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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Xpujil, gateway to the Calakmul biosphere

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 venture deep into southern Campeche to explore the ancient Mayan city of Xpujil.

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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.
Xpujil’s most famous feature, Structure I, is widely considered one of the most striking examples of Río Bec architecture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Xpujil is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Campeche, within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and within the limits of the contemporary town of the same name.

Stone mask in Xpujil, likely depicting the sky god Itzamná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the Yucatec Mayan Language, Xpujil means cat’s tail, though this name likely makes reference to a local curling species of vegetation rather than to felines themselves.

Well-trodden paths in Xpujil make getting around to spot wildlife fairly easy, just make sure to be as quiet and stealthy as you can. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Xpujil was likely first settled during the Early Classic period, sometime in the 2nd century CE. However, most of the constructions at the site date a little later to a period spanning the following centuries.

Structure I in Xpujil as seen from the back with collapsed sections of its towers allowing interior vaults to become visible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Architecturally, Xpujil exemplifies Río Bec architecture, especially when it comes to the site’s most important edification, complete with three ornate towers. Xpujil’s towers are not unlike those found in other ancient cities such as Dzibilnocac and Hochob, though on an even grander scale. Aside from its great towers, note its roof combs and elaborate zoomorphic facade. 

Known as Structure I, this edification is atypical due to its atypical three-tower construction instead of the usual two. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After centuries of lying abandoned, Xpujil was rediscovered by American archaeologists Karl Ruppert and John Denison in the late 1930s. Detailed illustrations of the site were soon after created by the trailblazing Russian archaeologist Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

Russian archaeologist Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s illustrations do a marvelous job of bringing the architecture of Mesoamerica to life in stunning detail and with rigorous accuracy. Photo: Courtesy

Given its architectural features and location near Xpujil’s main ceremonial center, structure II was likely the residence of the cities elite. It sits upon a raised artificial platform and has several vaulted rooms, most of which have since collapsed.

Though the facade is badly damaged, it is still possible to make out a few serpentine designs as well as criss-cross decorative patterns. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Structure VI was likely a dual-purpose administrative and residential complex. At the entrances to some of the chambers, it is possible to observe small holes which presumably served as curtain rod holders, suggesting that cotton clothes were hung there to provide residents with more privacy.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Structure VI underwent at least two major expansions, likely during the 7th and 9th centuries CE. Photo: Courtesy

Aside from its interesting architectural features, Xpujil is a fantastic place to observe the region’s fauna, especially since its winding paths make it easy to move through the dense rainforest.

If you go 

Because of its location right on the highway, as well as a relative abundance of hotels and campsites, the town of Xpujil is the perfect hub for exploring the Río Bec region and the Calakmul biosphere. Several other incredibly interesting sites such as Becán and Chiccaná are also extremely close, and as a result, many travelers choose to visit all three on the same day. 

A map shows the location of Xpujil on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

Accommodations, as well as a handful of restaurants in the tiny town, are fairly good, especially when one considers their remote location.

Howler monkeys make their presence known with powerful howls which can be heard kilometers away. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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