Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
The site of Xel Há is located south of Playa del Carmen. It was chosen at a point on the Caribbean that offered an inlet into a sheltered lagoon on the east side, and a large freshwater cenote on the west side. The location made it perfect for sea trade.
There are four main groups: Group A (Pier Group) is in Xel Há eco park (not the archaeological site) and is closed to visitors. It has a few structures (900-1500 AD) and a defensive wall.
Group D (six structures) is not excavated. At the archaeological site you can only see Groups B and C.
Group B forms the nucleus of the site, with the House of the Birds, The Palace (El Palacio), and the Structure of the Pilasters.
Group C is situated on a beautiful, freshwater cenote. The group dates from the Late Post Classic (600-900 AD) and has five small temples built on a shared platform forming a small plaza. Its most important structure is the Jaguar Temple.
A sacbé (ancient Mayan elevated 'white' road', built from limestone), is still standing and connects Groups B and C. In the past it possibly connected Xel-Há with the beach on one side, and with Cobá on the other.
When I came here with my husband Rhod in May 2018, we walked first left from the reception to Group B and from there continued along the 300m sacbé to Group C. I do strongly recommend this route, not to have to go to and fro. Some online sources state that this road is 500m or even 5km, which is incorrect. It gives you the authentic feel of an ancient place. You can't really walk on the sacbé because it is too rocky (not plastered and smooth like in the past) but there is a comfortable modern path alongside. There is yet another modern road built that goes parallel, directly to Group C. Iguanas roam everywhere here so they will keep you company.
The name Xel Há [ʃel'ha] comes from Yucatec Maya, xel (spring) and há (water). Xel most likely refers to the freshwater cenote. Some translations give it as 'mixing of the water'. I presume this means mixing the waters of the sea and the cenote?
The inlet lagoon at Xelhá has been turned into a commercial water theme park known as Xel-Ha Park. The other side of the highway is the ruin site.
The evidence is inconclusive about the founding date for Xel Há, but it is possible that it was occupied by the 1st century AD. I would take that with a pinch of salt. For example Muyil just down the road is much older (300 BC). So there is no reason why Xel Há would be that much younger as they both traded with Cobá (which was, however, younger than Muyil). So the age is inconclusive. The buildings back then were mostly wooden houses on limestone platforms so they are not preserved. From 400-700 AD a more complex society emerged when stone buildings were erected, in the Tikal (Guatemala) architectural style. A stela (stone slab 'promoting' a ruler) dated 564 AD was discovered here in 1841 by Stephens and Catherwood.
Xel Há was part of the Ecab Province at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in 1527.
Most of the buildings that we can see today are from 900 AD onwards. By 900 AD the site had established itself as an important trade port. It was one of several key ports of the Maya city of Cobá; others included Tancah (see my post about Tankah bay), Muyil and Tulum. Their ties to inland Yucatán are deduced from the pottery found on site. It was likely used as a point of intercultural exchange between the Maya and other sea-navigating peoples between the 7th and 12th centuries. A sculpture from the island of Jaina (in Campeche) was found here; also a tripod vessel from Belize, and a metate for grinding maize (found in a cave).
In more modern history, Xel Há was first reported on by Samuel Lothrop in 1924, then by Arlen Chase in 1975 and in the 1970s-80s by Fernando Robles Castellanos. Investigations are ongoing. As a matter of fact, during our visit there were three restoration workers from INAH (The Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History) cleaning the amazing Maya blue pigment at the Temple of the Jaguar (not repainting, just cleaning the stone for the colour to come back to its full original amazing azul).
The People: the traders, the pilgrims and the conquistadores
As we have established, the ancient Maya on this part of the Caribbean coast were traders. A cluster of cities, such as El Meco, Xaman Há, P’olé/Xcaret and Xel Há also received many pilgrims from all over central America, on their way to Cozumel, to pay tribute to Ix Chel, the goddess of the Moon and fertility. They were all in search of fertility blessing and/or treatment. Check out those posts of mine on the details of the rituals and treatments that they received.
However, apart from the traders and pilgrims, a full social hierarchy would have been in place, with the local ruler and the priest as the upper class, the traders, architects, astronomers and artisans as the middle class and farmers and fishermen (and slaves) at the bottom of the hierarchy. The descending jaguar fresco (now badly damaged) clearly indicates to us its worship as the lord of Xibalbá (the underworld) as the same mythology would have been valid here as in all other Maya cities. The life cycle started and ended in the waters of cenotes (and in caves), which represented the underworld.
Another worship practised by the priests here was the cult of Kukulkán. The feathered serpent can still be seen on the staircase of the small pyramid in the Jaguar Temple group. For more details of this fascinating cult see my post Feathered Serpent.
