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Xtampak, the enigmatic capital of the Chenes region

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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.
The name Xtampak comes from the Yucatec-Maya language and is usually translated as meaning old walls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Santa Rosa Xtampak, also known as simply Xtampak, is a remote archaeological site located in the municipality of Hopelchén, Campeche.

The archaeological site is surrounded by thick vegetation in the interior of Campeche, which aside from housing a few farms and Mennonite camps, is sparsely populated. This extremely rural region of the Yucatán Peninsula has a charm all its own, which is a little hard to describe but feels wild and tranquil at the same time. 

The terrain at Santa Rosa Xtampak is even more treacherous than it looks in photos, so make sure to bring a good pair of shoes, or boots if you decide to brave the site during the rainy season. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Santa Rosa Xtampak was first settled by Mayan peoples sometime in the early 4th century BCE. These early settlers likely came from city-states already established at the far southern end of what today is Campeche and Northern Guatemala. There is good reason to believe that even during this early stage of occupation large structures were erected. But sadly, not much is known about them as they were destroyed to make way for new constructions. 

Chenes period sideway connecting chambers in Santa Rosa Xtampak. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city seems to have reached its zenith between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. This period also bore witness to a large construction boom in a style known as Chenes. Because of its size, as well as its political and economic ties with the great city of Uxmal, many archaeologists believe that Santa Rosa Xtampak served as a regional capital for the entire Chenes region. Other important centers likely under its influence include Dzibilnocac, Hochob, and El Tabasqueño.

El Placio at Santa Rosa Xtampak is impressive for its size, complex architectural design, and abundant flourishes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the site you will walk down a clearing in the jungle for 10 minutes or so before reaching its core. Take it easy and enjoy the surroundings and make sure to keep your eyes open to detect unexcavated mounds and exotic birds. Before you know it, you will reach the heart of the site and come face to face with El Palacio, one of the most beautiful feats of architecture in the entire region. 

At the very top of El Palacio, it is still possible to make out some of the temple’s original stuccowork. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This massive complex has 44 individual chambers spread across its three floors. A large stairway at the front of the structure connects all three levels and ultimately leads to a richly decorated room at the top of the structure. There are also several well-preserved internal stairways that allowed for more direct movement between chambers.

Detailed view of chamber entrances on the first couple of floors of El Palacio in Santa Rosa Xtamak. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

One of the most unusual aspects of Xtampak’s Palacio is that it appears to have been designed from the outset as a multi-story structure, in contrast to multi-level buildings elsewhere in which various levels were added over time. The structure also features several recessed wall panels which were likely richly adorned with brightly painted stucco. There are also several niches that were almost certainly adorned with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures representing either local nobility or deities of the Mayan pantheon. 

Image of the rain god Chaac, or perhaps Itzamná adorning El Palacio in Santa Rosa Xtampak. Note hist open mouth. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure known as the Snake Mouth Portal is made up of a series of laterally interconnected rooms. The entrance to the structure is extremely narrow and accessible via three small steps. 

The Snake Mouth Portal is fairly unique in its design and iconography, but it’s likely that others existed at other important centers but simply did not survive the ravages of time. Photo: Carlos Rosado vand er Gracht

The room at the center of this complex is decorated with snakes and iconography that makes allusions to the deity Itzmaná. The general design of the structure follows conventions similar to those of Chenes’ Monster of the Earth temples, but with an emphasis on the sky god Itzamná. That being said, it has long been hypothesized that a connection exists between the Monster of the Earth and the Sky deity.

Pyramid dedicated to Itzamná, just behind the Snake Mouth Portal. Photo: Carlos Rosado vander Gracht

Directly behind the Snake Mouth Portal is a pyramidal structure with a stone mask at its base, likely representing Itzamná once again. It is interesting to note that while Monster of the Earth temples represent entrances to the underworld of Xibalba, this Snake Mouth Portal complex seems to be doing the opposite iconographically as it signals to the heavens. This is not just because of its emphasis on Itzamná or the positioning of the pyramid, but also because of its references to serpents, which in Mayan cosmology are actually associated with the sky, not the earth realm or ground. Though this may sound a little counterintuitive, remember the feathered serpent deity Kukulkán, also known as Quetzalcoatl. 

Santa Rosa Xtampak also possesses a great many residential complexes and ceremonial structures which have been restored to something resembling their former glory. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Notable among these structures is a large complex known as El Cuartel, which if its name in Spanish is any indication would have served as a garrison. But this is pure speculation. 

El Cuartel covers an area of roughly 2,300 meters. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you make your way further into the jungle, off the beaten path, you will come across a large pyramid that has seen only little archaeological restoration. Given its dimensions, It is likely that this structure was part of a large ceremonial center, This is also evidenced by the remains of flanking temples and platforms that can also be made out under the vegetation, though just barely. 

A large mostly unrestored pyramid in Santa Rosa Xtampak. It is possible to climb the structure, but be extremely careful as stones are likely to shift under your weight. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

For a long time, Santa Rosa Xtampak was one of those archaeological sites I had always wanted to visit but had never gotten to. At a distance of 177 kilometers from Mérida, the site is not exactly close, but the state of the roads is what makes access challenging more than the distance itself. Travel time from Mérida is roughly 4 hours.

Map showing the location of Santa Rosa Xtampak on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

The detour on the Uman-Hopchen road to Santa Rosa Xtampak is especially precarious. Much of it is not paved and large potholes are abundant. I was warned to avoid attempting the trip during the rainy season and being the sensible guy that I am, I was happy to follow this advice — as should you. Also consider that there is no mobile phone signal once you get off the main highway, so if you get stuck, you would be very much on your own. 

Santa Rosa Xtampak may be difficult to get to but is very much worth the effort Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

You will likely have a hard time finding a tour to Santa Rosa Xtampak departing from Mérida, Campeche, or any nearby communities. You will almost certainly have to drive there yourself or hire a driver who is familiar with the region. If you have the choice of choosing a vehicle, I would recommend a Jeep or some other type of vehicle with 4×4 capabilities. 

Wild tillandsia growing on the grounds of Santa Rosa Xtampak. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee is 45 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. Santa Rosa Xtampak remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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