Hormiguero Structure II

Hormiguero: How To Visit The Hidden Maya Ruins in the Jungle

A little-known site hidden in the jungle of Campeche, Hormiguero, meaning Anthill, is home to one of the most beautiful and well-preserved temple-pyramids representative of Rio Bec style. It was not the easiest site to get to, but once there, we only shared it with a family of spider monkeys we noticed and watched for a while, howler monkeys we could hear but not see, and lots of butterflies, spiders, and, of course, ants.

You can try getting to it the way we did it, but it’s probably easier – and you’ll learn more about the ruins – if you hire a local Maya guide from Xpujil. The following is our experience exploring these little-known ruins while on a trip through Campeche.

Getting There

On our latest road trip through Mexico, in search of Maya sites we haven’t seen yet (and revisiting some old favorites), we decided to visit the sites in the Río Bec region. Though some of them, like Xpujil, Becan, and Chicanna, are better-known and visited, a few are still hidden in the jungle, reachable only by dirt roads or hard-to-find paths, like Rio Bec proper and the surrounding sites, and Hormiguero.

Though not far off the main road through Xpujil, Hormiguero remains off the beaten path, at the end of a 7-mile dirt road, at times turned into a narrow track through the tropical forest.

In most places of this track, two cars could not fit on the road. As soon as we realized it, we noticed a tourist van coming out as we were driving in. With no place to even pull to the side of the road, we drove backward to the closest spot wide enough to stop and wait for it to pass. Still, as narrow and full of potholes this “road” is, we got through it with a compact car without a problem.

Hormiguero Walking to the ruins
Walking through the jungle towards the structures in Hormiguero

Once there, the quiet of the surrounding forest, with no other visitors around, repaid us for getting through the tough road.

The Site

Like all the Rio Bec sites, Hormiguero reached its peak between 600 and 800 AD. What remains of the ancient city after being reclaimed by the surrounding forest through the centuries, lay scattered in three different groups, the South Group, Central Group, and North Group.

Walking on the cleared path through the forest, we first stopped at the South Group, home to the most beautiful and elaborate structure representative of Rio Bec style in the whole region, called simply Structure II.

Hormiguero Structure II
First glimpse of Structure II after a walk through the tropical forest

South Group. Structure II

Hormiguero Structure II in South Group
The most stunning building in the South Group and the whole site, Structure II

The South facade of this structure is the most dramatic at the site. Surrounding the doorway to its central room, the zoomorphic monster mask, representing Itzamna, is the largest and best-preserved known so far in the region.

Hormiguero Structure II frieze detail
Hormiguero Structure II frieze detail

The doorway represents the Earth monster’s or Itzamna’s mouth, with huge teeth that are still intact on the bottom, on the upper part with a little imagination we can recognize eyes and eyebrows, while on the sides the ears. A doorway through Itzamna represents a portal between this World and the ancient Maya Underworld, where gods and ancestors live.

Hormiguero; Structure II frieze detail
Structure II frieze detail

As I walked inside, I imagined stepping through a boundary between worlds. When the inside was clean and painted, it might have felt like being in another world, where the living could get in touch with their ancestors. Deserted for centuries, it’s easy to forget the importance these doorways had for those who built it.

Still, being alone when entering the structure through this doorway and thinking of its symbolism, I could almost feel like I stepped through a portal that once connected two worlds. I had an eerie feeling inside, as if was indeed in another world, the world of the dead, of a history of long ago. Looking out from the inside, our world looked so green, alive and inviting.

Hormiguero looking out from Structure II
Looking out from the main room on Structure II

Other Structures

We walked through the forest to the other groups, the Central Group with its pyramid, and the North Group with Structure V, showcasing another Itzamna doorway, and representations of the rain god Chak on the sides, and Structure VI displaying the Río Bec twin towers.

Hormiguero North Plaza
More structures in the jungle

Leaving Hormiguero

Butterflies were fluttering on the path around me as I was leaving, following my family. I noticed my girls stop ahead of me and I realized that they were looking at a family of howler monkeys. They were quiet, no loud howls pierced the surrounding jungle, we only knew they were above us when the branches moved.

Howler monkey in Hormiguero
Howler monkeys watched us leave as they resumed their activities.

It was past closing time by the time we reached the gate, though no one rushed us. But the site was not totally deserted; as we left, the site caretaker who we didn’t even notice before, came up and locked it behind us. No one wanted to break the silence, so all we did was smiled and waved goodbye.

Driving out seemed easier, only because we already knew what to expect, and we didn’t encounter any other cars. We spent the night in Xpujil, hoping that the next day we might find a way to get to Río Bec, too, one of the last frontiers of our explorations of the area. Things worked out for us, even better than we hoped, leading to the highlight of our trip, a true jungle adventure. Sometimes, if you know what you want, all you have to do is ask.

In the meantime, we checked off another off-the-beaten Mayan site from our list, one of the prettiest ones, Hormiguero. Yes, we did see a few anthills at the site while wandering through the forest.

If You Go

You can visit Hormiguero on your own as we did. Rent a car, and follow Google maps.

Or hire a local guide who can also tell you all the stories and history of the site. My recommendation is to go with Humberto from Dzib Expeditions. He is local, indigenous Maya, knows all the Rio Bec sites, including this one, and can make it a real adventure. We visited Rio Bec proper with him, and as much as we like to explore on our own, I think we could’ve gotten more out of this trip with him.


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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