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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).