Exploring Muyil or Chunyaxché, an Ancient Mayan City and a Nature Lover’s Paradise

We can’t return to the Yucatan without a stop at Muyil Ruins, so it was one of our destinations on our last visit, as well.

Only a few miles down the road from Tulum, Muyil is still off-the-beaten track. To make things even better, it is in Sian Ka’an, the biggest nature preserve on the coast.  So with one stop, we visit both, ruins and part of the preserve.

Muyil. Jungle and Ancient Structures

Years ago our car used to be the only one that stopped in the dirt parking lot, off the highway going South of Tulum.  A Mayan child walked with us, showing us barely visible trails, a cave and the path through the jungle to the lagoon.

Now the parking lot tends to have a few cars every time we stop.  It is never full though, even though it’s small.  We encounter a few visitors, but most of the time we still have the place for ourselves. And that is the main reason we still stop.  And the jungle walk, of course.  We can’t climb the pyramid any more, though it is restored.  I climbed it when it was probably dangerous to do it, since it was in rubble.

It is so much prettier now, reconstructed.

But before we visit the structures, allow me to talk about the site.

Muyil or Chunyaxché – What’s In a Name

The name of the site, Muyil derives from Mayan for “Place of the Rabbits”. The same site is sometimes called Chunyaxché, which means “Trunk of the Green Tree” in Mayan.

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

The site is filled with ceiba trees, we come across them often while walking through the jungle.

Both names for the site are used interchangeably, though Muyil is better known.  Generally, Chunyaxché is used for the village nearby.

Walking Through the Site

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

The jungle covers many more buildings that we see excavated.  The few exposed are pretty impressive though.

The Entrance Plaza Group,

visible from the highway, 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 though it, though no one stops us when we step off it. We feel the need to look at these structures from every angle, although we’ve seen them many times.

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

Small Structure at the Entrance Plaza in Muyil

Following the trail, to the East, we reach the most imposing building,

the Castillo.

The Pyramid, El Castillo, Muyil

Reconstructed, it is spectacular.

Although I remember I thought it was pretty imposing when I first saw it in ruins. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the tallest pyramid on the coast of Yucatan, standing 57 feet tall.

Muyil Pyramid in 1995
Muyil Pyramid in 1995

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

Muyil Pyramid 2017
Muyil Pyramid 2017

The Castillo of Muyil is unique among the Mayan sites of the peninsula. It looks more like a classic site, much older than Tulum and even 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. I like this style of the Ancient buildings.

As we walk around it, I find myself in front of the

East side of the Castillo

Years ago, I couldn’t imagine what the temple on the top looked like. I certainly didn’t expect anything 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 on our last 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.  I stopped to read the sign about it. 
 
Turns out that 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). While exposed, even for a very short time, the relief was getting damaged. While it sat buried for centuries it was beautiful, intact. Exposed to the elements, it was deteriorating at an alarming rate.
Las Garzas. The Herons. Muyil
Las Garzas. The Herons. Replica. The original is behind it. 
So, after reconstructing it, INAH, the Mexican Center for Conservation of Cultural Heritage, decided to rebury it.
 
But, they still wanted visitors to see what it looked like, to enjoy the beauty 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.  
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 it is not the original, it looks as if it was.  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.

Walking through the Jungle

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 tell-tale cuts on their trunks.  It is the tree that the chicleros used to make chewing gum from.  
Chicle Tree with the tell-tale cuts. Muyil QR
Chicle tree with the tell-tale cuts on its trunk
The process was like getting syrup from maple trees.  Except that the sap that they got from this tree was good for chewing.  For years, this is where chewing gum came from, before they started making the artificial ones. 
 
As we walk, we are looking for the cave that years ago a local Mayan child led my husband into. We stop at a few small ones, until we realize which one it was.  I enter it, for change.  The first time I had toddlers with me, so I didn’t follow.  We haven’t been able to locate it since until now.  
 Cave in the Jungle Path Through Muyil Ruins
 
The cave has a nice size cavity, but no bats in it. As I go in a little farther, I see 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 man-made. It might have been a “mine”, the ancients used to get limestone for their buildings.

Temple 8

Although a small temple, Structure 9K-1, 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 at this point you can’t even enter it. Still, I remember the inside of the Temple. If the sun hits it right, we can still see the remains of the paintings.

Temple 8. Muyil

But the knowledge of what’s under it makes it special.  It was built on top of another pyramid – no news here, the ancient Maya always did that – though still interesting.

Both old and new pyramids are on top of a natural cave.  Building temples on top of natural cenotes and caves was another common practice of the ancient Maya.  That’s because they thought those places sacred, and powerful.

