The small but beautiful ancient city of Chicanná

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 venture deep into southern Campeche to explore the dazzling Rio Bec site of Chicanná

Chicanná’s Structure II complex is certainly the site’s main attraction, but there sure is a whole lot more to see. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Chicanná is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Campeche, within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. 

Though most of the structures at Chicanná have been restored, there are still a handful of smaller ruins found at the site that remain untouched. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site gets its name from its most famous building, the House of the Serpent Mouth. This temple is widely acknowledged to be the best-preserved Monster of the Earth facade temple in the entirety of Mesoamerica. Other great examples of this type of architecture can be found at other sites in the region including Hochob and Santa Rosa Xtampak.

Detail of Monster of the Earth facade in Chicanná, Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like several other sites in the Río Bec region, Chicanná was first settled sometime in the 4th century BCE, but reached its zenith during the classical period in the 4th century CE. Given its proximity just three kilometers away, it is likely that Chicanná was a dependency of the powerful city of Becán.

Radiocarbon dating techniques and the presence of archaic forms of poetry found inside Structure X suggest that this temple may be the oldest found at Chicanná and date to the mid-4th century BCE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Chicanná was first studied in 1966 by the archaeologist Jack Eaton, who documented the site’s core and mapped out its seven principal structures.

In comparison to most other sites in the region, the jungle paths in Chicanná are fairly flat and easy to traverse. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though Chicanná is often thought of as one of the sites which best exemplifies Río Bec architecture, it is important to keep in mind that elements representing other styles are also present  — namely Puuc and Chenes. 

Remains of a structure at Chicanná with Puuc style decorative elements at its base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike the large city of Becán, the city of Chicanná was quite small and had structures of relatively modest size. But don’t let that give you the impression that Chicanná is less worthy of interest, as it possesses some of the most architecturally beautiful and unique structures in the Maya world.

Chicanná’s Structure XX, as seen from the back. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As you make your way into Chicanná through the thick vegetation, it is likely that the first structure you will notice is the richly adorned, multi-level Structure XX. The entrance to this spectacular temple features a zoomorphic facade molded out of stucco, narrow exterior stairways, as well as interconnecting internal chambers. 

Chicanná’s Structure XX is one of the most striking found at the entire site and still conserves many of its most magnificent decorative elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
The corners of its highest level are adorned with intricate geometrical designs and Chaac rain god masks, another nod to the Puuc architecture of the more northern Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Chicanná’s Structure I is one of the site’s best examples of Rìo Bec architecture and the ancient city’s largest temple. The central part of this single-story structure has six rooms arranged in two rows of three. It is flanked by two large towers which during the classical age would have likely resembled those found at sites such as Dzibilnocac or El Tabasqueño.

Stucco reliefs still survive on the facade of Chicanná’s Structure I, making reference to the cardinal points central to Maya cosmology. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like many of the temples at the site, Structure VI also has a zoomorphic facade, though it is considerably less elaborate than examples found elsewhere, but also seems to be older — hinting perhaps to a stylistic evolution.

Chicanná’s Structure I has the remains of a crest, which in antiquity would have likely been covered in stucco and painted bright red. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As mentioned earlier, Structure II is widely acknowledged to be the best surviving example of zoomorphic facade Río Bec architecture. This building encloses the principal plaza to the east, which is significant given the temple’s association with the rising sun.

Chicanná’s Structure I is built upon a small artificial platform and the totality of the complex is made up of three rooms containing eight chambers, all of which would have been roofed and adorned with a colorful crest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

To visit Chicanná and other nearby sites such as Calakmul and Hormiguero it is highly advisable to spend the night in one of the region’s hotels or campgrounds, near the town of Xpujil. Though roads in this part of Campeche are fairly good, keep in mind that these are some of the most remote archaeological sites in the country, so fill up on gas often and make sure to always bring enough water.

A map shows the location of Chicanná on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

The entrance fee is 65 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

Given its remote location inside the protected Calakmul Biosphere, Chicanná is an especially great location to spot exotic birds, including trogons, toucanets, and toucans. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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.
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