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Thursday, January 26, 2023

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.

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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.

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
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