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Thursday, July 7, 2022

The untamed beauty of Hormiguero and its exotic wilderness

Part of its appeal likely has to do with the fact that it is rarely visited by tourists because of how poor the roads needed to access it are.

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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.
Photo Caption: The zoomorphic facade of Hormiguero’s Structure II sits atop a massive artificial platform. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Hormiguero is a Mayan archaeological site located 30 kilometers away from the town of Xpujil in the Mexican state of Campeche. The site was supposedly named Hormiguero, which in Spanish means “anthill,” because of the great number of ruined structures that resemble massive ant colonies.

Though the name Hormiguero was only intended to be a nickname, it ultimately stuck since the city’s original name was lost to time. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city was rediscovered in 1933 by a team of archaeologists sent by the Carnegie Institute in Washington DC. However, restoration of the site’s monuments did not begin until several decades after in 1979.

The area surrounding the archaeological site of Hormiguero is full of beautiful lagoons — fantastic spots to sit and observe wildlife. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Hormiguero dates to the late classic period and that its largest temples were erected sometime during the 4th century CE. The site conforms to the architectural style known as Río Bec, though Peten style elements can also be observed. 

There is something rather magical about Hormiguero. Though its architecture in many ways mirrors that of other impressive Mayan centers in the region, including Chicanná, Becán, and Hochob, it has a charm all its own. Part of its appeal likely has to do with the fact that it is rarely visited by tourists because of how poor the roads needed to access it are. Also contributing to this feeling is its impressive natural setting, which is teeming with all sorts of life. 

One of the jungle’s many residents, the Rhinoceros Beetle. These massive insects are herbivorous and are named for the horn-like projections on and around the males’ heads. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given the city’s chronology and geography, it is likely that Hormiguero’s construction was ordered by the lord of the great city of Calakmul to serve as a vassal kingdom in its struggle against other powerful city-states such as Tikal.

When you begin to approach Hormiguero’s grand temples it is hard to not feel overcome with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Once you arrive at Hormiguero you will be confronted with one of the most beautiful temples in the entire region, Structure II. The temple’s ample facade adorned with familiar Monster of the Earth motifs is enhanced by two large towers on either side, all of which sit atop a splendid artificial platform. 

The view of Hormiguero’s Structure II is made even more beautiful by the warm light which filters through the site’s canopy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Structure II is Hormiguero’s largest structure and contains a total of 11 chambers. Access to the structure is permitted, so you will be free to climb its main staircase and enter through the maw of the Monster of the Earth. 

There is ongoing debate regarding the exact nature of the Monster of the Earth. On one hand, some archaeologists believe it to be a deity in the service of the sky god Itzamná or even perhaps one of his manifestations. However, others argue that it is best understood as an elemental power personifying the transition between the realms of the living and the dead. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Delving deeper into the site, you will come across an elegant three-level pyramidal structure, topped with another Monster of the Earth facade.

This beautiful temple faces the east, which is likely a reference to the Monster of the Earth’s role as the keeper of the sun, before it releases it from its mouth every morning. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Access to Structure V is completely open. Though climbing it to get a closer look is a must, just make sure to be extra careful as it is quite steep and stones may come loose. Photo: Carlos Rosado van derGracht

The temple known as Structure VI has only been partially restored but is among the largest temples in Hormiguero. It once had two towers, and likely resembled structures found at sites such as Becán or Dzibilnocac. Though this structure’s function is not known for sure, it is likely that it served dual ceremonial and administrative purposes. 

Photo Caption: Hormiguero’s Structure VI’s collapsed towers expose the vaulted interior chambers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

Though archaeologists have documented 84 different structures at Hormiguero, only four of these have been restored to any degree. 

If you go

As mentioned earlier, access to Hormiguero is not exactly easy. Though geographically it is not that far from the main highway (only 22 kilometers), the road is not much more than a path carved out of the jungle. Keep in mind that departing from Xpujil you will soon find yourself out of cell phone range, so make sure to let someone know where you are going before you head out. 

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

Entrance to the archaeological site is free, and on the handful of occasions I have visited it personally, I have never seen any other travelers at the site — or INAH guardians for that matter. That being said, please act responsibly and respectfully. Be advised that damaging historical monuments in Mexico could land you in seriously hot water with federal authorities. 

There are a few tiny communities in the vicinity, but the services they offer are quite limited. In recent years a local cooperative was formed to attract tourists looking for a good jungle hike to the area, but upon my most recent visit in 2018, the project’s rustic campsite did not appear to be operational. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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