As soon as you start driving on the Mayan Riviera, in fact as soon as you land in Cancun, you’ll see signs for Xel-Ha Amusement Park. I am not talking about that. I have never been in the park, and don’t intend to go. My own principles.
Instead, we always stop at the Ruins of Xel-Ha. I can’t go to Yucatan and not stop there. I have somewhat of a love affair with the place. It was the first Mayan site I set eyes on, after reading about them and learning to decipher glyphs in my spare time.
When I first met my husband, he was reading about the Maya. He attended workshops and studied everything written about them at the time. When he showed me some pictures of a few sites in the jungles of Yucatan, and told me that excavations are still in progress in most of these places, I was hooked.
As a linguist, I was more intrigued by the glyphs, and I started studying them, until I was able to “read” some.
But we couldn’t visit Yucatan yet. I was a visitor in the US, and if I crossed the border, I would not have been able to get back. So it wasn’t our first vacation destination.
As soon as we could, after we got married, we were on a plane to Cancun. So it was our honeymoon, and we spent it sweating, climbing pyramids, wandering around ruins, and staying in tiny, out-of-the-way places. But that’s all another story.
Getting back to Xel-Ha. The first time I saw it, I was in awe. Not necessarily about the ruins, though they are pretty spectacular for someone who has never seen any before. What really got me was the paint inside the House of the Jaguar. We could walk inside it at the time, and I kept going in and out, marveling at how clear I could still see some of the images painted on those walls thousands of years ago. I won’t lie, I am sure I touched them. So now, to protect it from visitors like I was in my twenties, it is closed, you can’t walk inside it. But an iPhone camera’s tiny lens can fit through the holes of the mesh that protects the entrances. So I was still able to take photos now, twenty-three years later.
Since that first time, in 1995, Xel-Ha Ruins are still the first stop on our road trips through the Yucatan.
Still, we manage to be the only visitors at the site, even now.
The Ancient City of Xel-Ha
The name of the ancient city comes from Yucatek Maya, combining two words, Xel=spring/inlet and Ha=water. We could translate it into “Water Inlet”, which is just what Xel-Ha Lagoon is, where the waterpark is located now.
In ancient times, Xel-Ha was a port city for the much bigger site, Cobá. Some of its buildings date from as the Early Classic period of the Maya civilizations, as far back as 300-600 AD. Other structures are more recent.
After it lay abandoned in the jungle by the coast for a few centuries, Stephens and Catherwood stumbled upon them in 1841. They described their journey on the peninsula in the Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published after their return.
Since then, some of the ruins have been reconstructed, but most of them still lay in the jungle.
Walking Through the Site
Before you set out on your adventure to see the ruins, make sure you use bug repellent, and take some with you. We had to return to the car halfway through, because the mosquitoes were eating us. I use essential oils for everything (almost), so I have a few different oil combinations that work. But you can find great, natural bug-spray in any supermarket in Yucatan. If you are like us, and only bring carry-ons for vacations, stop and pick one up in Puerto Morelos or anywhere along the road.
Bug warning out of the way, the walk is very pleasant, and mostly shaded, unlike many other sites.
On our last visit, I took a beeline to the
Pyramid of the Birds.
I walked fast so the mosquitoes would stay away and as soon as I reached the pyramid, I climbed the few steps leading to the frescoes. Standing right by the highway, with cars were zooming below me, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people drive past it, rushing to the water park. They don’t even notice it, though all they would have to do is look up.
The frescoes on this pyramid are spectacular. No matter how many times I see them I still never get tired of them.
The Castillo Group
A lower, but much bigger structure, the Castillo is a great place to walk through. I notice a worker, cleaning the area around it and realize that it is another sign that they are trying to open it up for more tourists. I don’t mind, though I’ll miss being able to have the site all to ourselves.
Walking through the Castillo was pleasant this time. Usually it is too hot to spend much time in the open, but in January the weather is perfect.
The House of the Jaguar and the Cenote
We decide to take the sacbe, the remnants of the ancient road to the House of he Jaguar instead of returning to the front and walking on the well-maintained trail.
I am surprised when I don’t stumble on the rocks as I usually do when walking on the sacbe. Then I realize that I am actually walking on a new trail, next to it. They must have cleared it within the past few months. It wasn’t there las March when we visited.
The paint on the House of the Jaguar is still as beautiful as ever. In the winter sunlight it shows up even better than I remember. The Mayan blue, covering much of the stucco, is one of my favorite colors.
I look through the mesh covering the side doorway opening, and notice that the winter sun makes the painting of the jaguar stand out more than usual. I stand there for a while, admiring it.
Then I look over to the clear blue water of the cenote nearby. We walk down close to the water. It is pleasant to just sit there, and listen to the birds.
In fact, I see one of the blue birds common to the area. I recognize it as the Mexican bluejay and read up about it. Believe it or not, it is a crow. I thought all crows were black. Not in Yucatan. Even the crows are colorful.
Goodbye Xel-Ha, Until Next Time
We spent more time in Xel-Ha than usual. Since we are always flexible when we travel, it didn’t matter. The weather was much nicer than we ever experienced it on the hot and humid peninsula.
I am excited to see how much they clear it by next time we go. It might be a few years, we have other destinations in mind for a while, but I know that we will be back. Though relatively small, this site is always going to be one of my favorites.