Emese has been exploring ancient Mayan ruins for over twenty years. She learned a lot about the Maya and enjoys sharing her knowledge.
Xel-Ha Is Not Only a Tourist Park on the Water
Thousands of tourists visit the well-known Xel-Ha park, but very few know about the ruins across the street.
They built the park a little over ten years ago as a tourist destination. The lagoon they chose for it is one of the most beautiful snorkeling spots on the peninsula. Before the park, Xel-Ha lagoon was known only to snorkelers as one of the spots with the clearest water. I've been to the lagoon and did some snorkeling many years ago before it was a tourist park. The water was crystal clear and there were plenty of fish to enjoy. I can only hope that even with the number of visitors it gets now it is still clean and clear for the sea life.
But, there is also another lesser-known attraction at Xel-Ha. There is a Mayan site with ruins that have clear, colorful images on their walls across the highway. Few people notice it, though one of the main pyramids is right on the highway.
Even in the middle of the tourist season, when the park is so crowded that you wait hours to get in, we were the only visitors at the archaeological site.
The First Mayan Site I Set Eyes On
Xel-Ha is special for me because it was the first Mayan site I ever saw in real life. It was over twenty years ago—on my honeymoon. The reason we chose Yucatan as a destination particular didn't have much to do with the pristine beaches and the popularity of Cancun. The Mayan Ruins on the Peninsula were much more of an attraction for both of us.
By that time both my husband and I were studying the ancient Maya (as a hobby). We read most of the books published about them at the time. I heard his stories about the pyramids and sites that he'd seen. He was talking about sites that were still being dug out of the jungle at the time. To me, everything about that civilization was amazing. To think that I could visit sites that archaeologists, linguists, and epigraphers were still working on, was a dream! So I was looking forward to this visit.
The road from Cancun towards Tulum, the main highway now, was a very narrow two-lane road at the time. Most of the time we were the only car driving on it. We saw more Maya on bicycles than cars. Tour buses wouldn't even fit on it if they tried.
One of our first stops on the peninsula was this site, the ruins of Xel-Ha.
The first structure I stepped into was the House of the Jaguar, and from the first moment I was there, I was ecstatic. No matter how much I've read about it in books, no matter how many pictures I've seen of it, it was still amazing to see the actual paint on the walls, paint that has survived centuries, the Maya blue, my favorite color, on walls dated centuries ago.
A Walk Through the Ancient City
Compared to some of the major sites on the peninsula, Xel-Ha is relatively small. It consists of three groups of structures and it is possible to visit within an hour.
Entering the site, you have a choice to take off in two different directions. To the left, the main trail leads to the Palace Group. There are two structures here, the Market (Mercado), and the Palace (Palacio). Both these structures date from the Late Post Classic Era, (1200-1550 AD).
The trail from the Mercado leads farther to the Pyramid of the Birds. This is the oldest structure standing at this site, 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, like the layers of an onion, the older pyramid surfaced. Protected by the newer structure, the murals on the walls of the old building are clear and preserved.
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This is the end of the trail on this side, so you need to turn back towards the entrance. From there, the trail to the left of the entrance continues to the group of the House of the Jaguar. You'll find three structures in this area.
The best-preserved one is the House of the Jaguar, named for a fresco that depicts a jaguar on one of its walls. This building has two intact columns in front and its interior walls are all painted. The stucco and paint are well preserved, though you won't be able to see them up close. To keep the frescoes intact, it is no longer possible to enter the structure. The paintings are still visible from the outside, through the mesh. You'll notice inset panels above the doorways. The remains of red handprints are clear on one.
A sacbe (ancient Mayan road), still standing, connects the group of the House of the Jaguar and the Mercado. Archaeologists believe that this sacbe connected Xel-Ha with the beach on one side, and with Coba on the other. Xel-Ha was probably a port for the much bigger site of Coba.
There is also a lovely cenote at the site, between the front group and the House of the Jaguar group.
The Pyramid of the Birds
As I mentioned earlier, the Pyramid of the Birds is closest to the highway. If you don't rush towards the park, you'll see it driving by. Unless you walk up to it, you'll never guess the ancient artwork that it hides.
Two red panels, separated by a column are clear on the mural on one side of the pyramid. The column in the middle has a glyph on it that reads "Ahau", meaning Lord, Ruler. The word is also the name of a day in Mayan. The composition shows two types of birds: yellow parrots with short tails and red birds look with long yellow tails. They seem to be flying over a building that might represent cages. The composition might be an allegory of nature. It dates from the Early Classic Period of the Mayan Civilization, 300-600 AD.
The building itself seemed to have had several construction periods. Three rooms are at the base, roofed with staggered vaults. On the partition walls between the North and South rooms, you'll see two murals. This part dates from the Early Classic period. Later on, they walled in this base and added stairs to the North and South sides. They still continued to use two of the rooms. The third one, the one on the West, became a tomb.
The House of the Jaguar
The House of the Jaguar is a small building, used most likely as a temple in ancient times. Its importance consists of the frescoes on and inside of it.
The building has two distinguishable phases of construction. The original structure was a small vaulted room on a low base. On these walls, there are still traces of paintings with elaborate designs and people. The dominating color here is the Maya blue. At a later date, they enlarged the building and added the stairway.
It sits in a shaded area, a great place to linger if you want to look at the frescoes.
During the hottest part of the day, the best stop is in the shade of some trees on the shores of the cenote.
You'll find it if you follow the sacbe between the ruins. Look for tall, green trees, filled with birds.
How to Get There
The site is right on highway 307 between Cancun and Tulum. It is easy to miss unless you are not looking for it since it doesn't have a big sign advertising it. When you see the sign for the Xel-Ha Park, just look closely on your right and there are a small sign and a gate with a dirt parking lot behind it. There are clean restrooms at the site where the ticket counter is.