Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
This site offers a special way of getting to know the ancient Maya culture. If you want to see the Xcaret ruins, you will have to come to the eco park Xcaret. The history comes alive here. I don't promote in my blog any of the eco-parks along the Riviera Maya coast because they are commercial parks (such as Xel Ha, Xsenses, Xplor etc). To my taste the park is Disneyfied and creates a 'fictitious reality' by altering the landscape, but it does offer a unique way of encountering the Maya culture.
In its heyday, Xcaret was a trading port and a ceremonial centre for the Maya people, who would visit to purify themselves before sailing to Cozumel Island, to place offerings for Ixchel, the goddess of the Moon and fertility. The journey was considered sacred and even experienced oarsmen feared it. The city was a walled port, like Tulum, but unlike Tulum, the wall limited maritime access, indicating that it was susceptible to attacks by sea. Yet it accepted pilgrims from all over the Maya world.
Part of the park also acts as a nature conservatory. You can learn about the many uses the Maya had for nature, using native plants and trees to build, heal and worship. For example their antidote for snake bites was created from the endangered Contrayerba plant, which is protected by the park. Xcaret also has fauna that is native to Yucatán: manatees, jaguars, deer, flamingos, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, tapirs, crocodiles, white turtles (Chelonia mydas) and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta).
In pre-Hispanic and colonial times its name was P'olé, derived from the root p'ol, which implies merchandise, treatment and contract with merchants. A fitting name for a trading city.
The area was densely populated. For example, Mulchí city was situated only a few km south of P'olé. And then there were the nearby ports of Xaman Há (today's Playa del Carmen) and Xel Há (a trading city with Cobá). They also both accepted pilgrims for the sacred journey to Cozumel.
According to research by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) the first buildings on the site can be dated to 200 to 600 AD, but the majority of them are from the period from 1200 to 1550 AD. By then, along the coast there were small villages of fishermen and farmers. An increase in the population occurred between 600 and 900 AD, like everywhere else. Between 1000-1550 AD it benefited mainly from marine resources and an important commercial route to Honduras. Being opposite the island of Cozumel, it became the main port of embarkation to the island.
The presence of ceramics and objects of jade, obsidian, and rock crystal, which are not found regionally, indicates a close commercial link both with contemporary sites in the central Maya area, and with the highlands of Guatemala. A lustrous red vessel, decorated with a sgraffito design, shows the fashion during the Postclassic period (from 900 AD onwards) at sites along the coast of Quintana Roo. The upper part of the design represents clouds or smoke.
The painted stone fragment from Xcaret, kept at Cancún museum, indicates the site's rituals from ancient times. It shows a supernatural deity, possibly Itzamná, the god of sky and creation. He carries a bag of copal while walking in front of corn plants. This was perhaps part of the agricultural rituals.
The eastern side of the Yucatán Peninsula was the last to be invaded by the Spaniards. Francisco Montejo visited Xcaret between 1527 and 1528 during his attempt to conquer the peninsula, in addition to being in Mulchí, Xel Há and Xamanhá, and the Spaniards also came here during the third stage or campaign (1540-1547). A large part of the population of Ekab province accepted Spanish rule. In the seventeenth century, P'olé suffered the onslaught of pirates. A hacienda for growing henequén for processing sisal fibre was built here in the 19th century and the Chapel of Guadalupe followed in the 20th century, with the altar carved on a tall tree trunk, representing the Maya tree of life. In the subsoil of the chapel were found skeletons of Caucasian and Mayan origin. Xcaret park runs a rodeo show (charrería, named after charro, the horseman) to show the skills of horsemen in the past.
The People: boatmen, pilgrims and priests
The Maya developed through centuries from gentle nomadic hunter-gatherers to vicious warriors who stole their neighbours for human sacrifices. In spite of their brutality, their skills are simply impressive. They created lavish temples, developed astronomy, calendars, hieroglyphic writing, the concept of zero, and excelled as farmers, potters and weavers.
In Xcaret the skills most required were those of the priests, boatmen, navigators, and traders because it was a trading port and the embarkation point for the pilgrimage journey to Cozumel.
The navigators required a solid knowledge of the currents, changes in weather, tidal control, orientation and, of course, skill in the management of canoes. The canoes were of a single piece and they made them by hollowing out the trunk of a tree, to guarantee durability and flotation. Here in Xcaret you can see the canoes in action, during the re-enacted annual sacred pilgrimage journey to Cozumel (it is called Travesía Sagrada).
This re-enacted journey and ritual takes place every May. You can get to see it if you know somebody who is rowing a canoe as the tickets are not for sale to the general public, only by invitation. The rowers here certainly demonstrate to us the skills of the ancient oarsmen (the community teams taking part in the journey practise months before).