In the Sian Ka’an Reserve, “Where the Sky Is Born”

Since the site is within the boundaries of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of the attractions is a walk through the jungle.  At the end of the walk you reach a lagoon.
In the Jungle. Muyil/Sian Ka'an
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. It is home to lots of wildlife and birds. Laguna Muyil connects – or separates – the site from the rest of the Reserve. We have walked out to the lagoon in the past, on the ancient sacbe, Mayan road. We would have never found it without our friend, the Mayan child I mentioned before. Following him was an adventure, especially with our two children, three-and five-year olds at the time.
 
These days getting to the lagoon is a different kind of adventure. The trail is cleared and even built up above some of the marshy areas. You are still in the jungle and if you stop long enough, you’ll see wild life.
 
The trail starts at a booth, at the end of Sacbe 1. You have to pay a separate, but modest, entrance fee.
 
The best thing about this new developed 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.
 View from the Mirador in Sian Ka'an Muyil

We Say Goodbye to Muyil – For Now

I take my time walking back to the ruins and the Entrance.  I stop often, listening to the sounds of the jungle.  Once back on the Sacbe, I walk to the Castillo and stop for a while, enjoying the view in the late afternoon sun.

I know it won’t be long before we return.  We can’t stay away from Yucatan, no matter how much we try.

There are a few sites that I can’t return to, like Tulum, since they became a huge tourist attraction.  I hope that Muyil can still remain off the tourist track. We’ll see.  It is too close to Tulum, but it’s not on the main track of the Riviera Maya.  I hope it stays this way for a while longer.

I also wonder about the structures that are still covered in the jungle.

I hope to see something new next time I return.


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Author: EmeseRéka

Emese Fromm is the editor and writer for Wanderer Writes. She grew up in Transylvania, where she studied linguistics and literature at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. Early on, she realized that what she wanted to do in life was travel and write. It took her a while, but now she’s doing both. She writes travel articles, non-fiction and fiction stories for online and traditional publications.

14 thoughts on “Exploring Muyil or Chunyaxché, an Ancient Mayan City and a Nature Lover’s Paradise”

  1. I loved Tulum, so I am sure I would love Muyil. The jungle walk looks like a great bonus, although I am not sure about climbing up that tower even if the view is amazing. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  2. This was a great post. It’s great to know that not only are there Mayan sites that are less-traveled but also being restored. This looks like an amazing place. It must have incredible to watch the recreation process. I’m always amazed at the attention to detail in both ancient structures themselves and the effort that goes into preserving them. We were fortunate enough to see a number of Pueblo cities as we traveled across the Southwest and came away from each site with a very powerful feeling of being in touch with something deeper. Thank you for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Thank you! Yes, you are right about the attention to detail on the ancient structures. The ancient Pueblo cities in the Southwest are pretty spectacular, too. I know what you mean. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I’m always happy to hear that steps are being taken to preserve such historical structures. I’m happy to see a replica, if it means the original is being preserved! I also love your photo of the jungle. It looks mysterious but beautiful!

    1. Yes, it is nice to know that they keep the original intact if they can help it. Thanks for stopping by, glad you liked the post. You’re right, the jungle is indeed mysterious and beautiful.

  4. I totally forgot about the Muyil Ruins. It’s been so long since I’ve been in the Yucatan peninsula. I remember this place very well now that I’ve read your post. When I first read your title I was ready to say “how did I miss this one?” That part of Mexico is really a gem. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Glad I reminded you of this place, Anda. You can’t forget it, once you’ve seen it, right? It has always been one of my favorites, and is still one of the not-so-touristy spots.

  5. Wow, I’ve never heard of the Muyil Ruins, despite seeing so many in Central America. Tulum is such a cool destination and its ruins are great, but I do like the jungle setting of these. Great find! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Muyil is a bit off the beaten path, so I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it. Tulum has the perfect setting, with its main pyramid overlooking the ocean. But for me is just too overrun at this point. Muyil is better by far in my opinion. Its pyramid is way nicer, taller than Tulum’s. And the setting is much nicer, too. Maybe you’ll have to check it out next time you go. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. We always like running into posts about Mayan ruins! They’re fascinating, as is the culture and history. We haven’t been to Muyil. We’re contemplating a short Tulum getaway this summer, so we’ll have to be sure that is in the plans. Great pictures – the place looks absolutely perfect for exploring and appreciating the amazing Mayan art and architecture. Thanks for linking up with us on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Yes, I love Mayan Ruins, and since I’ve visited so many of them, you’ll run into posts about them here ;). You should stop at Muyil if you go in the vicinity of Tulum. Although I’ve never been in the summer, I always think that it would be unbearably hot and humid. Winter is the perfect time to go, but whenever you can get away…. the beach is not too far away…

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