Mayan Ruins of Becán

Becán: Visiting a Spectacular Maya Site in Campeche

Becán is one of the better-known Maya archaeological site showcasing the Río Bec style. We visited it, along with many other sites, during our recent trip to Mexico, in search of Maya sites we haven’t explored before. It wasn’t our first time in Becán though.

The first time we stopped at Becán on a rainy day in January of 2008. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I’ve experienced rain on the Yucatan peninsula, that perfect, “Chak loves this land” kind of rain. It was wonderful – those who live there or ever visited know what I mean. I understood the importance of the rain god.

We climbed wet structures, worrying about our then-two-year-old slipping, but all the while having the fun of our lives, alone at the site. The most impressive thing for me at the time was the fresco-frieze that is now behind glass.

The site became one of our favorites, and we revisited it a few times over the years.

Structure VIII, view from the top of the highest pyramid, Structure IX.
Structure VIII, view from the top of the highest pyramid, Structure IX. Photo from a previous trip.

Our Latest Visit

We stopped at Becán during our latest trip through the Yucatan Peninsula. Though our road trip was mainly to visit sites we haven’t seen before, we couldn’t pass some of our old favorites. Becán was one of them.

Two other cars were parked when we arrived in the late afternoon, but the two families were on their way out by the time we walked in. Once again, we had moments alone in the forest, surrounded by ancient structures.

About the Archaeological Site of Becán

The earliest archaeological evidence at the site dates from 550 BC, the Late Preclassic era of the Mayan civilization. In the next few hundred years, it became a major religious, political and economic center.

A moat or ditch surrounding the site dates from much later, around 250 AD, most likely built for defensive purposes. The defense tactic must have worked because the city became bigger and stronger, reaching its height between 600 AD and 800 AD. During this time it was the capital of the province known today as Rio Bec. But around 830 AD they stopped adding and abandoned the site in 1200.

What’s in a Name?

The ancient city lay abandoned for a few centuries, until 1934, when archaeologists Karl Rupert and John Denison discovered it. Since no one knew its ancient name, they renamed it after its most unusual feature, the moat surrounding it. Becán is a Mayan word meaning moat, ditch or ravine. No other known Mayan site is fully surrounded by one, though a few others share its architectural style.

Architecture – the Rio Bec Style

The Rio Bec style, characteristic for a few sites in the area, got its name from the site Rio Bec, home of one of the best-preserved and most representative buildings in this style. Its characteristics include temple-pyramids that consist of a short, elaborately decorated building with two symmetrical, identical, very steep twin towers on both its side.

Visiting the Site

Becán is one of the many Maya archaeological sites in Campeche, its main difference being the moat surrounding it, unique in the region. Crossed in seven places by ancient roads, the one on the East side serves as the entrance to the site today. Which means that the first buildings you see entering the site are surrounding the East Plaza.

We bypassed it at first though, choosing the path in the forest leading through a tunnel showcasing the Mayan arch to the Central Plaza.

Becan - Mayan arch - tunnel
The path goes through a tunnel towards the Central Plaza

The Central Plaza

The Central Plaza is surrounded by pyramids, dominated by the tallest one at the site, called Structure IX.

Becan pyramid structure IX
Structure IX, the tallest in Becán.

At 32 meters high, this is an impressive pyramid, reconstructed and consolidated. When found, like most major pyramids, it was a pile of rubble. Now, we could climb it, though the sign in front advises against it. Still, they provide a rope to hold on to for those who decide to try it anyway.

Another impressive building in this Plaza is Structure VIII. Though eroded, the two classic Rio Bec style towers are recognizable on top of the pyramid base, surrounding a single-story building.

Structure X, on the West side of the plaza, is shorter but a larger building with a few rooms, showcasing a pretty facade around its doorway.

Becan - Structure X
Structure X

On the other side of Structure X is the West Plaza, with a ball court, but not much else.

The Great Southeast Plaza

Leaving the best for last, we walked to the Great Southeast Plaza, to the structures that we could explore for hours, walking through maze-like tunnels, up and down through narrow stairs, standing on edges with abrupt drops.

My girls have been exploring the site for a while by now, and I didn’t know where they were, but I decided to start exploring Structure IV.

Becan - Structure IV
Exploring the lower levels of Structure IV

As I was walking around on the lower level, I heard “Mom,” from somewhere above. My daughter was standing in one of the window-like openings.

Becan Exploring Structure IV
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” Or at least, please don’t take another step. On Structure IV, Becan

Good thing I don’t remember those openings from when they were younger and we visited this site. But now I wanted to be up where they were; just couldn’t figure out how to get there. It was no use asking her to let down her hair; she’s not Rapunzel and I am not a good rope climber.

“How can I get up there?” I asked her instead.

“Go around.” came the answer.

So I did. I circled the building and walked into the inner courtyard surrounded by structures on four sides.

Becan Plaza
Inner Courtyard of the Great Southeast Plaza. Structure IV with one of its towers still standing, and part of Structure II

I walked around Structure II.

Becan Structure II
Structure II

Then I made my way to Structure I. On the South side of the plaza, is one of the oldest buildings in Becán, and consists of rows of rooms, on two levels.

I explored both levels, walking up through an interior stairway, on narrow steps.

Becan Stairway connecting the two levels of Structure I
Stairway connecting the two levels of Structure I

On the bottom level, I finally came to the frieze I remembered from previous visits. Well, I couldn’t see the mask, and even if I would’ve moved the canvas covering it, the sun was shining on it, the glare from the glass would’ve prevented me from seeing much. So I just enjoyed the fact that I knew it was there and I’ve seen it before.

Becan canvas covering the stucco mask
Behind this image, and behind glass is the real deal, the frieze looking like the image above.

Leaving the Site

We left through a path surrounding the Southeast Plaza. Once again, for the duration of most of our visit, we didn’t share the structure with other visitors. Iguanas kept us company, besides the spiders in the rooms and crevices.

Since it was still time before the sites would close, we decided we had time for another site and headed towards Hormiguero.

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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