Women would go there usually before marriage, to take part in fertility rituals, and later in life, to pay homage to Ix Chel, for giving them children. If women had problems with fertility, they would go to Cozumel for specific treatments by the priest-healers. Rituals were held by the priests of Xcaret before the sacred journey. Today the priests here in the Xcaret ceremony have their bodies painted the colours of the four cardinal points: white for north, red for east, black for west and yellow for south. It is very impressive. They pray to each cardinal point during the ritual, according to their cosmological beliefs, while the dancers are accompanied by drummers. Flutes carry the main tunes.
The cleansing rituals were conducted by a different set of priests, as the bodies and minds of the pilgrims needed different attention. There would have been a hierarchy of priests, each having specific tasks. The chief priest Ah Kin Mai was the main astronomer dictating the time for the ceremony (he also taught writing skills), the prophets were known as Chilan; Nacom was the chief priest in charge of human sacrifice, Ah Kin was the equivalent of the current parish priests, Ah Men was the performer of community rites, Ah Pul dealt with diseases. The priestly posts on top of the hierarchy were hereditary. The photos below show the goddess Ix Chel statue and the priests in red, white, yellow and black addressing the four cardinal directions during the ritual.
Navigation required knowledge of ocean currents. When sailing towards Central America, they sailed close to the coast to take advantage of counter-currents formed there and headed south. That way they stayed protected from the swell made by the reefs which are parallel to the shore. To return, they stayed a distance from the coast, to take advantage of the strong Caribbean current (one of the fastest in the world). In some places, they also sailed through coastal lagoons, where they were interconnected to the ocean.
On the Mayan coast they required certain support such as sheltered ports to take refuge in case of bad weather (creeks, entrances to lagoons) and some land reference points to indicate to oarsmen their position. It was essential to have visual support to indicate where they could enter and leave the reef (which would otherwise destroy their boats), and where the entrances were to lagoons or inland channels that would allow a safer and quieter navigation or in case of sudden bad weather. Pyramid temples on the coast therefore often served as lighthouses. We can presume the same in Xcaret.
This maritime knowledge allowed, over time, the establishment of a well-established commercial route. From the coast came important products such as salt, shells and snails, dried fish etc., which could be exchanged for products from other regions such as obsidian, green stone, flint, feathers, cotton blankets, honey, wax, etc.
The Maya cemetery at Xcaret is also worth a visit as it captures the burial concept. While this is a modern re-creation, it gives an insight into the way the Maya deal with death today: they celebrate life rather than mourn death. There are personal items around the tombstones such as boats, bottles, pipes, horns… The cemetery has 365 tombstones (one for each day), built in a circular way to represent the ancient Haab calendar. For the Maya, time was cylindrical, not the linear time that the Christians adopted. It has symbols such as sacred ceiba trees, water (origin of life) and conch shells (for communicating with the gods) with Catholic shrines, crucifixes and rosaries. While ancient burials were found in P'olé (ancient Xcaret), no replica is shown here.
The Focus: THE ruins
There are a few groups spread across the eco park. Only some of them are open to public: those that sit within the leisure park. Group A has a pyramid temple, with small temples around. Group B has a few small structures. Groups C, D, E also have mainly platforms, scattered along the path parallel to the seacoast. Groups F, G and H are not within the park
During the early and middle Post Classic period P'olé city received a migration of Itzá people, as cited in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel. The settlement increased its population, abundant residential architecture was built and several temples of the 'East Coast' type were built. They are characterised by crude masonry, large platforms with rounded corners, paintings on the façades, recessed lintels, jambs and interior walls of the temples. Buildings were covered with stucco both outside and inside and had thatched roofing.
Group A is the most impressive group, near the site's cove. There is a pyramidal structure with the remnants of two temples on top. In the past, the walls would have been covered with stucco and red paint. The buildings were used for civil and religious activities.
To my delight, some decoration can be still seen in the top band of the temples. The motifs seem to me to be influenced by Itzá architecture. No wonder, as Xcaret had an influx of Itzá people from 900 AD. If we stand in front of this structure, the temple on the left has the lattice pattern that we know so well from Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. The lattice stone work in an X-shape could represent woven mats. When the noblemen went into a meeting of the Council, they had to bring their own woven mats to sit on, as the stone benches were hard. It was a symbol of power and the building was 'signposted' by this ornament as a 'council' house. The nobles also wore jade ceremonial bar pectorals of rolled mats (as a symbol of power and status) and Karl Taube elaborated on this topic in his article The Symbolism of Jade in Classic Maya Religion.
The temple on the right is missing the back wall but still has remnants of a motif above the main door. To me it looks like a zigzag, which could represent an undulating serpent body. Throughout my research of the many Maya sites in Yucatan and Chiapas, I have seen many serpent bodies on buildings. They are omnipresent. Mayan symbolism uses the serpent to describe celestial matters relating to the ecliptic path or the Milky Way. In other words, the serpent connected this sacred building, the Council House, with the Milky Way and heavens. Serpents are also associated both with weaving and rain, and they may also represent a messenger for the sun god.
The main building in Group A is surrounded by small structures. They would have been used as temples where offerings were placed. One of them has an interior altar but my photo did not manage to capture it in the complete darkness of the temple interior.
