El Meco

Quintana Roo, Mexico

The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Mix & Match

Fraderick Catherwood, The Governor's Palace:  pinterest.co.uk.

What makes this site special? a potent spiritual energy.

This small site was once a large port and market centre, and may have been the old navigation gateway to Isla Mujeres, as it sits right in the bay of the island. Much of this area has not yet been formally explored by archaeologists.

The Name

El Meco is not the original name for the site; that has been lost to time. I found only one reference to the name El Meco on the official site of the Mexican National Institue of Anthropology and History (INAH). El Meco was a nickname for a local resident who was bowlegged and for some odd reason, they named it after him. He was the caretaker of a small ranch on the beach, located in the vicinity of the current lighthouse.


The Age

The ancient city of El Meco began its existence as a fishing village around 300 AD and was subsequently abandoned around 600 AD.

It was during this time that the community served as an important civil and ceremonial centre. It depended on Cobá for survival. I presume this would have been through trade.

By the 11th century it was populated again and became an important trading city. During this time the city maintained contact with residents of the peninsula's north-western portion and of Belize's Petén, Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Indications of these ties are found in the ceramic production and architecture. 

The trading route reached places like Nito at the mouth of the Río Dulcein in Guatemala and Naco on the Ulua river in Honduras while in the Gulf of Mexico they traded with Acalan, Campeche and Xicalango, the ports of The Putún Maya (also referred to as Chontal Maya or Itzá people).


El Meco also kept a close link with El Rey and San Miguelito on the coast of Cancún to further develop the Maya inland and sea trade networks. While the allies are clear, it is less clear who were the foes. After all, the Maya were warriors. As is the history of many ancient Mayan settlements, the city was again abandoned during the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish.


The People

To imagine how the inhabitants of El Meco lived, we need to think in terms of their professions and the social hierarchy. First the inhabitants were fishermen, then from the 11th century onwards they were sailors and merchants. By then the hierarchy of Mayan society had changed, because artisans and traders created a 'middle class'. The local ruler (Batab), of noble origin, would have been in charge of war and religion and the middle class of art and trade services. The service sector included mathematicians, farming consultants, artisans, architects, astronomers, scribes and artists. Manufactured goods included paper, books, furniture, jewellery, clothing, carvings, stone sculptures, stone reliefs, ceramic pottery, toys and weapons.

Alfredo Zalce: Mayan Fisherman in Yucatán, 1945. Lithograph:  nga.gov .

Alfredo Zalce: Mayan Fisherman in Yucatán, 1945. Lithograph: nga.gov.

The feather merchant, Florentine Codex Book 10:  pinterest.com .

The feather merchant, Florentine Codex Book 10: pinterest.com.


The commoners such as farmers, hunters and fishermen provided food, namely fish, squash, yams, corn, honey, beans, turkey, vegetables, chocolate (only for the noblemen), vanilla (yes, they were even able to cross-breed vanilla). The slaves were used as carriers of the products, for the extraction of raw materials like limestone, marble, jade, wood and copper and serving the nobles at the palaces.

The re-enacted sacred journey takes place annually each May.

The re-enacted sacred journey takes place annually each May.

The people of El Meco could also possibly have been pilgrims, as the island of Isla Mujeres across from the El Meco site served as the sanctuary for Ixchel, the Maya goddess of the Moon, fertility, medicine and happiness. I found no evidence of their pilgrim trips but all the southern coastal cities of Yucatán undertook sacred pilgrimages to the island of Cozumel, which was the main place of worship for the same goddess (this tradition has been re-enacted and now happens annually from Xcaret to Cozumel). One can only deduce that the same worship applied to the whole coast.

The Itzamná influence is also evident in the location. Itzamná was the God of Creation, Writing, and Divination and he was also worshipped at the site of El Rey (and also in Izamal, north of Merida).

The slaves carried the products on their backs, fastened on the forehead. From a mural at Calakmul museum.

The slaves carried the products on their backs, fastened on the forehead. From a mural at Calakmul museum.

Our family friend Leoporno Rodríguez taking part on the sacred pilgrimage journey from Xcaret to Cozumel island.

Our family friend Leoporno Rodríguez taking part on the sacred pilgrimage journey from Xcaret to Cozumel island.


The Focus: El Castillo (The Castle)

The remains of El Meco consist of 14 structures, which lie between the coast and a large lagoon. You can see the structural foundations of many smaller buildings, imagining how they would have supported wooden roofs. There are three plazas on this small site.

You will find some shade to protect you from the sun under the branches of the old fig tree that grows inside a small temple on the site. Also note the iguanas that are sunbathing and strolling the site. Coatis also live on the site.

The first plaza you will see when entering the site. Right: Note the serpent heads at the bottom of the staircase on El Castillo.

