Rio Bec

Rio Bec: An Amazing Adventure with a Local in the Maya Jungle

Sitting on a quad behind my daughter, I was holding on for dear life, while she was swerving left and right, trying to avoid tree branches hanging from the canopy above us, potholes deep enough for us to disappear into, and the jungle vegetation growing all around us.

On a quest to find the ruins of Rio Bec, it was our first time on an ATV. She couldn’t stop laughing, and kept yelling back, “isn’t this the most fun, mom?”, so it made me smile, and enjoy the ride. Sort of.

Driving an ATV into the jungle
We started on a decent dirt road…

Riding on an ATV has never been my idea of fun. Under normal circumstances I would not ride one. But when it is the only way to get in the middle of the jungle to explore unexcavated ancient Maya ruins only known to locals, I put up with it. Maybe even try to enjoy it.

Searching for Rio Bec

We started our morning at a hotel in Xpujil, Chiapas, where we stopped for the night during our latest road trip through Mexico. While chatting with our waiter during breakfast, the conversation turned to Rio Bec ruins.

Though one of the lesser-known Maya ruins, the site was important in the whole of the ancient Maya civilization. A distinctive style, the Rio Bec style of ancient Maya architecture is even named after it. So, we knew about the site from our books, but were not aware of any roads leading to them.

“I’ve never been there,” our waiter said, “but I know a guide, maybe he can take you, if you want to go. Do you want his number?”

When we called, the person on the line answered in fluent English, telling us he’d meet us at the hotel in about 15 minutes.

Before we even finished our breakfast, a middle-aged guy in a crisp, white, ironed buttoned-down shirt, showed up. He introduced himself as Giovanni, and started off with a sales pitch about the surrounding ruins, offering to take us to Calakmul, Xpujil Ruins or Becan.

“We’ve been to all of them already, multiple times,” my husband answered, slightly annoyed.

‘What about Balamku or Hormiguero?”

“Been there, too. The only ones we haven’t seen are Rio Bec.”

He looked us over, and the sales person disappeared behind a friendly local.

“I can’t go in there, ” he said. “No roads, only dirt tracks, not good for cars.”

“But I know someone,” he added. “Maybe he can take you. He has quads to take people in the jungle. If you want to do that, I can call him.”

We all looked at each other, and my daughters said in unison, excited,

“Can we do it? Please…”

“Can you contact your friend?” I asked.

“Just a minute, I’ll see if he’s in town.”

He excused himself and went outside to call. Another fifteen minutes passed before he came back with a short, dark local. We met Humberto Dzib Tun, a Maya guide, who nodded when we asked if he could take us to Rio Bec Ruins.

“Sure, I can do it.”

“Right now?”

“Yes, when you are ready.

“We’re ready.” He looked us over.

“You get hurt if you drive a quad through the jungle in shorts,” he said. “I wait for you.”

By the time we emerged from our room, wearing jeans, packed up and ready to go, he was in his car, and motioned to follow. We stopped at a gas station, where he filled a container with gas, then turned off the main road.

We Stop at Humberto’s Family Home

Driving on narrow dirt roads, through traditional Maya huts, followed by local dogs and kids, we felt like we were back in the Mexico we fell in love with decades ago. After a few minutes on these roads, he pulled into a courtyard, surrounded by a few huts. He got out and showed us where to park the car, then disappeared without another word.

We got out and looked around, waiting. A little Maya girl, around three years old, was playing in the yard, glancing occasionally in our direction, while her brother, slightly older, was showing off, riding his mini bicycle. Two dogs came out, wagging their tails and rubbed against us. Following them, the kids came closer, too, and stood, looking at us. They didn’t answer any of our questions, though we tried our Spanish on them. They only stared at us with shy grins, then resumed their games, glancing in our directions on occasion. An old man came out of a hut and waved at us, standing in his doorway. Humberto left us to figure out how to communicate with his family who only spoke Maya. We smiled a lot, and left the communication to the kids’ gestures and the dogs.

After what seemed like forever, Humberto came back from somewhere behind a hut, accompanied by a young man. They both drove quads they parked by us, then went back to bring out four mismatched helmets.

Humberto had us try out the quads to see who was driving which and have us get a feel for them. They weren’t new, they had issues, but they were both rideable, and once my daughter got used to ours, she was happy to drive. Once we got situated, Humberto climbed behind his nephew onto an ancient motorcycle that looked like the one my dad used to ride in my very distant childhood, in Romania.

They drove out into the road, and we followed.

