77 F
Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Xcaret, Mayan archaeology in a Disneyland setting

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we travel to Quintana Roo’s Riviera Maya to visit the tourist mecca of Xcaret.

Latest headlines

Yucatecan Short Film “Boca De Culebra”nominated For An Ariel Award

For the first time, a Yucatecan production was nominated in the Ariel awards, in the category of Best Documentary Short Film — "Boca de Culebra", or Snake's Mouth.

The German Forrest Gump makes his way to Yucatán

The man dubbed the German Forrest Gump ran his way into Mérida yesterday.

Balamkú, the great city of the sacred jaguar lords

Balamkú is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Campeche, within the Calakmul Biosphere, near the entrance to Calakmul national park. 

Mérida writer’s 1st novel based on the life of infamous ‘Peyton Place’ author

Grace Metalious, the novelist who wrote "Peyton Place," and her husband, George, at home in 1956. Photo: Bettmann Archive
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.

Xcaret is a Mayan archaeological site located on the Caribbean coast within the privately owned theme park of the same name. In the Yucatec-Mayan language, xcaret means “small inlet.” But in antiquity, the name of the port city was p’ole’, which was derived from the root p’ol, which means “merchandise” or “deal of merchants.”

In antiquity, temples at Xcaret would have been covered in stucco and painted bright colors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xcaret’s location inside a private theme park makes it a bit of an oddball. The area surrounding the ruins certainly is beautiful, full of exotic flowers and birds, as well as meticulously laid out paths, and lush foliage. But if this lovely landscape feels a bit artificial, that’s because it is. Many archaeology buffs, yours truly included, have mixed feelings about Xcaret, but say what you will, this “Mayan Disneyland” definitely lives up to the meaning of its original name.

Many of the birds found at Xcaret, including flamingos and scarlet macaws, have been bred onsite in captivity. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like Tulum, Xcaret was surrounded by a defensive wall, but unlike Tulum, its wall was open towards the ocean. It is not known when Xcaret was first occupied, but its earliest constructions date to the 2nd century CE — right in line with other coastal settlements in northern Quintana Roo including El Rey and El Meco.

The remains of what was likely a residential complex in Xcaret. Note the surviving decorative elements near the top of the structure on the left side. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xcaret was still inhabited when the Spanish conquistadors began their first incursions into the Yucatán Peninsula. After Xcaret was taken by the forces of conquistadors Alonso Dávila and Francisco de Montejo, a Catholic chapel was built on its grounds and the city was left under the control of Juan Núñez in 1548. 

Beautiful white sand beaches lay just a few meters away from the ruins of P’ole’, old Xcaret. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The codex known as the Chilamb Balam mentions that Xcaret was a stop on a sacred pilgrimage carried out by the Itzáes — lords of great cities including Edzná, Mayapán, and of course Chichén Itzá. Xcaret was also important as it served as the main port to the island of Cozumel — the largest island occupied by the Maya. Ancient inscriptions record political marriages between the nobility of Xcaret and cities in Cozumel such as Tan-tun, now known as San Gervasio. 

A small but well-preserved structure in Xcaret’s manicured grounds. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like practically all Mayan settlements on the coast of Quintana Roo, the dominant architectural style observable at Xcaret is Costa Oriental. Xcaret’s surviving ancient structures can be found throughout Xcaret Park and can be navigated using signage, though the distances between them can be considerable and a little disorienting. 

The ballcourt at Xcaret, visible just past the gift shop, is not authentic and dates to the 1990s. The recreation is a fairly adequate facsimile used to demonstrate the pok ta pok or ballgame ceremony for tourists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Some of the structures at Xcaret are extremely small and were likely designed to house items of religious or symbolic importance. It is sometimes said by workers at the park that these small structures served as dwellings for tiny mischievous beings known as the alux, but as far as I am aware there is no evidence for this claim.

These small stone structures can be found at several sites across Quintana Roo’s coastline but are most prevalent in Xcaret. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site itself is divided into several groups, but most of the largest structures can be found in El Grupo de la Caleta and El Grupo de las Plataformas. 

A large elevated artificial “L-shaped” platform in Xcaret Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The tallest structure at the site is a steep pyramid borrowing elements of Teotihuacan architecture. Between the restored stairway it is easy to spot a niche that likely housed a large stucco mask. This relatively small pyramid design is reminiscent of larger structures found to the south of Quintana Roo’s coast at Chacchoben and Oxtankah.

Xcaret’s pyramid is open to people wishing to climb it and is a popular location for photos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Getting to Xcaret is very easy from anywhere in the region. Tours heading to the park leave several times a day from resort towns such as Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Driving is also an option, as the roads are very good and parking is plentiful. 

A map shows the location of Xcaret, on the northeast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google

Now, for the elephant in the room. Getting into Xcaret is extremely expensive, with the cheapest entrance option ringing you over US$110. Although the archaeological site is officially owned by the Mexican state and administered by the INAH, it is not possible to bypass the fee levied by Grupo Xcaret. 

If you do decide to visit Xcaret, make sure to stay for the Xcaret de Noche show featuring over two hours of extremely solid performances and musical numbers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee includes much more than “just” the archaeological site, but if your main interest is archaeology you would be better off visiting one of the dozens of other archaeological sites in the region.

Prices are listed in both pesos and dollars outside of the park in 2018. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

More articles

CFE buoys to protect flamingos from deadly electric shocks

In response to recent reports of flamingos being electrocuted in El Cuyo, the CFE installed buoys over cables in this area of Yucatán. 

Latin America’s first Airbus helicopter academy to open in Mérida

The academy will be the first of its type in Latin America and is slated to begin operations in January 2022.

Pedro Tec returns with 2022 calendar to support the Mayas Eternos foundation

Introducing the Los Mayas Eternos A.C 2022 calendar. Photo: Courtesy An artist-photographer's nonprofit foundation dedicated to bringing aid...

New season of Gastro Destino México to star 8 Yucatecan Chefs

Gastro Destino México Season 2 will begin filming shorty, though no release date has yet been announced. Photo: Courtesy

30% of La Plancha to be sold to the private sector

La Plancha is the largest undeveloped plot of land in the Centro. Although it will not be part of the Tren Maya, 30% is intended to be sold to the private sector.

Blocked from Chichén Itzá, new-age pilgrims congregate in Uxmal

Both Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún were closed to the public during the fall equinox due to concerns over COVID-19 infections, as well as land disputes. 

Tensions flare over plans for Mérida’s new stadium

Promotion of Housing Industry, says Mérida’s new multi-purpose stadium will increase property values in the city’s north. 

Mérida’s most powerful art collection turns 50

The work of Yucatán's most celebrated muralist, Fernando Castro Pacheco (1918-2013), housed in Mérida's Palacio de Gobierno, turned 50 on Independence Day.

Casa del Águila: Just the right location for $150,000

Casa del Águila in Mérida is in just the right location. It is offered by Melissa Adler of Mérida Living Real...

Yucatán highlights the value of corn with three fairs in September

Three fairs in Yucatán will honor the labor of local communities growing and preserving creole corn.