The first plaza you will see when entering the site. Right: Note the serpent heads at the bottom of the staircase on El Castillo.

You can't miss the coatis.

The centrepiece of the archaeological zone is the Mayan pyramid, 12m high. You will find a ceremonial plaza and town centre dominated by 'El Castillo', El Meco’s main building, with a small shrine for offerings. At the foot of the east-facing steps of the Castillo there are two well-preserved serpent heads (photo above right), similar to those found at Chichén Itzá. If they copied their architecture, they would have been either allies or their conquered vassals.

The Castle building is rather tall so it is possible that it served not just for religious rituals but also as a lighthouse. This was common practice along the coast, for the pyramids to serve as a navigation point for seafarers, marking their journey with fires on the building (sometimes inside the rooms, letting the fire light through the windows, like El Castillo in Tulum).

Column motif, representing reeds of Mayan houses. Step-fret (G-shape) on the left. A snake with an open jaw at the corner.

The Mystery: Satellite of the lost city of Belma

El Meco could associated with the place called Belma, as its satellite town (this means the main ruler would have been at Belma and El Meco would have to pay them tribute (food, animal skins and other products). The port city of Belma was one of the principal cities of today's Yucatán and would have been set up or occupied by the Itzá. There are no Belma ruins left as it is now totally buried under the city of Cancún. This port was mentioned by Francisco Montejo in 1527 as a large city with magnificent buildings and temples, the capital of the province of Ecab on his arrival. The scientists don't tell us much about this place as their interpretations are always based on physical evidence of ruins. Maps that I have searched only show the city of Ecab in Cabo Catoche Bay. Ecab was dubbed by the Spaniards 'El Gran Cairo' because of its impressive size, yet another trading port. The remains of  Ecab Maya structures are still visible from the coastal lagoon known as Boca Iglesia but the site is not open to the public. 

The occupational history of the site is certainly related to the major trade routes of the Itzá people along this coast, trading with salt (extracted at north coast settlements Las Coloradas and El Cuyo), but also with slaves, honey and cotton. It is possible that they traded with Belma (and its satellite El Meco); it is also suggested that Isla Cerritos was their major port. The coastal communities actively forged  social and political alliances and networks with interior centres.

What is still not clear to me is how on earth they survived all that competition. There were many other trading cities along the coast, on the territory of today's Cancún alone there were 17 of them, plus many other major ports such as Tulum, Muyil, Cuzamil (Cozumel), Tankah, Xel Há, Xaman Há, Xcaret (Polé). Check out the density of the Maya settlements along the coast on the map below (latinamericanstudies.org), as well as the trade routes (photo taken at the site of San Miguelito in Cancún). All inland cities were at war with each other for the trade routes, resources (such as land) and political dominance. While Chichén Itzá would have been dominant, how come that these coastal cities did not fight for further dominance over each other?

Or did they?


Don't Miss: Los Flamingos restaurant

This is an unusal recommendation from me as the restaurant is not within the site of El Meco. However, it is just down the road and it will get you a sense of the coast where El Meco was situated. The reason why I say this is because you can't sense the coast from the El Meco site as the beach and the coast are across the road today. 

You will recognise it by the large pink flamingo statues outside the restaurant. As the El Meco site is small, you may just as well make it a full day out. The restaurant sits right on the beach. There is a pier for photo opportunities, or you can take a swim in the sea or put your feet up in a hammock on the beach. The restaurant serves typical Mexican food. When we were there in November 2016, they had live music.

Los Flamingos Pier

Los Flamingos Pier

Reed motif (wooden poles) and spiny zig zag underneath (undulating serpent body, a conduit that connected the palace to the universe).
My husband Rhod in the Los Flamingos restaurant. 2016

My husband Rhod in the Los Flamingos restaurant. 2016


The site map

  • The site is open 8am-5pm.

  • Entrance: $50 pesos.

  • There are restrooms on the site.

  • Bring your own water and snacks.


How to get there:

The site is located about 8km north of downtown Cancún, on the Caribbean coast, in the municipality of Isla Mujeres. The ruins are located between Puerto Juárez (the people ferry) and Punta Sam (the car ferry). There are no tours that offer this ruin. 


The site is located at Km 27. It sits across the road from the beach, which is lined by a few restaurants.

If going by car, drive north out of Cancún on Avenida Lopez Portillo, also known as the Cancún-Puerto Juárez road. The site is then located on your left.

I don't remember the entry fee exactly but it was around 50 pesos. There are no tour guides on site. That means you have to do it on your own. You may have the site to yourself as it is a bit off the beaten track and the tourists don't bother to come.


Mix & Match

You could combine the visit with a beach stay at Isla Blanca, an hour's ride from the ruins.


Coe, Michael D. and Houston, Stephen (2015): The Maya, Thames and Hudson (9th edition)