Village dogs were running around us, barking and wagging their tails in recognition of Humberto and his nephew, who seemed to know them all. They stopped at the edge of town though, as if they knew dogs were not allowed into the jungle.

As soon as we left the last hut behind, the road turned into a narrow path, barely wide enough for the quads. We followed the leaders on the motorcycle, riding through potholes, and avoiding huge boulders by driving into the surrounding vegetation.

“The jungle is my pharmacy”

When we finally stopped, in the middle of the forest, we stood in front of an eroded sign, with paw prints on it, listing larger animals living in the forest. Humberto explained that we were about to enter a protected forest. His village was protecting it, he said, not the Mexican government. They, the villagers, took it upon themselves to take care of their forests and the animals in it. They didn’t allow hunting or cutting down any trees.

Rio Bec - protected jungle
The jungle in Rio Bec, protected by the village nearby.

Looking around, Humberto pointed out a few of the trees and plants, explaining their medicinal uses.

“The jungle is my pharmacy,” he said. “I don’t need doctors, everything I need for any ailments is here, in the jungle.” Remedies for everything from an upset stomach, kidney stones, rashes of all kinds were in his jungle. “But some plants are poisonous,” he added, “so you really need to know them. Even the ones used for medicine can hurt you if you take too much.”

He showed us the tree that his people, the Maya, used for centuries against kidney stones.

“Grind a little of the bark and mix it with water, it breaks up the stones in tiny pieces so you won’t even feel it as it passes,” he said. “You’ll only know because your urine would turn black. Once is enough to take it, twice if the infection is terrible. More than that, it hurts you.”

The jungle is a pharmacy for the Maya
The pharmacy of the Maya

A few steps away, he showed us the infamous Chechen tree.

“Touching this tree causes the worst rash; it puts people in the hospital and doctors don’t have a remedy for it,” he said.

Pausing for effect, he added:

“See this tree with the red bark, growing next to it? Just one leaf from it gets rid of the rash. Touch the leaf to the rash and it’s gone. No medicine doctors give you can do that. They don’t know. People sit in the hospital and suffer and all they need is a leaf. These two trees always grow next to each other.”

“Nature always has a way to balance things out,” he told us, as we walked on. “If one plant hurts you, the one that has the remedy grows next to it. They balance each other out.”

“The jungle is the best pharmacy.”

Rio Bec is a River of Trees

As we walked through the forest, he pointed out a tree.

“The bec tree,” he said, “the one the site is named for. There are so many of them, they seem like a river.”

“Isn’t the site named after a river?” I asked.

“No, there is no river here; they only had water because they used to catch rainwater. It is a river of bec trees.”

A river of trees. The river of Bec trees that led us to the ruins.

We Reached the First Ruins of Rio Bec

We got back on the quads and continued our journey as the path narrowed even more. Vines hit us from above, as we brushed against bushes left and right.

We arrived at a clearing and stopped again in front of a large structure, part of the first cluster of ancient buildings at Rio Bec Archaeological Site. We were at Rio Bec A.

Rio Bec A
Rio Bec A

“I helped excavate it,” Humberto said matter-of-factly, as we walked around it.

“Is that how you learned English, from the archaeologists?” I heard myself ask. I’ve been wondering about it, since no one else in his family seemed to understand our language.

“No,” he laughed. “Archaeologists were French. I lived in the States for three years.”

“Did you like it there?” we asked.

“Everybody always happy there, everyone always smiling,” he said.

“People I worked for asked me to stay.” he continued. “Easier life, everyone have more things, always happy.”

“So why didn’t you stay?” I asked.

“I thought about it.” He shrugged. “But it wasn’t my home. My family is here, my home is here. I just went for a job, make money, come home.”

We looked up at the building that stood in front of us. Even in ruins, it was beautiful. It must have been spectacular in its heigh-day. Still, I like it better surrounded by jungle, quiet, with only the sound of birds chattering around it.

In ancient times, they cleared the jungle in the surrounding area. Like we are doing today, they used up their resources, depleted everything around them. I wondered how far they had to go to find their jungle pharmacy during the time the buildings were colorful, the surroundings filled with the hustle-and-bustle of a large city.

But at some point, people must have realized what they were doing. Even as the great Maya civilization was collapsing, people found a better way to survive. Abandoning their rulers, they walked away from the cities and the colorful large buildings and turned back to living a quieter life, surrounded by the jungle. Now, centuries later, they protect their forest.

The same Maya who once built spectacular cities here, live in small homes, and take only as much as they need from their surroundings. In the meantime, nature reclaimed their ancient cities, trees growing from the abandoned stones.

