The Pyramid, El Castillo, Muyil

Muyil Ruins: Exploring An Ancient Maya Site in a Nature Preserve

Only a few miles down the road from Tulum, Muyil Ruins, also known as Chunyaxché, are one of the ancient Maya sites of Quintana Roo still relatively off-the-beaten track.

To make things even better, the site is in the Sian Ka’an nature preserve, the largest on the coast of Quintana Roo. So, with one stop, you can visit both ruins and part of a nature preserve.

Muyil. Jungle and Ancient Structures
Structure in the Muyil archaeological site

On our way to most other Maya ruins we like to visit on the Yucatan Peninsula, Muyil (Chunyaxché), has always been a favorite stop of my family’s Mexico adventures.

Years ago, when we used to visit, our car was the only one stopped in the dirt parking lot. I remember times when a Maya child would walk with us, showing us barely visible trails, a cave and the path through the jungle to the lagoon.

Now, the parking lot has a few cars every time we stop. So far we haven’t seen it full yet, but we meet more visitors every time. Still, we often have the place for ourselves.

As spectacular as some structures are, this is one of the main reasons we still stop. Besides the jungle walk through Sian Ka’an.

We can no longer climb the main pyramid, though it is restored. I’m happy with the memory of climbing it once, the first time I visited the peninsula. It was still in rubble; We could only guess what lay underneath the mound and the few eroded stairs.

It is so much prettier now, reconstructed – though I’m not sure which version I like best.

Muyil or Chunyaxché – What’s In a Name

The name of the site, Muyil, derives from Mayan for “Place of the Rabbits”.

Its other name, Chunyaxché, means “Trunk of the Green Tree” in Mayan.

This green tree the name is referring to is the ceiba tree that the Maya considered the “tree of life”. They believed these trees were the axis of the World, connecting the Underworld to our Middle World and the Upper World, the sky.

Ceiba trees grow everywhere around the site; We come across them often while walking through the jungle.

You’ll hear both names for the site, though Muyil is used more often. Chunyaxché mainly refers to the village nearby.

Walking Through the Site

Muyil is one of the oldest sites on the east coast of Quintana Roo, and also the one inhabited the longest. Its oldest structures date back to the Early Classic Period of the Maya civilization, and people were still living there when the Spaniards showed up. Archaeologists believe the city was occupied from about 300BC to as late as the 1550s.

The jungle covers many more buildings than the ones we see. Walking under the canopy of ceiba and chicle trees, among others, we notice mounds with unnatural-looking stone blocks peaking out from under the dense vegetation.

But even without seeing all the structures in full, the few exposed ones are impressive enough to warrant exploring the ancient city of Muyil.

The Entrance Plaza Group

Visible from the highway, the Entrance Plaza Group includes the first few buildings we encounter. A few structures stand on this plaza, some of them still in ruins, others restored. A well-maintained trail leads us through it, though no one stops us when we step off it.

We walk around the buildings, examining them from every angle, mentally comparing them to what we remember of them from earlier visits. They have all been cleaned off, and more parts of them restored.

I remember with nostalgia our kids playing inside the small temple while trying to keep out of the midday sun. My kids are grown now, and the tiny temple is closed to new visitors.

Small pyramid structure at the Entrance Plaza.
Structure in the Entrance Group.

Following the trail, to the east, we reach the most imposing building at the site, the Castillo.

The Castillo

The Pyramid, El Castillo, Muyil
The Castillo at Muyil

Reconstructed, it is spectacular. Castillo is the Spanish name for Castle. However, the pyramid isn’t one, at least not in the conventional sense. No rulers lived in it, Maya pyramids had a different reason for their existence. Topped by ancient temples, they were used during ceremonies.

I remember thinking it was pretty imposing when I first saw El Castillo of Muyil in ruins, in the early 1990s. I didn’t realize it then, but standing 57 feet tall, it is the tallest pyramid on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Climbing the Muyil Pyramid in 1995
Muyil Pyramid in 1995

Uncovered, and partially reconstructed, it is even more imposing.

The Muyil Pyramid in 2017
Muyil Pyramid 2017

I always find it amazing to return to the same site years later and find the rubble sorted, the structures reconstructed. It’s nice to see what they looked like when in use. It’s one of the main reasons I enjoy returning to the same sites year after year.

The Castillo of Muyil – the Castillo of Chunyaxché – is unique among the Maya pyramids of the peninsula.

It looks more like a classic pyramid, much older than the ones at Tulum or Xel-Ha, the other two major sites on the coast.

