San Miguelito

Quintana Roo, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Site Map


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What makes this site special? the sand dunes.

San Miguelito is the only site that has evidence of protective dunes. Today you can't see the dunes at the site; you would need to walk to the beach in the hotel zone behind the Cancún Mayan Museum. They protected the inhabitants from hurricanes and erosion and provided them with valuable plants and animals for subsistence.

If you want to see the ruins, you will need to visit the Mayan Museum as the only entrance into the site is through it. The site integrates the original vegetation of San Miguelito, with several huge termite nests in trees. Shade covers all walking areas, making it a pleasant stroll. 

 
Chac Pyramid.
The jungle park of San Miguelito.
The jungle park of San Miguelito. Right: termite nest.

The jungle park of San Miguelito. Right: termite nest.

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The Name

The original Mayan name is unknown. San Miguelito is an adopted name (Spanish for Saint Michael). In the 1950s the ruins were found on a ranch called San Miguelito, when Cancún was a small fishing village. It was a coconut ranch that ran between the years 1950-1970. It remained untouched, surrounded by dense jungle scrub, as hotels, condos and businesses grew up around it. The Mayan Museum was built in 2012 and incorporated the ruin site in its garden.

There is a well on the site but it is not ancient although it was built from the ancient Prehispanic stones on the site (see the photo below left). It was built in the 1950s to supply water to the ranch. The water was coming from Nichupté lagoon and was not drinkable.

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The Age

This is a young site, inhabited over 800 years ago until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, roughly 1200 to 1550 AD. Unless there is other evidence, now sitting under the hotels in the Cancún Hotel Zone.

I don't think we can view San Miguelito in isolation from the rest of the ruins around it within Cancún. It is only 1km away from El Rey ruins. Further north there is El Meco, El Cerrito (just north of El Meco), and the ruins of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres, opposite El Meco. 

El Meco

These communities strategically placed their buildings behind sand dunes that ran north and south along the Caribbean and shores of the lagoons. San Miguelito is the only site that has evidence of the protective dunes.

Furthermore, we now know that today's Cancún had other small settlements built at the same time as San Miguelito, discovered in the last 50 years or so. The area was densely populated by a cluster of trading cities. Cancún's entire coast is now a large information bank of Mayan history and the information is still being processed.

Take for example, El Conchero, originally called Yox Xixim. The rocky spur of Yox Xixim was found about 800m south of the north-eastern end of Punta Cancún, now in front of the hotel Playa Forum. Was it also built behind the sand dunes at the time? Now the coast has a lot of new sand brought in for the hotel beaches so the site has been 'shifted'. A human burial site was found here, as well as ceramics and fossils of fish and shells. The Facebook of the Archaeological Zone of Cancún Hotel Zone states that the ceramics found on this site represent a short occupation, probably seasonal, during the Late Formative Period of the Mayan Lowlands. That would be somewhere between 400 BC-200 AD, much earlier than the age of all the other sites in the hotel zone of Cancún (they were all probably as old but there are no remains left to prove it). And if it was seasonal occupation, where did the people come from? And why did they use it as a seasonal place? Where did they live otherwise? And how many of the settlements in Cancún were of seasonal character?

 
Yox Xixim in the 60s

Yox Xixim in the 60s

And now.

And now.

 

The People

In every site I visit, I always try to imagine what daily life would have been like. For that, one needs an overall picture first. In the 15th century there was civil unrest in Yucatán, which was controlled by the League of Mayapán as by then Chichén Itzá had lost its dominion. The provinces of the League rebelled and in 1441 formed sixteen smaller states or chiefdoms. The settlement of San Miguelito was part of the chiefdom of Ekab (meaning 'Black Earth'), whose main economic activities were fishing, agriculture, salt production, honey, copal and cotton.

