Cancún Mayan Museum

Quintana Roo, Mexico

Visiting the Museo Maya de Cancún makes Mayan history feel more intimate and personal. It is a different experience from visiting the ruins. It sits in the hotel zone and provides an easy doorway to ancient Mayan history for local tourists.


First time I came here with my friends Elena and Nadia in 2014 and my husband Rhod, and with him we have been back since. I just love this museum. It has been designed very tastefully. It is housed in a modern and minimalistic white building with large windows (I love that architectural style). 

My friend Elena outside the museum, 2015.

Three white columns made of delicate leafy patterns represent the vegetation of the area. I took a photo of Elena in front of it; it just invites you to do so.

The museum houses significant archaeological collections of Mayan culture in the country. The exhibition halls are on the second floor, accessed via elevator (the museum is wheelchair accessible). They are up there to protect the collection in case of flooding. There are three exhibition halls, two of which are permanent and one is used for temporary exhibits (they keep me visiting here again and again).

It is impossible to talk about all the exhibits so I will describe them in my preferred narrative structure: the people, the focus, the mystery and 'Don't miss out'.


The people: The ancient woman

On my first visit I met the ancient local woman, the oldest one found so far. I was truly stunned by the skeletal remains of La Mujer de las Palmas (The Woman of the Palms). She is believed to have lived in the Yucatan Peninsula around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The remains were found in the Las Palmas cenote (sink hole) near Tulum in 2002. I did not take a photo of her then. Back at home, I tried to imagine what she looked like. I went back to the museum in 2015 and then in November 2016. But she was not there! I was gutted. 


I discovered since why. She was taken away for research reasons. Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History has now released photos of the reconstructed image of this woman. Because rising water levels flooded the cave where she died or was laid to rest, her skeleton was about 90 percent intact. We now know that she was between 44-50 years old when she died. She had a broad face, prominent cheeks, grey hair, thin lips, and the epicanthic eye-folds that characterise many modern Asian populations. She resembles people from South-East Asian areas like Indonesia, even though experts had long believed the first people to migrate to the Americas were from north-east Asia across the Bering Strait during the ice age. But now the picture is more complicated, as it seems that the Americas were populated by several migratory movements. It is probably not possible to claim this firmly, based just on one skeleton, but it does pose interesting questions.


The Focus: death masks and incense burners

The first hall, set up in roughly chronological order, shows how the art of the Maya evolved gradually over time. Apart from the Woman of the Palms, the earliest evidence of civilisation in the Yucatán Peninsula dates from only around 250 BC. The relics from this era include utility ceramics (bowls, platters, urns, beaded necklaces), and tools. However, the majority of artefacts are from the Classic period (around 250-900 AD), such as pottery, stone sculpture, stucco modelling, all from the Cancún area. In the second gallery there are larger pieces found in other regions of the vast Mayan empire, which ranged from Quintana Roo and Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco and Campeche, and even Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. My favourite pieces include the green death mask of a ruler, and a stone head sculpture, because of their elegance. They look to me very 'modern'; minimalistic, as a matter of fact.

Jade death mask

Jade death mask

Stone head of El Rey

Another intriguing exhibit is the stone sculpture of the king of the nearby ruin site El Rey (photo on the left), named after K'inich Ahau Bonil. K'inich means 'sun-eyed', and was generally used as a royal title during the Classic Period. Ahau means Lord or Priest. The real question is, who was the man whose statue was found?

Last but not least the incense burner depicting the Descending God is a little gem. It comes from Dzibanché (dated 300-500 AD). For me it was sensational to see this god up close and personal because the stuccos in Tulum's ancient site where he resides (over the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God) are very damaged and one can't see the details such as his face. I have been doing a lot of research on this upside-down figure, trying to find the answer to a simple question: Who was the Descending God? Watch out for my separate post to look into some answers.