Xel Há was also 'home' to the Spanish conquistadores, although only for 18 months. They used the enclosed inlet as a base during the unsuccessful first expedition (1527–28) led by the conquistador Francisco de Montejo (the Elder). He crossed over from the island of Cozumel to Xel Há, to set up the first Spanish settlement on the peninsula. He named it 'Salamanca de Xel Há' after his birthplace in Spain, Salamanca. However, supplies were soon inadequate and despite raiding neighbouring Maya settlements for food, his settlement lost some fifty men within the first two months. Montejo ordered the scuttling of his ships, forcing the men to remain. He then did some explorations with about 120 men north (towards Ecab near Cape Catoche) but later lost half of his men in a battle against the Maya near the ancient city of Aké (near Mérida). The 65 conquistadores that he left behind at Salamanca de Xel Há were massacred in Maya raids. The Spanish did not return here for a while after that.
The Focus: The Palace (Group B)
We simply loved our walk around the ruins (despite the mosquitoes and high humidity in May). Compared to some of the major sites on the peninsula, Xel Há is relatively small but it is full of little treasures. It is possible to visit within an hour and there is seldom anyone there. Enjoy being the king of the jungle for the moment.
If you take the first path to the left, as I recommended, you will arrive first to the Lothrop Group. It is a residential complex that was constructed during the Late Post-Classic, 1200-1550 AD and named after the archaeologist who discovered it. The remaining bases and platforms have an elliptical shape (quite unique), which supported residences and temples built of perishable materials. I found these residences pretty (well, neatly built). All around this group there are a lot of ruins in heaps, unexcavated. It gives you a sense of how densely the residential houses were built here which we don't see everywhere.
Right behind it is the the Birds Temple. Do not miss it!!!! I deal with this temple in the section Mystery (below) because we don't know exactly how to interpret a number of the murals in this building.
Palacio (Structure 136) encloses the plaza. It was constructed in stages. The first stage includes a rectangular base with rounded corners, sloping walls and two rooms were built on top of it. The ceilings in both rooms were originally vaulted, but today nothing remains. Later, a series of stone overlays were added to the building. In the final construction, all the rooms were encased with large stones. Given the name of the building, I assume that this was where the ruler lived although the palace could have had a dual role, serving as an administrative building as well.
The other structure of note is called the Structure of the Pilasters. This is a low platform with the remains of eight elegant pilasters (rectangular columns). It was entered by a single, central stairway.
The Mystery: the murals at the Birds Temple
The Birds Temple is the oldest structure, dating from the Early Classic Period (300-600 AD). The reason that it still stands and is so well preserved is that it was buried inside a newer structure. As the top building collapsed, the older pyramid surfaced. So as you can imagine, it is a small building today. The Pyramid of the Birds is close to the highway (about 10m); you can see the cars passing by (equally, you can see this pyramid from the highway from your car).
Unless you walk up the pyramid, you'll never guess the ancient artwork that it hides. The steps are in a bad state but it is only a few steps. The structure itself is set upon a raised platform and is currently protected by a palapa roof. It has three rooms in total. The west end room was later altered to become a tomb.
Mural 1 faces the north side and consists of two panels separated by an Ahau (lord) glyph. It is a little bit tricky to get to if you want to photograph it at close range. There is a red border around each scene. The scenes are of painted birds in different poses. The sign outside the pyramid states that they are yellow parrots with short tails and red birds with long tails. They seem to be flying over a building that might represent cages and the composition might be an allegory of nature. While we can't see the yellow any more (only red), I don't quite see that these birds are parrots. They don't seem to me to have the shape of parrots. It would be logical for them to be the seabirds that are common on this coast, such as seagulls, pelicans, frigate birds or sandpipers.
Interestingly, there is a sign by the Jaguar temple that states that Xel Há is home to the Blue Jay (calling it an altruistic and intelligent bird but a nightmare for hunters because of the shrill calls it makes when people approach). There is no reason they would not have lived here in ancient times. Could it be them? And why are they flying above what look like small houses? The INAH sign claims they are cages… A mystery for sure.
Could they be seabirds? In between them there are shapes of what look to me like octopus, with long 'legs'. A sea scene? It could be a depiction of the city (with small houses) sitting on the sea coast. A tribute to the ruler who built this city or this temple?