The chiefdoms were called Kuchkabals and they were ruled by a Halach Uinik ('The True Man'). The exception was the Ekab chiefdom, ruled by individual dynasties. It was divided up into several Batabil and each was ruled by a local leader called Batab. We don't know the names of the Batab rulers of San Miguelito. Would there be an overpowering ruler in the El Rey city? Did the Batab from San Miguelito answer to him?

 
Kuchkabals, the chiefdoms of Yucatán

Kuchkabals, the chiefdoms of Yucatán

Human burial at San Miguelito

Human burial at San Miguelito

 

Like at other Mayan cities, the inhabitants would have been divided into three social groups. Rulers and nobility were responsible for administration, war and religion, the middle class of artisans and traders were devoted to trade and the production of artefacts and the inferior class were farmers, hunters and fishermen.

To date, several structures have been explored at the site in four sets: North Set, Chac Palace, Set of Dragons and South Set. The Chac Palace was used for public functions. The rest of the structures, mainly housing platforms, have more than 50 human burials, as well as foreign artefacts such as basalt, flint, obsidian, quartz, ceramics and copper axes, indicating the trade business of the settlement. Tools and ornaments of local raw material, such as coral, snail, and limestone were also found. Most of the structures were wood and palm houses, indicating that several extended families lived here during the last years prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

 
A fish, a turtle and a mythical animal on the murals of San Miguelito.

A fish, a turtle and a mythical animal on the murals of San Miguelito.

 

Seafood would be predominant here (apart from maize, of course). Fish, crabs, snails, lobsters and birds came from the mangrove along the structures. Red mangrove (Rizophora) has survived here till today, with roots in the sand, filtering the salinity of the water.

 
A sculpture found at San Miguelito.

A sculpture found at San Miguelito.

I am standing in front of the structure with murals.

I am standing in front of the structure with murals.

 

The Dragon Complex that survived till today had four palatial buildings, four shrines and two houses. This residential area indicates activities such as food preparation, ceremonies, burial and ancestor worship. It was named after the discovery of two carved stones by the site workers in the 1970s, which resemble dragons.

An illustration of what a trading coastal Maya city looked like. From the book Excavations of an Early Shell Midden on Isla Cancún.

An illustration of what a trading coastal Maya city looked like. From the book Excavations of an Early Shell Midden on Isla Cancún.

San Miguelito's ideal location, on the coast of the Caribbean Sea and near the Nichupté Lagoon, facilitated its residents' involvement in the ancient Mayan system of trade, and allowed them to make use of routes around the lagoons, reefs and mangroves. One can presume they did both sea trade and internal land trade with the rest of Yucatán via the lagoon and the jungle sacbe roads ('white roads' made of limestone).

We do know how the Mayan trade was conducted. A network of trade routes linked the Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf of Honduras and even Costa Rica, Panama and Central America. Salt was traded alongside honey, wax, skins, feathers, tobacco, vanilla, rubber, shells, obsidian, flint, amber, pottery, fish and dried meat. 

For the navigation system they developed different markers along the coast to indicate sources of fresh water, for example. The temples and shrines were built not only for religious purposes but also as reference points for sailors. Some of them served as lighthouses. Large canoes with a high prow were used for open sea sailing (up to 16m long), while the canoes for lakes were built with a low prow.

 
Mayan canoe, a model at the Mayan Museum in Chetumal.

Mayan canoe, a model at the Mayan Museum in Chetumal.

The well of San Miguelito.

The well of San Miguelito.

 

I could not find many concrete answers on the trade of San Miguelito, despite deep digging in various sources. Who did they trade with? In the Dragon Complex of the site there are hieroglyphics drawn on the small block of a building. One drawing is of a bird, the other of a crocodile (rather faint but you can still see the outline). The lagoon was full of crocodiles and they still live in the lagoon swamps of Cancún today. So how did the traders navigate across the lagoon full of crocodiles, using low prow canoes?