In the past they would have been painted red but I could not find any traces of paint. Instead, I enjoyed the temples lit by a warm light during the Sacred Journey event (at 4am). For that event, the park placed vessels in front of the temples, to indicate the offerings, such as incense, candles, liquor. Animal offerings included turkeys, dogs, squirrels, quail and iguana. The Mayan religion was Polytheist; they worshipped more than 165 Gods. The Maya believed that peoples souls’ were vanquished to spend their afterlives in the underworld. Only those who died at childbirth, war or were sacrificed would have escaped the underworld. Blood-letting ritualised cutting was practised to offer human blood to the gods. The king had to cut his penis and the queen her tongue, the nobles their thighs. Human sacrifice was also practised by extracting the human heart, by decapitation or death by arrows.
Group B feels more spacious because only the platforms now remain of most of the buildings. It is believed that this was a residential area and we can see from one residence left standing that the rooms were pretty small, with a narrow corridor for the protection of the nobles. A royal steward would lead visitors to the ruler or the noble's private chambers for an audience. I spotted a hultún in one of the rooms, a stone collector of rainwater. Despite having fresh water in cenotes, the Maya collected rainwater in containers. I wonder if they had chaltúns here (a bottle-shaped underground storage chamber), which was so common at Maya cities for their water management.
There is one pyramidal structure with a staircase in Group B. It is very low, only a few steps.
I asked a lady who was passing by to pose for a photo in front of it. She is wearing a Maya huipil, a typical dress worn by the ancient Maya women for centuries. This lady was part of the rowing team for the Sacred Journey but it helps us imagine the real women living here.
The rest of the group just has platforms. However, many burials were apparently found here and I wonder if they were looted or if one day we will hear about their contents. The burials were simple cists. Cists differ from pits (a hole in the ground) in the sense that most often they have walls of some kind, which, I presume, gives the deceased a higher social status. Cists were usually placed under the floors of household structures. Sub-elite, or the middle class Maya, typically buried their dead in crypts under the stone benches of their houses while commoners would have used cists or pits. I am unable to judge what social status the burials here represented.
The archaeological discovery of Xcaret occurred in 1926 following the expedition of Gregory Mason and Herbert J. Spinden, who published the first news of the site. In the 1940s, the American amateur archaeologist Loring M. Hewen prospected the area and in 1956 it was E. Wyllys Andrews IV from Tulane University. From 1986 the Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) took charge.
The Mystery: The cave underworld
Maya mythology can be experienced here through a physical activity, through floating in the underground rivers and entering the ancient Xibalbá, the underworld. This is a real 'hands-on' (or rather 'body-in') experience. There are three rivers here for you to choose. I must emphasise that originally there were two streams of scarcely 500m here, joined together by cracks, cenotes and caverns; they were 'united' by the eco park creators, extended and opened to the outside air, for the use and enjoyment of visitors.
I also walked through a network of dry caves around the river canals, on my way to the Maya cemetery during my visit for the Travesía Sagrada ceremony in May 2018. I was by myself and, in all honestly, it felt very spooky. You can see the cenote (sink hole) here that feeds the rivers with fresh water, and the tree trunks hanging down from a hole in the ceiling, creating a visual drama.
Around the caves the park has recreated an ancient Maya village, where the commoners lived (outside the ceremonial centre with the pyramids and temples), with the typical Maya hut built from reed, with a palapa roof (made from dried huano palm leaves). The Maya still live in houses like that, in their jungle villages. Here you can also see the Maya ritual dances.
Don't Miss: The ball game
You can see the ancient Mesoamerican ball game at the night show, which also portrays the Spanish conquest and a lot of Maya folk dances. To see the ball game played is a rare treat. They play a standard game on the ball court, which represents the vault of heaven. The reclining walls arise from the open theatre floor and the players can start playing with the stars, as this ritual game recreates the cosmic movement. The aim of the game is to get the ball through the ring on the walls and the journey of the ball represented the movement of the sun in the sky. They also play here a game with the rubber ball on fire and for this game they use wooden sticks (this style of game strongly reminds me of hockey). I describe this game in details in my Mystery post Ball Players. The image on the left and those below are from the Xcaret Park billboards.
Last but not least you can see the ‘extravagant’ Maya 'costumes' when entering the theatre for the night show, among them the jaguar warrior (wearing jaguar skin cape) and the eagle warrior (with feathers on his back and the eagle headdress). They stand motionless in the traditional Maya make-up and feather headdresses, without moving a hair. I must admit I had goose-bumps. What an experience!
Xcaret Eco Park is open all year round, from 8:30am to 9:30pm. The price depends on whether you buy directly from the park box office or via an agent/broker. It should be around 100USD for an adult, 120USD if you take the lunch buffet. Discounts for locals: 10%.
How to get there:
It will literally take you 10 minutes from Playa del Carmen and around 40 minutes from Tulum, along Highway 307 from Cancún to Chetumal.
Mix & Match
You will need a whole day for Xcaret park. As a matter of fact, you will only see half the park in one day. Choose wisely what you want to see.