns which were used to collect rainwater and farm more efficiently. 

An illustration depicts the construction of a modest size chultun. Illustration: Courtesy

As with the nearby city of Chacchobén, Oxtankah’s architecture is more reminiscent of constructions found in the interior of Belize and the north of the Peten in modern Guatemala. The size of the structures at Oxtankah are also comparably modest to the cities of the interior such as Dzibanché or Kohulich. However, like in the case of Tulum, this likely has to do with the city’s location on the coastline and the dangers posed by hurricanes. 

Due to a general lack of primary sources found at the site, piecing together how exactly Oxtankah fit into the region’s political landscape is rather difficult. But given its strategic location and control of the Bay of Chetumal, it is certain to say that Oxtankah would have carried significant heft in the game of Mesoamerican power politics. 

When entering the site, the first architectural complex you will likely notice is the bemusingly named “bee plaza.” The largest building in this complex is a three-level construction designated Structure IV, or alternatively as “El Palacio.”

At the top of El Palacio, a thatched roof was put in place to protect what little remaining stucco and paint still remain. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

El Palacio likely served as the residence of Oxtankah’s lords, as well as a meeting place for the city’s elites as well as dignitaries from other city-states.  

Several smaller comparably sized structures can be seen around Oxtankah’s palace complex. These likely were used as residences for members of the city’s elite. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The truncated pyramidal structure known simply as Structure IV is one of the most unique found in the entire site. Within its chambers archaeologists have discovered three tombs, likely belonging to notable lords as the rich funerary items found with them included several jade objects, shell masks, as well as a great number of fine ceramics. 

Given its architecture and configuration, it is likely that Structure IV was used exclusively for ceremonial purposes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Toward the north of the site lay Structure VIII, a pyramid-like temple with a wide central stairway. The top level of the structure seems to have been severely damaged. Indeed, the pyramid appears to have been plundered for construction materials during the era of European conquest.

Oxtankah’s Structure VIII has several niches which would have contained stucco representations of local kings or gods, likely stucco masks of the sky deity Itzmaná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

So what exactly did the Europeans use these ancient stones to build? A church, of course — a chapel to be precise. The design of this early 16th-century chapel closely resembles that of its more famous cousin at Dzibilchaltún in northern Yucatán. The chapel features an arched entrance and altar, likely dedicated to the worship of the virgin Mary. The construction of the chapel was ordered by Alonso de Ávila, a Spanish conquistador who would go down to take part in the conquest of Tenochtitlan — modern-day Mexico City. 

The use of materials plundered from ancient structures was a common practice that began in the 16th century and continued for four centuries. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There is an urban legend of sorts that claims that an earlier and smaller chapel once existed at the same location as the one presently visible at Oxtankah. The story goes that this previous chapel had been built by a shipwrecked Spanish sailor named Gonzalo Guerrero. This presumably would have been before Guerrero’s adoption of Mayan culture and religion, and his famous marriage to Zazil Há, a Maya princess.

A mural by Castro Pachecho in Mérida’s Palacio de Gobierno depicts Gonzalo Guerrero, Zacil Há, and their son, remembered collectively as the first mestizo (mixed Indigenous-Spanish) family. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Given its location just 15 kilometers north of downtown Chetumal, Oxtankah is easily accessible. Local tour companies offer guided visits to the site, but getting there on your own is really quite simple as signage and roads are good. 

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

Despite easy access to the site, Oxtankah is seldom visited by more than a handful of tourists a day, so chances are you will have it mostly for yourself. 

Palms and wildflowers grow around an ancient construction in Oxtankah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Visiting the site usually takes no more than a couple of hours, so if you are feeling adventurous it is possible to visit Chacchobén the same day. Just note that although the two sites appear to be quite close, there are a number of lagoons and small peninsulas in Chetumal. That means that it will take at least an hour or so to get from one site to the other. Fortunately, there are several great restaurants and cenotes to cool off in the area.

The stunningly beautiful Bacalar Lagoon, near both Chetumal and Oxtankah. 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 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents with ID.

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