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The Focus: The Chac Palace

The San Miguelito site contains about 40 structures. The Chac pyramid palace in the centre of the site, is a tall structure, four to five stories high, that has spacious interior rooms and a lobby with columns that supported a flat roof. Entry into the palace and climbing on the structure is prohibited. It was constructed between 13th and 16th centuries. There are four staircases going up each side of the palace. The Mayan God Chac was carved into each stone of the stairwell (not visible today) as well as Venus motifs. Along the palace is a structure thought to be an administrative building that has remnants of columns. It was a pubic service building s, in which ceremonies and celebrations were practised, because it is an open space, equipped with sidewalks that are arranged before the shrine.

 
With my friends Elena and Nadia, the Chac Palace. 2015.

With my friends Elena and Nadia, the Chac Palace. 2015.

And in 2017.

And in 2017.

 

The Mystery: Coastal coalition or city independence?

31 km of Maya settlements between El Meco and El Rey.

17 archaeological sites were inhabited in the Cancún area between the Pre-Classic (100 BC-250 AD) and Classic period (250-900 AD): El Rey, El Meco, San Miguelito, Ni Kú, Yamil Lu'um, Pok Ta Pok, Tacul, Nizuc, Ti Chul Tún, Tu Chi Kaknab, Yox Xixim, San Pablo or Hunab Kunab, Koxol Nah, Río Inglés, Table Cave, San José de las Vegas and Rancho Viejo. Some have completely disappeared. The total distance between El Rey in the south and El Meco in the north is 31km (see the map on the right). So this indicates that there was a settlement every two kilometres or so. Pretty dense, wouldn't you say?

To understand the way the Maya lived on this Caribbean coast, we need to ask if they formed a coalition. Elsewhere the Mayan city kingdoms all waged wars against their neighbours, first to capture people as human sacrifice for their gods, and as the cities grew, the war shifted from the fight for resources such as land and raw materials and, inevitably, towards the domination of the region. In Yucatán the dominant power was sitting first at Cobá city but by the 10th century the power had shifted to Chichén Itzá as they defeated Cobá. Did the coastal cities have the same faith? Were they all vassals of Chichén Itzá? Or did they form a coalition with Chichén Itzá like Uxmal, Sayil and all other cities in the Puuc region? And what happened by the 15th century?

Sadly, the Mexican government planned the huge holiday resort of Cancún without first exploring the ancient lands of the Maya (it makes me furious). The coastal land went to private hands and that was it. As a result, we don't have complete information about the inhabitants of the Yucatán peninsula, and it is difficult to make sufficient comparative observations. 

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The sign at the San Miguelito site states that the lands of Batabil (a small territory ruled by a particular Batab) kept changing borders according to the alliances and confrontations of each place. So if they competed and did not co-ordinate trade among the settlements, how could they have made it sustainable?

Trade routes along the coast.

Trade routes along the coast.

Some of the 17 ruins sites in today's Cancún.  Below: fish fossils found in Cancún zone.

Some of the 17 ruins sites in today's Cancún.  Below: fish fossils found in Cancún zone.

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One of the sites recently excavated nearby is the archaeological site Tacul (also spelt as Ta'akul). The excavations were started in 2010 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). It is possible that hotel developers found some ancient remains here when building the hotels but did not bother to report or stop their construction. Were there no laws at the time to protect the national inheritance? 

Of course looting would have preceded the hotel constructions and a lot of 'treasures' would have been lost that way. The Tacul pyramid is located on land where one of the first hotels in Cancún was built: Villas Tacul (which gives the site its name). This land is located on kilometer 5.5 of the boulevard Kukulkán of the Hotel Zone. The ruin now sits in front of Hotel Riu Península (Villa Tacul was demolished). I have not found much information on what we could learn from this discovery.