Incense burner: the Descending God

Incense burner: the Descending God


The Mystery: ancient sex and gender

A new world opened up to me when in the winter of 2016 I visited a temporary exhibition called Semillas de Vida: La Sexualidad en Occidente (Seeds of life: Sexuality in Western Mesoamerica). Bold and daring exhibits visually represented the concepts of sexuality of ancient Western Mesoamerica (the modern Mexican states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Sinaloa). Watch out for this exhibition in other towns of Mexico; it does go around.

The exhibits, ranging from 2000 BC to 400 AD, were clay figures of men and women, all naked, representing sexual activities, some pregnant, some with exposed genitals and some just lying around without any shame.

Duality symbol. On the right: pregnant ancient woman

Duality symbol. On the right: pregnant ancient woman

Pregnant ancient woman

There was one striking representation of a gay sex scene (which took me a while to realise). This suggests that Mesoamerican artists made this art by copying something common at the time. Apparently, the Maya practised pederasty as many other ancient civilisations did. And although I know there are many examples in ancient Greek and Roman art, I had not personally seen any explicit samples of homosexual sex among the archaeological remains of ancient civilisations before. How does that stand in contrast with today's Mexico? It is a country where homosexuality is still persecuted and attacked by some sectors of society, even though, on the other hand, they also promote their beaches as a gay-friendly destination (like my home town Playa del Carmen).

Gay sex. 

Gay sex. 

Man or woman?

This duality was actually typical since ancient times. I was a bit shocked by it, in all honesty. The masculine and the feminine were presented as symbols of the polarity of the forces of nature. The men represented fire, heat, light, force and life. The females represented germination, water, cold, darkness, weakness, and death. While the females represented darkness and death, they were at the same time the symbol of creation. Mesoamericans believed that life originated in a cave, in the underworld (that is why they worshipped in cenotes). The female as a symbol of fertility sat in a dark, humid place.

A man or a woman?

A man or a woman?

There was another figurine that struck me because I could not decide if it was a male or female (see below). Is that a large penis or a female organ or a cave as a symbol of the female womb? You decide.

That poses a further question: Did the Maya believe that some people were born with the spirits of both genders? The northern Americans acknowledged three to five gender roles: Female, Male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and Transgendered. Were the Mayan beliefs similar?


Don't miss: the outdoor ruins and exhibits

The outdoor exhibits are as interesting as the indoor ones and they are not to be missed. The museum visit includes access to the ruins of San Miguelito. After visiting the exhibition halls, go back down to ground level and follow the path that leads to the ruins site. The small site is a pleasant surprise, set in a green oasis of jungle and pretty shaded. Its name comes from the area where it is located, at the hacienda San Miguelito (the archaeological site was part of its land). The site has integrated the original vegetation of San Miguelito with the gardened areas of the Museum. 

The Maya inhabited the site between 1200 and 1550 AD. When you are inside the site, you may not realise it, but it is sitting near the Nichupté Lagoon, which means this site was occupied by traders, like so many others around the coast; for example El Rey, El Meco (both in Cancún), Muyil or Tulum. Don't miss out the pyramidal Chaak Palace (the palace of the Mayan God of Rain) and a basement located in the South Set, at the end of the route, which has a staircase with carvings.


The museum outdoor patio also holds temporary exhibitions. In the autumn of 2016 it was an exhibition of Catrinas, all made locally as part of a competition for the celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead. All the exhibited Catrinas were creatively made of maize that year. The original Calavera Catrina ('Elegant Skull') was a zinc etching by the famous Mexican printmaker and cartoon illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. A female skeleton was dressed only in a hat, as a satire of the upper class outfit of a European of her time. The author made her as a satire on those Mexican natives who wanted to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era. Since then she has become an icon of the Mexican Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead. I live in Playa del Carmen and every second shop seems to use Catrina as a decoration to encourage the tourists to come in.


How to get there:

Located at km 16.5 in the Cancún Hotel Zone on Kukulkán avenue. You can access this site by public bus from the ADO bus station or by car. It is easy to spot along the road.