Mural 2 is on the opposite side of the wall and it is a symmetrical composition divided into four panels. The westernmost panel has a checkerboard design of red and beige (or yellowish) squares with crosses on them. Checkerboard design has been used in many other sites; I recall it for example in Becán. From my knowledge (from a mixture of sources) checkerboard design denotes curtain-closed doorways. Just as a covered household doorway could signal privacy, the temple curtains were probably used to indicate that the god was housed within. It indicated that the god (i.e. the ruler) was asleep in his resting place, or waybil. So when we see from a distance a checkered pattern on a temple, think of its divine occupancy, signalling caution and respect, much as if one were approaching a palace. More to the point, a burial found here would fit that theory: a resting place for the divine lord… In addition, X symbols on the checkerboard can represent the sky and supernatural powers.
Panel 3 (photo below) features an anthropomorphic figure from the chest up and painted in red, yellow and blue. The head is in a forward-facing position having an elaborate, feathered headdress, bracelets and a necklace, and is stylistically related to the great central Mexican city state of Teotihuacán. It may represent Tlaloc, their god of rain and warfare. Tlaloc is 'famous' for his goggles, just like this figure wears. Yes, goggles. They were not for eye protection and are a mystery of their own as there are many theories about the goggles that were worn by the Maya gods, rulers and warriors.
There are number of theories about what the goggles could represent. Here is a shortcut to some possible explanations: They can possibly express:
noble status, as part of the king's ceremonial headdress
the penetrating gaze of the gods, which separated them from the common folk
the power of the Sun
Venus and its duality. In essence, a circle of life
owl's eyes, the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the cave/underworld
a symbol of water (found in caves/underworld)
a symbol of sacrifice
a paradise of life after death
In summary, it is certainly connected to the buried ruler and in reality all those points can apply.
Panel 4 is too deteriorated to identify.
Don't Miss: The Jaguar group (Group C)
This is a great place to linger, under the shade of the trees. But you really come here to see the famous Maya blue pigment.
The buildings in this area have been built on a wide (but not very tall) platform and we can clearly recognise the 'East Coast Style': rugged mortar, small temples, both vaulted and flat roofs, inset lintels and slightly slanted walls on the outside. Look inside the temples to view the murals.
The Jaguar Temple is named for a fresco from 1200-1450 AD that depicts a jaguar on one of its walls. The descending jaguar represents the descending god of the underworld, or Xibalbá, linked by the Maya to cenotes and oceans.
The temple has two intact columns in front and its interior walls are all painted. I came here specifically to see these murals, in particular the famous Maya blue. The blue pigment looks like the colour of the sky and it is a natural dye extracted from the leaves of wild indigo (añil plant, Indigofera suffruticosa) combined with palygirskite, a natural clay. And copal was apparently used to give it long life. And it is resistant against acids. How amazing is that!
It was exciting to see the murals being cleaned. We observed it from outside because you can't enter this temple. There are inset panels above the doorways and I am curious to know if the small window across the door served for astronomical purposes such as sunrise or solstices. The paintings are visible from the outside, through the mesh. A jaguar's paw can be seen in red pigment: it is upside down as he is descending amidst a sea of blue colour (possibly of the cenote that sits next to the temple, that this jaguar is descending to). On the other wall, red human prints can be seen above the lintel. The rest of the mural is not clear.
It is not easy to see what story the rest of the mural tells and on which side of the temple it is supposed to be. The INAH plaque (the photo below) states that the mural shows leafy motifs, intertwined snakes and some personages. One of them is fat and wears a helmet shaped like a jaguar head, with feathers and spirals. Of the other characters only the feet can be seen.
The cenote sits right by the Jaguar temple. We were told at the ticket office that we can swim in it but access is rather difficult: you would have to jump in from a stone platform above the cenote. Even if you jump in, how would you get out?
All in all, I find this site more intriguing and interesting than other coastal sites such as El Rey, El Meco or San Miguelito in Cancún and even Tulum (which has nice scenery though, being right on the beach clifftop). A real hidden gem!
THE SITE MAP
Open daily 8:00am – 4:30pm.
The entry fee is 65 pesos.
There are clean restrooms at the site by the ticket counter.
Bring your own water as there are no other services here.
How to get there:
There are no organised tours to this site so you will have to make the trip yourself. It is the nearest ruin site for those staying in Cancún or Playa del Carmen. The site is right on highway 307 between Playa and Tulum. After Xel-Há Park, on your right you will see a big (new) sign and a gate with a dirt parking lot behind it.
If you take a colectivo (minibus) from Tulum or from Playa Del Carmen you can ask for Xel Há ruins (not Xel Há eco park). If you are accidentally dropped off at the bridge where the entrance of Xel Há Eco Park is, you can walk south a few minutes and see the entrance.
Mix & Match
You could go for the rest of the day to one of the cenotes on the highway. There are so many that it is difficult to choose which one to recommend. Perhaps Cristalino or El Jardín del Eden or cenote Azul.