Acanceh

Yucatán, Mexico


A small town of three cultures: outstanding Maya ruins with zoomorphic masks, colonial haciendas, and the zócalo full of life.


The slides at the spa, on the village coast.
 

Acanceh [ah-cahn-kay] is a small ancient town, the first stop on the famous convent route (the last being Maní, with the church where the friar Fray Diego de Landa burnt all the ancient Maya books). For me, Acanceh's attraction lies in its ancient Maya ruins, with their amazing zoomorphic stucco masks. The name of the town is ancient as well; in Mayait means 'the lament of the deer'.

The ruins are completely integrated with the town. Next to the main pyramid there is a grocery store and a bakery and opposite is the church. Some say that the pyramid sits in opposition to a colonial church. This may have been the case in the past. But for me they sit in symbiosis today. The locals say that Acanceh is a town of three cultures: the ancient, the colonial and the current one. The main square reflects this symbiosis in its name: the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.

The same visible symbiosis of cultures can be seen in Izamal, but not in many other places. This is because the Spaniards built their churches on top of the Maya temples, from their stones, to show who was in power at the time of conquest. It is amazing that Acanceh pyramid survived at all, unlike the rest of the ancient city. And then there was looting. Even the royal burials did not escape that fate. The latest archaeological survey determined that there were a minimum of 160 ancient structures spread over an area of more than two square kilometres.

The church view from the ancient pyramid site.

The church view from the ancient pyramid site.

Buena Vista Balneario.
 

The masks on the ruins are intriguing; they remind me of the masks I have seen in Kohunlich, where they represent the Sun God. So the ancient town had a cult of the Sun but the Spanish conquistadores brought a different form of worship here in the 16th century.

The Catholic church, the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de la Natividad, is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most celebrated religious icon in Mexico. It is quite austere inside and bright yellow outside, as you would expect from a church in Yucatán.

I came to Acanceh with my husband in May 2018, after visiting the ruins of Mayapán (one of my best ruin visits). We were determined to see haciendas Yabucú and Tepich and the Acanceh ruins. We did all that but we were in for an additional surprise in the evening: there was a bullfight fiesta, la corrida, in the main square that night!

The entry to the temporary bull ring.

The entry to the temporary bull ring.

The bull ring as seen from the top of the pyramid.

The bull ring as seen from the top of the pyramid.

 

The town itself has a pleasant zócalo (main square). As per tradition, it has a main park with benches in the middle. The Maya (the majority of the inhabitants here) don't go to pubs; they sit on the park benches and chat. The church is to one side, while the town hall is opposite. Colonial buildings line the square and they house shops today: a pharmacy, a flower shop… Some of them could do with a lick of paint but the colonial charm is still there. There are some food stalls selling tacos around the zócalo, as in every Mexican village and city. On this occasion in May, a temporary bullring was erected by the main park, in front of the church. It was just built from wooden planks and some palm leaves were used to conceal the event from non-paying passers-by. It looked a bit fragile, in all honesty. One push by a bull and 'we all fall down'. What surprised me was that there was no fence around the bullring. Would the bull be able to escape?

 
The town hall (ayuntamiento).

The town hall (ayuntamiento).

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The village houses of Buena Vista.
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In the end, we were not brave enough to watch the fight. The locals told us that the fiesta took three days and each day they killed two bulls. Afterwards they eat them so they don't see anything cruel in this act. We saw the unfortunate animals in a truck, in the road leading to our hotel. There are mixed opinions regarding the topic of bullfighting in Mexico, with some people feeling that it is traditional and others feeling that it should be abolished. At this moment in time, it is completely legal. Yet, we could not bear it.

 
The church with the temporary bullring structure on its plaza.

The church with the temporary bullring structure on its plaza.

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The trucks with the bulls.

The trucks with the bulls.

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Fiestas like this are common in all villages and town around Mérida, mostly in the month of May, when they celebrate their local saints. Such fiestas are called vaquerías, run originally by the Spanish hacienda owners for their workers, vaqueros (cowboys) and vaqueras (cowgirls), on the occasion of shoeing the cattle. They begin with a church mass, then a religious procession and finally some folk dances.

The streets around the zócalo were closed for the fiesta.

The streets around the zócalo were closed for the fiesta.

In Yucatán it is usually a jarana dance to jolly music, when dancers shout comic rhymes during the dance. Quite challenging, wouldn't you say? In some places they add a bullfight, which was the case of both Mayapán and Acanceh on the day of our visit (4 May). We were waiting for the fairground to open at the zócalo, watching a plastic castle being inflated, while local kids focused on the fluffy cotton candy, an inevitable part of a village fiesta. However, nothing happened for a while and by 9pm we gave up.

The food stalls on the road opposite the bull ring.

The food stalls on the road opposite the bull ring.

Fiesta stalls on the main plaza.

Fiesta stalls on the main plaza.

 

As for the Acanceh ruins, I describe them in full detail in my separate post Acanceh ruins but allow me a very brief note about the large masks of the Sun God. They could have served as fire censers, to celebrate the deceased kings. Just imagine the pyramid lit by the fires every night from the heads of the gods! There is another set of pyramids just a couple blocks down from the zócalo (in street 18), with some preserved stucco friezes. You will need to ask the INAH staff (The National Institute of Anthropology and History) outside the pyramid to take you to the Stucco Palace because it is locked. We loved the company of Agustín, who let us into both sites as our guide. Furthermore, a recent discovery revealed yet another structure, an observatory of the Sun and Venus, about 900m away from the pyramid. That makes the Acanceh people astronomers! We did not know about it at the time so I can't advise on its exact location but the INAH staff should be able to direct you there.

 
Giant stucco masks at the pyramid’s Temple of Masks.

Giant stucco masks at the pyramid’s Temple of Masks.

The pyramid at the back garden.

The pyramid at the back garden.

 

Haciendas were plentiful around Acanceh in the past. They were all interconnected, for example Yabucú was joined by paths to other farms such as Uitzá, Chapín, and Dzitiná. We visited two of them, Yabucú and Tepich. They both started as cattle ranches and in the 19th century turned into henequén haciendas. Tepich still breeds some horses. Yabucú is restored in bright red paint and it is rented for corporate events. It is not possible to come here just for a meal but the staff allowed us to walk about. Hacienda Tepich just outside the town preserved its original colours, which now have a lovely patina of time. It serves as a hotel today, with a restaurant open to the public.

 
Hacienda Yabucú.

Hacienda Yabucú.

Hacienda Tepich.

Hacienda Tepich.

 
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Our hotel in town was modest when compared to the old haciendas, but it was cheap (400 pesos), spacious, and clean and it had a/c. It is called Palomino and is just two blocks down from the zócalo (in street 20), see the photo on the left.

The entry fee to the ruins was 45 pesos, covering both sites. There is no fee for strolling around the haciendas.

How to get there:

Off Highway 180D (Cancún-Mérida) turn onto road 184 (the Convent Route). It is about 45 minutes to the south of Mérida.

You can take a colectivo bus from Mérida.

 
 
 

Mix & Match:

I have already indicated some options above: Mayapán ruins (really delightful, 20-minute drive), haciendas Tepich and Yabucú, both on the outskirts of the town, or you could try Cuzama Cenotes, just 20 minutes away.