What makes this site special? The wilderness.
Muyil needs to be experienced, not read about, to truly appreciate this site. This site is as much ecological as archaeological.
You will basically have the jungle to yourself, as the site is not frequented by the tourists in the same way as the nearby Tulum (20 minutes up north). On my visit there in January 2017 (high season on Riviera Maya) I met 5 visitors.
As it's in a biosphere reserve, it is home to abundant vegetation and wildlife and you will feel in real touch with nature here. The Muyil site tour ends with a boardwalk through the jungle, all the way to the lagoon. Here you will see the 'lanchas' (small uncovered boats) and you can opt for a boat trip (two hours) and a float through the mangroves down a lazy river.
Called Chunyaxché by the locals, Muyil is believed to have been an important port, connected to the sea through two lagoons, called Muyil and Chunyaxché.
The local guide Pastor Caamal suggested to me that Muyil is a kind of tree in the Mayan language. The same applies to Ya'axche, which means ceiba. Chunyaxché (which is the older name for Muyil) means wide trunk of ceiba.
The ancient complex is situated in the biosphere reserve called Sian Ka’an, which means 'where the sky was born'.
All these names indicate to us the true nature of the site: it is all about nature, trees, the crystal-clear water of the lagoons and the sky that is reflected in the waters…
Muyil most certainly had strong ties to Cobá, even though the smaller site was founded nearly 300 years earlier than the city that ultimately became its patron.
The first people are believed to have come here from Belize or Guatemala, by sea. This is why the main pyramid El Castillo resembles the tall Tikal pyramids. I imagine that Muyil started as a small fishing camp or hamlet.
Pottery shards have been found dating back to as early as 350 BC and the town was still active until almost 1500 AD, making it both the earliest and the longest-occupied site on the east coast of the Yucatán. By the late pre-classic period it appears that at least 15 sites along the north coast were involved in salt-making and long-distance trade of this commodity flourished.
The majority of the structures you will see are much younger; they were built between 1200-1500 AD. The buildings from this period remind us of the Eastern Coast architectural style (pretty crude, looking like stones in a pile cemented quickly together).
Cobá was a major political and economic force in the area before the rise of Chichén Itzá in the ninth century. It is not surprising that these two major powers collided. Recent research indicates that Chichén Itzá distributed its trade goods by coastal canoe and may have severed Cobá's trade ties along the coast from port areas such as Tancah, Xel-Há, and Muyil.
The interaction between Cobá and Chichén Itzá serves to highlight the recent proposal that the Itzá were forging a new political structure in which power resided in a ruling class, perhaps with multiple rulers or brothers (Andrews, 1990). This contrasts with the Classic-period political structure, in evidence at Cobá on the stelae, of single rulers in dynastic succession. These findings lead to several conclusions. The ceramics of Chichén Itzá reached Muyil, Xel-Há, and Cobá in similar amounts, but architectural influences from Chichén Itzá are strong at Xel-Há and weak at Cobá and Muyil. We could infer that Itzá traders were not significant builder-settlers within the Cobá area of control.
In my view, the real heroes of Muyil were the intrepid seafaring traders. And then there were the pilgrims!
It is said that because the Maya were so skilled at trade, the malicious Aztecs spared them (they enslaved everybody else around them). The Mayan merchants were trading with their Central American neighbours, venturing as far south as Panama and also into the Caribbean.
One of their principal trade routes was the maritime route along the Yucatán Peninsula. Muyil was constructed very close to a couple of lagoons, which provided a protected port. The lagoons were connected with each other via a canal and with Boca Paila on the coast through a river. The canal was built by the ancient Maya right through the nature reserve Sian Ka'an, with wetlands and mangrove. It is maintained by their descendants today (parts of the canal are man-made and parts are natural). It is the same local people who manage the tourism in this protected area now and the only people who are licensed to take you on a boat trip here.
During the Post-Classic period (1200-1500 AD), ports such as Tulum, Xaman-Há, Xel-Há, Muyil and Cozumel controlled the trade traffic. Merchants would also use a network of overland routes (sacbes) and rivers to transport their cargo from the coast to cities far inland.
Great cities with large populations required food brought into markets, such as turkeys, ducks, dogs, fish, honey, beans and fruit. Cocoa beans were used as currency, but also to make chocolate, a drink primarily enjoyed by the nobles. Further trade goods included salt (sea salt was extracted at Las Coloradas and Celestún), cotton, henequen, stingray spines, cinnabar, natural dyes, shells, jade, quetzal feathers, animal hides and ceramics. Mayan traders obtained obsidian and basalt (for knives) and grinding stones from central Mexico; turquoise came from the far north and gold was introduced to the area from Costa Rica and western Panama.
Specialists such as architects, mathematicians, scribes and engineers sold their services at the market as well. The Maya relied on a strong middle class of skilled and semi-skilled workers and artisans. During the Pre-Classic period, merchants and the artisans who made goods for the luxury market formed a new middle class, in addition to the nobles and commoners. Large trading canoes (hollowed out from ceiba tree trunks) held up to 20 people as well as a significant amount of trade goods. Governing this middle class was a smaller class of specially educated merchant governors.
