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The ruins of ancient Tohcok, hiding in plain sight

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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.

Every once in a while I am surprised to learn that an area I have driven by dozens of times is actually home to an archaeological site I had no idea was there. 

Tohcok’s Puuc palatial complex, simply known as Structure I. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

This was the case a couple of weekends ago when my friend Roque and I found out about the existence of a recently restored site just a few kilometers from Hopelchén, Campeche. 

There are literally thousands of archaeological sites of varying sizes dotting the Yucatán Peninsula, several being very hard to get to, but as it happens Tohcok lay right on the side of the highway.

A view of Tohcok from the highway connecting Hopelchén and Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Now, I could be forgiven for never having noticed Tohcok before as the area’s lush vegetation completely shrouded the ancient city until very recently.

Tohcok, also known as Tacó, was first uncovered in 1845 during the construction of a nearby hacienda. The site was likely plundered for construction materials, as was common in the past, but was otherwise mostly ignored for another century. 

Decorative elements on Structure II’s southern wall, including the intertwining bodies of snakes as well as emblems associated with the god of corn, Yum Kax. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In 1951, Tohcok was rediscovered and documented by Edwin Shook and the Russian-born Tatiana Proskouriakoff, one of the first and greatest women in Mesoamerican archaeology.

In the Yucatec-Maya language, Tohcok roughly translates as “the place of the precious flint knife.” 

At first glance, the way in which these stone pillars are arranged resembles the remains of stone basalt tombs built by the Olmec, though this is unlikely the case as they appear to have been placed in this configuration by archaeologists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like many Puuc sites in the region, Tohcok was likely founded sometime between the 1st and 3rd century CE, but saw its zenith around the 8th or 9th. 

The site was actually cleared and opened to the public briefly in 2019, but was shut down until last December, due to the “unpleasantness.”

But to say that Tohcok lay just to the side of the highway may actually not be technically correct, as the road from Hopelchén to the city of Campeche seems to actually bisect the site.

This idea is supported by the fact that the mounds of several structures can be seen to the west of the highway.

Also to the west of the closed-off section of the Tohcok is one of the best-preserved Chultunes, artificial water reservoirs, I have ever laid eyes on. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Just like Chunhuhub, which we covered last week, Tohcok rarely receives visitors. Indeed, the INAH guard seemed genuinely excited to see other people to show around the site.

The lone INAH guard stationed at Tohcok offers a tour of the area across the highway to point out some unrestored structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Grachty / Yucatán Magazine

The remains of Tohcok’s restored main plaza are framed by a once multi-level Puuc palatial structure, a vaulted architectural complex simply called Structure II, and an extremely ornate ceremonial platform. 

Tohcok’s Palacio or Structure I is undoubtedly an example of the height of palacial Puuc architecture which would very much feel at home at other sites like Labna or Kabah. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though Tohcok certainly bears many of the tell-tale markings of a Puuc city, elements of Chenes style architecture can also easily be seen in much of its decorative elements. 

Structure II is notable for its several corbel-arched paths and niches, which were likely used for ritual purposes.

Archaeologists working at Tohcok certainly did a wonderful job of restoring Structure II’s causeways to something resembling their former glory. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite its relatively small size, one of the most remarkable structures found in Tohcok is a ceremonial platform sporting several Chaac rain god masks along its base. 

Though it is a little hard to make out, the rain god masks at the base of Tohcok’s altar are connected by representations of snakes, likely an allusion to Kukulkán or Itzmaná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another of Tohcok’s most notable features is the remains of murals likely dating to the 9th century CE. 

During my research, I came across an article describing the scene of Tohcok’s murals in great detail. It seems clear that for some reason, likely conservation, most of the mural has been removed, as the section still visible at the site is of only one panel. 

Red paint depicting an anthropomorphic creature carrying what is likely a shield engaged in a ritualistic ceremony is all that remains of Tohcok’s murals — though it is striking nonetheless. Photo: Courtesy

If you go

Getting to Tohcok is fairly easy from both Campeche and Mérida, as the roads are quite good. That being said there is no signage leading to the site up until you are virtually on top of it, so a navigation app such as Google maps is likely to come in handy. 

A map shows the location of Tohcok on the outskirts of Hopelchén, Campeche. Image: Google Maps

If you are traveling from Mérida, the best route is to pass by Uxmal and Santa Elena, taking the old highway to Campeche. You will also pass the exit to Santa Rosa Xtampak, which is very much also worth a visit, though the final 15 or so miles to the site can be extremely rough unless you have a 4×4 ⁠— especially during the rainy season. 

A small hut on the grounds of the Tohcok archaeological site safeguards carved stones from the elements until INAH authorities decide what to do with them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entrance to Tohcok is free and as with all INAH archaeological sites is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. 

A bright orange oriole sits on a branch above Structure I in Tohcok. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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