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Why Xcoch is the Puuc Maya’s diamond in the rough

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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.

Between corn fields framed by the rolling hills of the Puuc lay the ancient city of Xcoch.

Xcoch’s most prominent structure is a pyramid nearly 40 meters tall. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite the size of the structures at Xcoch, the site has not been restored, though it has been well documented and surveyed by several teams of archaeologists, most recently in 2011.

 

Like in much of rural Yucatán, many community members in the municipality of Santa Elena depend primarily on subsistence agriculture for survival — much as their ancestors did. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xcoch appears to have its origins in the Preclassic Era and is likely to predate most of the major settlements in the Puuc region in the southern reaches of Mexico’s Yucatán state. Later in its history, the area almost certainly came under the dominion of the great city-state of Uxmal.

 

Like virtually all sites left unsupervised in the jungle, Xchoch has suffered extensive pillaging, and as a result, few decorated carved architectural elements remain. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xcoch lay within the municipality of Santa Elena, or Nohcacab, as it was known during antiquity. The sign at the town entrance features an image of the town’s church, a Mayan pyramid, and the Golden Gate Bridge — referencing the fact that many of the community men currently live and work in California.

 

A sign in 2011 marks the entrance to Santa Elena. The design has since been altered but is much less visually interesting. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In 1843, the site was described in detail by the famous explorer John Lloyd Stephens in his renowned tome “Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.” Lloyd Stephens noted the Xcoch’s unusual geology, which was extraordinarily cavernous and porous, even for local standards.

 

Carved stone metates and other stone tools can be found strewn across the archaological site of Xcoch, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As it turns out, the ancient city of Xcoch sits upon a giant cave system used by the Maya of the region to store water.

 

Abel, my guide of choice to several obscure sites in the Puuc region at the entrance to the cave system described by John Lloyd Stephens in Xcoch, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Profile of Xcoch showing both its main ceremonial center and underlying cave system.

 

Graphic courtesy of the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies of the National Speleological Society

Given the lack of cenotes in the Puuc region, the presence of this massive natural cave system capable of storing large amounts of water would have been an invaluable asset to the residents of Xcoch.

 

Aside from the natural openings to this cave system, the Maya have excavated through the limestone to create chultun-like spaces, allowing even more water to filter through to this reservoir.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though close to large Mayan cities, including Uxmal and Kabah, Xcoch was by no means a backwater. It has seven distinct architectural groups and at least 70 still discernable structures. 

 

Unrestored remains of what was likely a large ceremonial structure in Xcoch’s main ceremonial plaza. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest architectural feature at Xcoch is a pyramid towering nearly 40 meters tall, topped with the remains of an ancient temple.

 

Xcoch’s great pyramid has yet to be restored and likely never will be because it has been looted extensively —  thus making a scientifically accurate reconstruction virtually impossible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

From the top of this great pyramid, it is possible to make out Uxmal in the distance with the naked eye.

 

The great Puuc capital of Uxmal is seen from the ancient city of Xcoch through a thin layer of smoke from a nearby agricultural fire. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Atop the pyramid, it is possible to make out the remains of the temple that once topped this great structure, though only a single wall remains. 

 

The structure atop Xcoch’s great pyramid was likely central to both civic and ritual life in the city but has sadly all but disappeared. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The landscape surrounding Xcoch is made up of a low-lying jungle and is full of birds and mammals, including wildcats and armadillos. 

 

The rolling hills of the Puuc valley surround Xcoch on all sides. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Xcoch can be found by following a small road roughly halfway between Uxmal and Santa Elena. The problem here is that the road is one of many and no signage is available. Keep in mind that cell phone coverage is extremely spotty in the region. 

 

Map indicating the location of Xcoch in the municipality of Santa Elena, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo: Google Maps

If you want to visit Xcoch, your best bet is to find yourself a local guide in Santa Elena. As the town has no tourism agencies, ask for a contact at one of the community’s hotels such as the Pickled Onion. 

 

The easiest time of year to visit Xcoch is during the dry season, but of course this is also when the site is the least lush. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Arriving at Xcoch early in the morning is ideal, thus it’s a good idea to spend the night in nearby Santa Elena. This will also afford you the opportunity to visit other nearby off-the-beaten-path sites in the region such as Mul-Chic or Nohpat. 

 

By arriving early at the site you will have a better chance to spot interesting animals and avoid the worst of the heat. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

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