 
Tacul ruins under excavation in 2010

Tacul ruins under excavation in 2010

Restored Tacul ruins today in front of Hotel Riu Península

Restored Tacul ruins today in front of Hotel Riu Península

 

Two temples survived at the site of Yamil Lu’um (also referred to as Talmul): the Temple of the Scorpion and the Temple of the Handprint. It was inhabited at the same time as San Miguelito, between 1200-1550 AD. Today it sits atop a beachside knoll between the Park Royal and Westin Lagunamar hotels. You would need to discreetly pass through either of the hotels to reach the ruin. The temples sit on the highest natural spot on the land facing the ocean, (Tulum was built in the same way). The reason was most likely for navigation purposes, and safety, of course. The temples were likely used as watch-towers or lighthouses. The question remains if it was an independent city or a part of one of the settlements on the Cancún coast. Did they share the lighthouse resource? We know the Maya as fearsome warriors rather than sharers. The cities were built every 2km; surely their boundaries merged? If so, it would have been one large conglomerate, rather than individual settlements. I would think that it depends on the size of each settlement. Sadly, we don't have that crucial information but we know that the Mayan cities elsewhere were pretty large (in terms of area).

 
Yamil Lu’um ruin

Yamil Lu’um ruin

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Yet another site, simply called Pok Ta Pok because no name glyph was discovered, sits in the Pok-Ta-Pok Golf Club. The site can be reached from the Convention Centre in the Cancún Zona Hotelera, at 7.5km. Pok Ta Pok is the name for the Mesoamerican ball game, given to the site by the archaeologists. Does it mean they played the game here? If so, it would have been an important ritual place. Two structures were uncovered near Hole 3. The modest size of the structures indicates that they were not created as dwellings and are generally interpreted as religious buildings, shrines. So the same question applies: was it a separate ritual city? Or did it serve as one significant ritual place for the conglomerate of a few settlements? No remains of the ball court game were found on the Cancún coast (small settlements would not have been able to afford a ball court).

 
Pok Ta Pok

Pok Ta Pok

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The coastal temples Ni Kú 1 and Ni Kú 2 are located within the Dreams Hotel facilities in Punta Cancún, both of which have the architecture of the eastern coast and possibly served as a navigational reference points. They belong to the late Post-Classic 1200 AD. This was the architectural style developed in the cities on the Eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula during the Post-Classic period. It is characterised by flat roofs and small lintels tucked into the temples, with rather crude mortar work, and porches or main entrances supported by columns. Another characteristic is the presence of altars and small sanctuaries.

 
Ni Kú 1 site (within the hotel grounds). Right: Punta Cancún

Ni Kú 1 site (within the hotel grounds). Right: Punta Cancún

 

Don't Miss: The South Complex

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You will find the South Set at the end of the route, with six houses, two small altars and a palace. It was remodelled at least three times during its pre-Hispanic occupation. Above the basement is a temple built in the East coast style of architecture, which in its time was decorated with a cornice and painted predominantly in red and blue. The basement has a staircase with carvings, very characteristic of the Post-Classic period. It looks towards a set of structures that, from the orientation of the pyramid, would seem to have been related to the site of El Rey.

The South Complex buildings are significant as one palace shows evidence of three architectural types. This could date the location before the Post-Classic period, or provide insight into the influences this society had, but the evidence is inconclusive.

 
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How to get there:  

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The ruins of San Miguelito sit within the Cancún Mayan Museum site on 16.5km at the hotel zone on Kukulkán avenue. You can visit every day of the week 9am-5.30pm, except Mondays.

You can access this site by public bus from the ADO bus station or by car. It is easy to spot along the road.

 

MIX and MATCH:

You can combine the visit with a beach stay. The nearest public beach is Playa Delfines

Sources:

Tacal ruins in Cancún

INAH: Zona Arqueológica de San Miguelito

Karl-Herbert Mayer: The Maya Ruins of Pok Ta Pok

Patrimonio Arqueológico de la Ciudad y Zona Hotelera de Cancún

Wyllys Andrews IV, 1974: Excavations of an early Shell midden on Isla Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico