Xelha, where fresh water springs life anew

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 make our way to Xelha to marvel at its murals, beautiful cenote and take a break from the ever-bustling Riviera Maya.

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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.
Despite being on the Caribbean coast where hurricanes and powerful storms are common, many of Xelha's murals have survived the ravages of time remarkably well.
Despite being on the Caribbean coast where hurricanes and powerful storms are common, many of Xelha’s murals have survived the ravages of time remarkably well. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xelha is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located on the coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The word Xelha comes from the Yucatec Maya roots xel (spring) and ha’ (water) and is usually translated as “water spring” or “where the water springs.”

The surface level cenote to which Xelha or “water spring” likely owes its name. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site is located on the right-hand side of the Cancún-Tulum highway, near a theme park of the same name. But unlike nearby Xcaret, Xelha is not contained within private property.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Xelha was inhabited by Mayan peoples in the early 1st century CE. But like many other comparable archaeological sites on Quintana Roo’s northern coast, most of its surviving architecture dates between the 9th and 15th centuries CE. 

The remains of dozens of ancient structures can be found in Xelha, though only a few have been restored. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like Tulum, for much of its history, Xelha’s port was controlled by the city of Cobá — 40 kilometers inland to the west. With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Xelha became an important base for Spanish forces led by conquistador Francisco de Montejo (the Elder). The settlement came to be known as “Salamanca de Xelha” in honor of Montejo’s birthplace on the Iberian Peninsula. 

But the vast majority of Montejo’s forces succumbed to illness or were killed by Mayan warriors in coordinated raids. Like the rest of New Spain, Xelha would be eventually “pacified,” but the eastern Yucatán would remain sparsely populated until the mid-20th century.

Lizards, known locally as Toloks, roam the grounds of Xelha. At well over a meter, they can get quite large but don’t worry, they are harmless and will scatter if you get close. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The architecture found at Xelha conforms to the Costa Oriental style, characteristic of Mayan port cities, towns, and settlements on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. When entering the site you will notice a structure partially covered by a thatched roof — always a good omen that something interesting lay underneath. 

Thatch roofs are often erected by archaeologists on sections of ancient structures containing the remains of stucco reliefs, murals, or other features of particular interest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This structure is known as “casa de los pájaros” or “house of birds” and features several red-tinged murals featuring birds, hieroglyphics, geometric patterns, and a badly damaged image of the rain god Tláloc  — a deity imported from central Mexico and analogous to the Mayan Chaac. 

Given their not particularly Mayan aesthetic, Xelha’s murals likely date to a period of heavy Teotihuacan or Toltec influence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As is obvious, the dominant pigment surviving on Xelha’s murals is red, though faint hints of yellow and blue can still be made out if you look closely.

A closeup of a mural depicting several birds at Xelha. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Further evidence of Teotihuacan influence can be seen across Xelha, but perhaps most notable are the site’s two unusually elevated platforms, reminiscent of several in central Mexico as well as the highlands of Guatemala.

Like most Mayan cities and settlements in the Yucatán Peninsula, Xelha came under the influence of peoples from Central Mexico near the start of the second millennia CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As you explore deeper into the site you will come across the ruins of several structures built atop low-lying artificial platforms. Although some of these constructions may have served as residences for Xelha’s elites, some likely served civil or ceremonial roles. 

The layout of this structure with a small chamber at its back suggests it likely housed a ceremonial altar or niche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xelha’s location was likely chosen for settlement due to its large cenote. Unlike most other cenotes which need to be accessed with the aid of stairs or ladders, the cenote found in Xelha lies at surface level and resembles a small lake or pond. The area surrounding the cenote is full of small, single-level structures characteristic of Costa Oriental architecture.

Similar structures can be found across Quintana Roo’s coast at sites such as Tulum, Tankah, and Xcaret. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

While most of these small structures have one entrance, a couple of them are a good deal larger and feature stone pillars used to sustain a larger portico.

The remains of a mural depicting a jaguar survive inside this structure known as “casa del jaguar,” but its view is badly obstructed by a protective mesh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Despite its location between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Xelha does not get as many visitors as you may think and is a great place to disconnect from the non-stop partying and craziness of the Riviera Maya. 

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

The area surrounding the cenote is fantastic for birdwatching, especially early in the morning. Some of the species you have a good chance of spotting include Yucatán jays, motmots (pájaro t’ho) — and if you are really lucky even toucanets or trogons. 

Trogons of several species resemble female Quetzals, as both belong to the order of trogonidae family. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. The entrance fee is 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

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