We can see the base now, built in terraces and dated in the Terminal Classic period of the ancient Maya civilization. It is my favorite style of the ancient Maya pyramids.

As we walk around it, I find myself in front of the east side of the Castillo. This part was all rubble the first time I saw it.

The east side of the Castillo

Years ago, I couldn’t imagine what the temple on the top looked like. I expected nothing so elaborate, still intact under all that rubble.

It looks even more spectacular than the side facing the entrance. I stand there and look at the reliefs close to the top of the pyramid. I’ve seen them for the first time during one of our latest visit, not so long ago.

Close to the top, I noticed two stones of a much lighter shade, with two reliefs of birds on each of them.

Reading the sign in front of the pyramid, I learned their story.

Las Garzas, the birds on the Castillo of Muyil

During the excavations and reconstruction of the site in 1998, the archaeologists found a bass-relief of two birds. They looked like herons, so the name stuck; They are called “Las Garzas” (Spanish for herons).

But after they uncovered them, exposed to the elements even for a brief time, the relief was deteriorating at an alarming rate. Buried for centuries, it had stayed beautiful, intact, for centuries.

So, to keep them intact longer, after reconstructing it, INAH, the Mexican Center for Conservation of Cultural Heritage, reburied it.

They still wanted visitors to see what it looked like, though, to enjoy the beauty of it. So, they constructed a replica and placed it in front of the original. And this is what we see today, a replica of the original.

Las Garzas. The Herons on the pyramid in Muyil
Las Garzas. The Herons. Replica. The original is behind it.
The East side of the Pyramid in Muyil with the relief of the birds halfway to the top.
The East side of the Pyramid in Muyil with the relief of the birds.

Even though they are not original, as they fade, they will look more and more as if they fully belong there. I’m not sure how I would feel about it from an archaeological point of view. But I am no archaeologist, and as a visitor, I enjoy seeing it.

Along the jungle path

Following the trail to the other excavated structures, we walk through the jungle in the shade of mature trees. I notice a few chicle trees, with the telltale cuts on their trunks. It is the tree that the chicleros used to make chewing gum from.

Chicle Tree with the telltale cuts. Muyil QR
Chicle tree with the tell-tale cuts on its trunk

The process was like getting syrup from maple trees. Except they used the sap from this tree for chewing gum. For years, this is where chewing gum came from, before they started making the artificial ones.

As we walked, we were looking for the cave that years ago, a local Maya child led my husband into. We stopped at a few small ones until we realized which one it was.

This time, I entered it. The first time I had toddlers with me, so I stayed outside it while my husband explored it with our child guide. We haven’t been able to locate it since until now.

Cave in the Jungle Path Through Muyil Ruins
The cave near the jungle path

The cave has a nice size cavity, but no bats in it. A little farther in, I noticed the tunnel my husband told me about so many years ago. He couldn’t fit through and didn’t understand what the Maya child told him of where it led. The tunnel looked too narrow for me, too, so I didn’t follow it.

On closer inspection, the cavity looked dug by men. It might have been a “mine”, the ancients used to get limestone for their buildings.

Temple 8

Although a small temple, Structure 9K-1, or Temple 8 – no it doesn’t have another name – is one of my favorite buildings in Muyil.

It doesn’t look like much, a small pyramid base with a temple on top. And you can’t even enter it. Still, I remember the inside of the Temple from when we could walk in. If the sun hits it right, we can still see the remains of the paintings. They are the reason I liked this small pyramid so much.

Temple 8
Temple 8 in Muyil

In The Sian Ka’an Nature Preserve

In the Jungle of the Sian Ka'an Nature Preserve
In the Jungle. Muyil/Sian Ka’an

Sian Ka’an, meaning “where the sky is born”, is the largest natural Reserve on the Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a large array of wildlife and birds.

Laguna Chunyaxché connects – or separates – the site from the rest of the Reserve. We have walked out to the lagoon from Muyil Ruins in the past, on the ancient sacbe, the Maya “white road”. We would have never found it without our friend, the local child I mentioned earlier. Following him was an adventure, especially with our two young children, then three-and five.

These days, getting to the Chunyaxché lagoon is a different adventure. Cleared, and easy to follow, the trail is even built up above some of the marshy areas. You are still in the jungle, though, and if you stop long enough, you’ll see wildlife.

The trail starts at a booth, at the end of Sacbe 1. They charge a separate, but modest, entrance fee.

Besides the chance to see wildlife, the best thing about this trail is the Lookout tower, or Mirador.