Another interesting category of Muyil inhabitants would have been the pilgrims. The goddess who was worshipped in Muyil and along the whole coast was Ixchel (“Ix” or female and “Chel,” which means white-skinned). She was the goddess of the Moon, midwifery and medicine. Her lunar association gave her power over the waves and tides and she was the patron of the sea and of fishing. Since ancient times the Mayan women have undertaken pilgrimage trips in canoes to the coastal islands of Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) and Kuzamil (today known as Cozumel), where the idol of Ixchel was worshipped.
This ritual began days before in the marketplace known as Kii’wik, where they traded for the different objects that were to be offered to the goddess. Therefore, market days were great festivities for the oarsmen who prepared to undertake the sacred journey crossing the ocean and obtain special favors from the goddess of fertility for all their people. Just imagine the amount of traffic as pilgrims arrived from all over the peninsula to render homage to Ixchel as pilgrims stopped in Polé Xcaret, Xaman Ha (Playa del Carmen) and Muyil, to rest and prepare for their pilgrimage journey.
The Caribbean Sea was of great importance to the Mayan culture, considered as a source of food, transportation, and, like the cenotes, it represented an entry to Xibalba, the underworld. Therefore, the sea voyage involved a transition to the beyond. The sacred Mayan journey has recently been revived and one can take part in the annual canoe pilgrimage trips from Xcaret to Cozumel.
You may find this article about the Sacred Mayan Crossing interesting.
The Castle (El Castillo) is actually quite unique on this coast. It is taller than any of the buildings in Tulum or elsewhere on the coast (17m high). It was partially damaged by time, and in recent times by Hurricane Gilbert (1988). The archeologists also believe that the whole site was frequently flooded.
This pyramid is a great example of the Mesoamerican tradition of adding newer and bigger structures on top of old temples. For example, El Castillo in Chichén Itzá has three smaller pyramids inside. You will be able to spot four different layers of construction of El Castillo at Muyil. The remodelling of temples was done for various reasons, for example to celebrate a new ruler or the coming of a new era (every 52 years, the life cycle according to the Mayan calendar).
A round tower presides on the top of the pyramid, which is an unusual feature in Mayan architecture. Was it used as an observatory? Well, we don't have evidence for that. But very likely it was used not just for ceremonies but also as a lighthouse. After all, the same applied in Tulum, where the small windows of the pyramid showed fires to seafarers, to indicate where they could get through the coral reef safely. Here in Muyil, they were able to spot the coming canoes from the sea two hours ahead of their arrival. Spot a tiny and narrow window space in the top left wing, for marking the summer equinox.
I read somewhere that the Maya would collect rain in the round structures and use it as a mirror for the heavens. I am not sure if it is somehow connected to their astrological observations and for shamanic purposes. To me, the whole site with the lagoons seems to be one large mirror for the heavens!!!
No remnants of the gods or serpents were found on this pyramid, Instead, the relief of two herons has been preserved. The archeologists have reconstructed the reliefs and buried the original birds behind a new wall, to preserve it for generations.
The Pink Palace (Temple 8) is so called because some of the original paint is still clearly visible in the little temple on top. Their colours lasted long and the scientists are still studying how this was achieved. They used natural pigments, clays, minerals and apparently hot copal at the end of the process, for longevity (certainly the hot copal technique applied to the famous Maya blue made of indigo and palygorskite).
I just can't believe that the Maya would paint a building pink! Why?
They had a very strong colour representation. The prevailing pyramid colour was always red as it represented initiation and energy; the sacrificial victims (and priests) were painted blue, yellow was associated with sorcerers (and animals), green was used by royalty as a symbol of power, red and black were associated with war, white with people from the village. But pink? Maybe it is just a faded red paint? Or badly produced red? I have not found any other pink Mayan building elsewhere, have you?
The jungle walk and the boat trip! The jungle walk on wooden boards starts behind the pyramid El Castillo and takes about 15 minutes. You will have to pay a separate fee for that at a small palapa house right at its entry (it was 60 pesos in 2016, in addition to 40 pesos entry fee to the site).
You will reach a tall watch tower with great views of the lagoon Muyil. Watch out, the steps are rather steep. When you reach the lagoon, you will see the boats for rent. Part of the trip is a float on the lazy river.
After the float, you will have to walk back to your boat across the wetlands for about 20 minutes. See my separate post about the Sian Ka'an Float (Lakes & Rivers, Hammocks).
At the Xalapa point, at the end of Chunyaxché lagoon where you start the float, you will see a small ancient building with some remnants of red paint. Our local guide suggested that it was used as a toll booth. Here the sea traders would stop and pay a tribute (goods) to the port.
But I read a couple of travel blogs where the authors claim that they were told by their local guides that this building was in fact used as a jail.
While one can imagine that leaving the culprits to themselves in this wilderness could have been effective (although they could have swum away?), it is still very intriguing because to my knowledge the Maya did not have prisons. They had an excellent and rapid legal system with immediate punishment. For a lesser crime, your hair would be cut short, as short hair was a sign of disgrace. Otherwise it was a fine, or having all your possessions sold or auctioned, or being sold into slavery.
So what was the purpose of this building? You decide for yourself.
The site map
Open daily 8:00 am – 5:00 pm.
It is wise to arrive before 4pm for the last entry.
Below is the map of the lagoons; the yellow line highlights the route of the boat trip. You remain in the boat in the canal between Muyil and Chunyaxché lagoons and you float from the place marked as Xlahpak (the ancient toll booth).
Mix & Match
The ultimate match after seeing the Muyil ruins is to take the Muyil lagoon trip, see more in my post Where the Sky Was born (Trips).