Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
dominant trading position On Cancún's Coast.
El Rey is one of the most important archaeological zones in Cancún. According to the investigations, it is believed that El Rey, along with nearby San Miguelito, formed the nucleus of a town dedicated to maritime commerce and fishing activities.
If you don't want to go on an all-day trip to see other (more famous) ruins, this small site will at least give you a feel for them, and some exposure to the history. It's actually not that small. The entrance is clearly signposted but tucked away next to a strange modern bunker, but once you're inside, you'll find the site stretches for quite some distance along the shores of the lagoon. There's a feeling of privacy, as if you've entered an exclusive golf club. If you swagger a bit, you'll feel like a Mayan lord. We came here on a rainy day so we were the only visitors.
In 1909 the English travellers Channing Arnold and Frederick Frost visited the site and found an anthropomorphic sculpture of what was interpreted to be a noble personage and from where we have the derived name of The King (El Rey). El Rey is also known as the K'inich Ahau Group. K'inich Ahau (K'inich Ajaw) is the 16th-century Yucatec and Lacandón name of the Maya Sun God who was worshipped on this site.
While the ruins may no longer be inhabited by people, they are home to hundreds of iguanas. They appear out of nowhere with their bouncy little run and flicking tails, fighting each other for a little nibble. They're not afraid of humans and humans should not be afraid of them; iguanas don't bite; they'll use their powerful tails to take a swipe at you only if they feel threatened.
Dating back to the 3rd to 2nd century BC, El Rey is notable for having two main plazas bounded by two streets. Most other Mayan cities contain only one plaza.
It was not until the Late Post-Classic (1200-1550 AD) that it reached its most important growth stage. The site gained importance at this time because a number of immigrants arrived from the interior of Yucatán.
The ruins weren't explored by archaeologists until 1910, and excavations didn't begin until 1954. In 1975, archaeologists began restoration work on the 47 structures with the help of the Mexican government. The 47 structures are estimated to have been inhabited by the Mayans as early as 900 AD. There are two primary platforms and temples believed to be the remains of religious ceremonial buildings and market areas. El Rey had a dominant trading position among the 17 Mayan trading posts that were in the past in the area of today's Cancún. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the population of El Rey abandoned the city or died in a brief period (from European diseases that the Spanish brought with them).
This settlement was a dominant place on the Mayan trade route, being placed on the shores of the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupté lagoon (so crucial for the internal land trade). The city also managed other functions. It was a burial ground for royalty, and an astronomy educational centre. In 1923 Raymond Merwin and Samuel Lothrop found evidence that El Rey was linked to the Itzamná community that ruled both Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán and Edzná in Campeche.
Between the years 200 BC and 1200 AD the inhabitants of the site worked as fishermen and in the extraction of salt. The salt was sold to other cities inland. It would also have been used to pay taxes to the powerful centres of the region (if El Rey was a vassal, for example to Chichén Itzá).
The salt extraction and trade of El Rey really puzzles me. I could not find any reference to a salt extraction site near El Rey. Salt was extracted in the north of the peninsula by many coastal settlements. We know that Chichén Itzá had a monopoly for sea salt sites such as Las Coloradas, El Cuyo and Emal. They made their fortune from this trade. It is estimated that Emal (to the east of Isla Cerritos) produced up to 5,000 tons of salt per year for export by Chichén. They could have easily transported the salt from the Gulf Coast in their own canoes. Or did they subordinate the East Coast cities to do that job for them, to take it south to Belize and Guatemala? Have the coast cities become the vassals of Chichén Itzá? And why would they pay their taxes in salt when Chichén had an abundance of salt? If we look further south, places like Tulum and Muyil traded with Chichén as well. How many salt traders were needed without jeopardising sustainability? Just imagine the competition. Salt was also extracted by many other inland cities, for example Xuenkal, to the west of Ek' Balam. Many questions; few answers.
The Focus: The Castle
The most important building is number 2, which consists of a pyramidal base with a temple, built in at least two constructive stages. The Castle (El Castillo) is the Spanish name for all main Mayan pyramids with a temple on top as they do resemble castles.