The Mirador - Lookout Tower in Sian Ka'an Muyil
The Mirador – Lookout Tower in Sian Ka’an Muyil

The view from the top is well worth the scary climb.

Chunyaxche Lagoon - View from the Mirador in Sian Ka'an
View from the Mirador

We Say Goodbye to Muyil Ruins – For Now

I took my time walking back to the ruins and the Entrance Group. I stopped often, listening to the sounds of the jungle.

Once back on the Sacbe, I walked to the Castillo and stop for a while, enjoying the view in the late afternoon sun.

It won’t be long before we return. We can’t stay away from the Yucatan, with its ancient pyramids, pristine cenotes, white-sand beaches, and small Maya villages. Even as it is all getting too crowded, too full of tourists and resorts. I hope we can still always find remote spots on the peninsula, and off-the-beaten-track Maya pyramids to explore.

Although I can’t return to other ancient cities like Tulum, since they became a huge tourist attraction., I still like to revisit Muyil Ruins every time I am in Quintana Roo. I hope this archaeological site will still remain off the tourist track. It is too close to Tulum though, but it’s not on the main track of the Riviera Maya. Yet. I hope it stays this way for a while longer.

I also wonder about the structures under the jungle vegetation. Maybe next time I visit I’ll see others uncovered…

Update January 2024

Unfortunately I can’t say that Muyil ruins are still off the beaten track. When we revisited the area in January of 2024, the new Tulum airport and construction for the new Maya Train (only construction still, the train was far from operating on this side of the peninsula by the end of the month) was already bringing in more visitors than the area can handle. We did not stop at Chunyaxche, because it was too crowded.

New jungle roads lead to other attractions in the forest and the lagoon, and from the looks of it everything will be ruined within a year. Even in Si’an Ka’an, the supposedly protected jungle. I can only hope that world tourism will slow down, or lose interest in this area, even with the more convenient – but much more expensive – new ways to get there.

Visitors to the Peninsula should now ask themselves, “do we want to contribute to killing the environment, the fragile ecosystem of the Yucatan?” It is what we have been doing for decades – at least tourists who took advantage of the all-inclusive resorts and huge tours to small archaeological sites, cenotes, and pristine beaches. It will soon all be gone unless we slow down the process. Locals do not benefit at all from this; we are not helping them by taking advantage of all this modern tourism, none of the money goes back to them. And once their environment gets totally ruined, once their cenotes get polluted, they will have no water, and no place to live.


  1. What are the Muyil Ruins?

    Muyil ruins, also known as Chunyaxché, are part of a medium size ancient Maya archaeological site on the eastern coast of Quintana Roo. They are near the Chunyaxché lagoon, on the edge of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve.

  2. How old are the Muyil Ruins? When was this ancient Maya city occupied?

    The site was most active from the Early Classic (300-600 A.D.) through the Post Classic (900-1100 A.D.) period of the ancient Maya civilization, however, people still lived there when the Spaniards came to the peninsula, in the 1550s.

  3. Are Muyil Ruins Worth to Visit?

    It depends what you are looking for. The Castillo, its largest pyramid, is the tallest on the peninsula, but you can not climb it. You won’t find as many reconstructed structures as in some of the major Maya archaeological sites. However, if you like the mystery of the ancient structures in a dense jungle setting, exploring this site is absolutely worth it.

Other Maya Ruins to visit nearby:

Tulum: The best-known Maya site on the coast of Quintana Roo, Tulum, was the first Maya city seen by the outside world. Its Castillo, its main pyramid, sits on the beach, thus visible from any boat on the ocean. The site’s enormous popularity is due to its location, not necessarily to its structures. Though extremely crowded any time of the year, and you can’t even get close to the structures, let alone climb them, it is worth a visit if it’s your first time on the peninsula. The site is only about 20 minutes from Muyil Ruins, making it a good base to visit them both.

Xel-Ha Ruins: About 40 minutes away along the coast, Xel-Ha Ruins was once a port city of the ancient Maya, home to several smaller structures, some, like the Jaguar Temple and the Pyramid of the Birds, still preserving colorful frescoes anthems walls.

Coba: Stretching over 30 square miles, Coba Ruins is home to the Pyramid Nohuch Mul, the largest on the whole peninsula. The ancient city consists of several large groups on structures, connected by paths in the jungle. About an hour away inland, the ancient city of Coba has also become popular over the past decades. However, since it is so spread out on a large area, it is still a pleasant visit.

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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