The Castillo at Aké Ruins

Aké Ruins, One of the Lesser-Known Maya Sites in Yucatan

Though easy to reach if you know where to go, Aké Ruins of the ancient Maya city escaped the tourist crowds so far. Chances are, if you go, you’ll be the only visitors, just like we were. True, the site is not as spectacular as some well-known ones, but it has a few structures that made the drive worth it for us. Besides, it is easy to incorporate it into a road trip through the peninsula.

Being the only visitors, we got the rare feeling we were explorers who stumbled on an unknown site. It felt like the Yucatan of the old days when few people were interested in visiting ancient structures.

We were the only visitors in Aké Ruins, Yucatan
Centuries after the structures got abandoned, we were the only visitors in Aké.

An Early Classic Site

Dating from the Carly classic era of the Ancient Maya civilization, Aké Ruins offer a rare opportunity to make you feel like an explorer. Inhabited from around 350 BC until the Spanish Conquest, the site only has a few structures standing, but still large enough to be interesting.

Aké Ruins, Yucatan
Aké Ruins, Yucatan

The name Aké is in Yucatec Mayan, and it means “place of reed”. Three large structures surround the Central Plaza, and on the fourth side, a path through a low jungle leads to more, unexcavated structures.

The most spectacular excavated building at the site dominates the entrance plaza. Known as the Palace or Structure 1, it is a wide pyramid with stone columns on top. Of the 36 stone columns (yes, I counted them) a few still stand as tall as they must have when they held a roof.

The Palace at Aké Ruins, Yucatan
Adorned by 36 (11 rows of 3) columns, the Palace dominates the Central Plaza at the Aké Ruins

Used to the narrow stairs at the most well-known sites in Yucatan, I enjoyed the large ones that lead to the top. Though still tall, they were easier to climb than those I’ve been used to, where even I have to step sideways to fit my foot on the stairs.

Two other structures, both low pyramids, stand on its sides, all facing and enclosing the ancient plaza.

One of the three structures that enclose the central plaza in Aké Ruins
One of the three structures that enclose the central plaza in Aké Ruins

Ancient roads, called sacbeob, connected to other sites in its vicinity. The longest one connects the site to Izamal.

Visiting Aké Ruins

Since it is one of the less-visited Maya archaeological sites, those who make it there can climb all the structures in Aké. We did it, though the sun was beating down on us.

On a hot and sunny day, exploring the Palace wasn’t as much fun as it could’ve been on a cloudy day, but walking through the columns was still a great experience. It reminded me of the Temple of the Warriors in Chichen Itza when you could still walk on top of. The columns of Aké Ruins seem rough in comparison but built on the same principles. They are all made of large stones stacked on top of each other and the gaps between them filled with smaller stones.

Columns on top of the Palace at Aké Ruins
The columns on top of Palace at Aké Ruins

Birds sat perched on top of these columns, and they seemed to guard them. They only flew off for a short time while we visited, then came back as soon as we descended the pyramid. Not bothered by many visitors, they build their nests there and watch over the ancient ruins.

The stairways on the other two pyramids are eroded, which paradoxically made the climb easier. (Those stairs are steep). We spent most of our time on top of Structure 2, the one closest to the entrance. Since it has the most vegetation on top it offers plenty of shade under the larger trees. It also offered the best view of the other two structures. We found the remains of an ancient chultun on top where the ancients used to store rainwater.

Aké Ruins. Low Pyramid
Aké Ruins. Low Pyramid

We spent about an hour at these ruins, and it was enough to explore the main plaza. But if it wasn’t so hot, I would’ve liked to take the walk to the far side. A stela and a few unexcavated structures sit back there, covered by vegetation.

How did we hear about Aké Ruins?

From books. Naturally.

John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood visited Aké Ruins on their trip through Yucatan, in 1842. They published the “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan” written by Stevens and illustrated with engravings by Catherwood. Since they visited Aké Ruins at the end of their second trip to Yucatan, their account of them is at the end of Volume II. They added an illustration of the Palace, viewed from the Hacienda they stayed at, behind the ruins.

Aké Ruins - Catherwood print

Other Interesting Places Nearby – A Working Henequen Plantation

When we first got to the ruins, I thought the henequen hacienda, dating from the 19th century, lay abandoned, vestiges of an old era. On the way out though, I noticed a small cart, pulled by a donkey turning around and disappearing into the jungle.

Henequen cart in Aké
The donkey-pulled cart leaving after it unloaded some henequen fibers.

Turns out, it is still working, though other than the fibers brought in by the cart we didn’t see other signs. It might have been Sunday when we visited. The fibers sat stacked in a processing center.

Henequen Fibers in Aké
Henequen Fibers waiting to be turned into rope or whatever else they make out of them now. Aké

What is henequen, you might ask? The fiber from an agave plant native to the Yucatan. The ancient Maya knew the plant’s properties and used it for string and clothing. The Spaniards took it a step further, mechanized its production and turned it into one of the most profitable businesses of the state.

By the 1800s henequen production made Yucatan one of the wealthiest states in Mexico. It was even referred to as “green gold”. Its profits declined when they introduced synthetic fibers on the market. I always considered it a thing of the past but seems like they still make ropes from henequen in some parts of Yucatan. Like here, on a small scale.

Leaving Aké, until next time

Though we spent more time in town, we didn’t linger too much. Today, the town doesn’t have much to offer, though I always enjoy these small stops in places where I see no signs of tourists or any facilities catering to them.

Locals still stare at us sometimes when they notice us, but it’s always friendly. If we are within hearing distance, they greet us with a smile.

With or without ancient or more modern ruins, these small towns in Yucatan will always have a place in my heart.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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