The pyramid is topped by a platform, and inside its vault are paintings on stucco. Skeletons interred at the apex and at the base indicate the site may have been a royal burial ground. In 2006, workmen unearthed an ancient Mayan skeleton on the outskirts of the park. I am waiting for some news on that.
Some of the stone walls are still adorned with ancient paintings. Even if the murals have deteriorated over time, it is still possible to distinguish images representing kings and other important members of the community.
The Mystery: El Rey, the king?
The settlement was originally named K'inich Ahau Bonil, Mayan for 'King of the Solar Countenance' and the site is therefore linked to astronomical practices. In Mayan codices (paper books) K'inich Ahau is depicted as God G, a middle-aged man with an aquiline nose, large square eyes, cross-eyed, and a filed incisor in the upper row of teeth. The element K'inich is usually assumed to mean 'sun-eyed', and was generally used as a royal title during the Classic Period. Ahau means Lord or Priest. K'inich Ahau was the patron of one of the years of the 52-year cycle (Landa). In the rituals introducing this year, war dances were executed. K'inich Ahau was apparently considered an aspect of the upper god Itzamná (God of Creation, Writing, and Divination). He may conceivably be related to the patron deity of Izamal (Kinich Kakmo 'Fire Parrot'). If El Rey and Izamal worshipped the same god, does it mean they were political allies? (They are a three-hour drive from each other).
The real question is, who was the man whose statue was found? Did he really have the title of K'inich Ahau? I could not find a reference to how the scientists found out the original name of the settlement. Was it a glyph somewhere on a building or a temple? Was it a mural depiction of the Sun God? Was it a glyph on the statue itself?
Of course, the 'Lord' could take the role of a god upon himself (as the Mayan kings did; they were divine). What is puzzling here is that in the 15th century the settlement of El Rey was part of the chiefdom of Ekab and this chiefdom did not have lords. They had village chieftains called Batab. Yucatán by then formed 16 states or chiefdoms. The chiefdoms were called Kuchkabals and usually they were ruled by a Halach Uinik ('The True Man'). A Governor, in other words. However, in the Ekab chiefdom each village was ruled by a Batab. In Ekab the Batabs were supposed to have equal power, but the Batabs on the island of Cozumel had much more power than the others.
On the other hand, the discovered statue of the 'chieftain' could be much older (I could not find any reference to the date of the statue) and before the 15th century the settlement could have had a Lord, indeed. That would mean that El Rey had a dominating power over the neighbouring settlements. This is very interesting, considering that there were 17 settlements in the area that is now Cancún Hotel Zone. The close ally we are aware of was the settlement of San Miguelito, which is situated today 1.5km from El Rey. In the past their boundaries would have met and they would have had a 'nucleus' town. They also worked with El Meco to further develop the Maya inland and sea trade networks. So what about the other 14 settlements? Were they at war with El Rey and their vassals? Or did they all co-operate and share the resources?
On our visit in November 2016 I liked the walk along the sacbé ('white road') that runs from south to north of the enclosure, passing different structures, mostly housing complexes. A small group of the ruling elite occupied the palaces. Of interest are the buildings 1 and 4, which are palaces with large galleries and colonnades that supported flat roofs (a feature of the so-called East Coast architectural style for all the sites along the Yucatán coast, visible at sites such as Tulum, San Miguelito, El Meco, Xcaret, Xel-há, Tankah). From their dimensions they seem to be administrative constructions, in which meetings between the governing groups were arranged. I presume this is where the Batab of the nearby San Miguelito would have attended meetings.
Note also structure 3b which was originally painted with various motifs but only small fragments remain today.
The Site Map
- El Rey is open 8am-5pm.
- The entry fee is 50 pesos (discounts for locals with ID, and free for locals on Sundays).
Mix & Match
It can be combined with the Cancún Mayan Museum, It is just 1.5km from the El Rey ruins, making it easy to walk between the two sites.
How to get there:
El Rey is in the Hotel Zone, on the 19.5km, at the Sheraton Cancún Resort. The best time to visit is between December and May as it is much drier and more pleasant than the rest of the year. Make sure you bring bottles of water because it can be hot in the sun and there is no shop on the site. If you are taking public transportation, the ADO buses to Cancún leave from Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos. Make sure you then take a bus to the Hotel Zone.