Exploring an Ancient Structure in the Jungle. Rio Bec A

A large building, it is still beautiful. It must have been spectacular in its height day. Still, I like it better surrounded by jungle, quiet, with only the sound of birds chattering around us.

Humberto led us to a staircase, and we climbed to the top of the ancient structure.

On top of Rio Bec A
On top of Rio Bec A

“Feel the energy of this place,” he said. “I come here to recharge, and I bring people here sometimes.”

I’m not sure I felt the energy he was talking about, but it was great to be on top of this building. Still, I was not as tired as I usually get when I climb pyramids in more touristy places, surrounded by people. It would be nice to stand here for a while, I thought, but my family was ready to move on.

“What are those doors for on top of the other side of the pyramid?” my daughter asked.

“I’ll show you,” Humberto said, and he set off to walk across the narrow ledge.

Walking across a Mayan Arch on top of Rio Bec A
Walking on top of the Main Arch connecting two towers of Rio Bec A

My overprotective motherly instincts screamed danger, but no one would’ve listened. So instead, I followed them. I wanted to see what was behind those doors, too. Besides, we’ve climbed more dangerous sites even with toddlers, so I quit my worrywart self and enjoyed the walk across.

On the other side, Humberto opened the trapdoor but didn’t lead us inside. We only took a peak, though we couldn’t discern much in the dark other than a staircase. Since walking inside the pyramid wasn’t possible, the girls climbed higher up. Watching them standing about 20 feet above the ground, on a half-broken ancient building, I didn’t worry. That surprised me. Was I losing my motherly instincts, I thought, or was I trusting their abilities? They looked thoroughly comfortable and happy with themselves on top, they only made me smile.

We walked back, and everyone started down the stairs. But I wasn’t ready to go. I wanted to spend more time on the structure and hesitated. Humberto looked back.

“It’s ok, no rush. Come down when ready.”

So I stood up there, alone, as I watched my family and our guide walk around the other side of the building. Suddenly all was quiet around me, and I thought I understood what Humberto meant about the special energy of this place. Standing there, looking out over the jungle canopy, with only a slight breeze moving the air, I felt safe. I felt grounded, yet connected to something larger than me, larger than all of us. I felt my worries melting away. By the time I was ready to go, I was more relaxed than I’d been in years.

Another Ancient Building

The next building we stopped at was smaller than the first, but featured more spectacular carvings on its walls.

“This is a burial site,” Humberto told us.

“How do you know?”

“Se those inverted T-windows? They look down into the Maya Underworld, Xibalba,” he explained.

I never knew that; as much as I read about the ancient Maya over the years, I never understood the T-shaped windows or the inverted ones.

“What about the normal-facing T-windows?” I asked.

“They look up into the sky, they are on buildings of worship,” Humberto answered.

But there was more symbolism on this small building.

On its wall, east of the doorway, we noticed a carved serpent looking out towards the east. He represents the birth of a person, of the Sun, of the Day, of life itself, Humberto told us.

Representations of serpents on a building in Rio Bec.
Representations of serpents on a building in Rio Bec.

On the other side of the building, the serpent looks west. We guessed right; it represents the end of life.

“But only the end of this life,” Humberto added. “For the Maya, death is not the end of anything, only a transition to the next stage. You move on to the next life, the serpent is looking towards the next life.”

“Death is not sad for the Maya, it is a celebration,” he continued. “It only means that the person who died completed his or her journey in this life, moving on to the next. So we celebrate their journey, and wish them well on the next stage.”

On both sides, under each serpent, another image represents two interconnected serpents, forming a stylized circle. The metaphor for the circle of life. Everything is interconnected, everything has a duality in the Maya world, explained Humberto.

Rio Bec. Wall fragment
Wall fragment on the building

A Structure I Recognized from Books

Rio Bec, Campeche, Mexico
Structure in Rio Bec Group B

The next structure we visited was one of the best known of the area, the one I’ve seen pictures of when I was reading about the style used in the surrounding ancient sites. The temple-pyramid in Group B represents the perfect example of the Rio Bec style.

Rio bec style building, at the site with the same name.
This is built in the specific Rio Bec style, its image used to showcase it in books. Of course we had to pose in front of its doorway.

“No one excavated this fully, either,” Humberto said, as he led us to the building.

“It’s beautiful,” I exclaimed, looking at the two symmetrical Rio Bec towers enclosing the central doorway. Their rounded sides were in perfect shape.

The twin towers narrow towards the top, giving the illusion of greater height. From everything I ever read about them, I knew they were considered non-functional. However, Humberto told us something I’ve never heard of. The steep stairways still had a ceremonial or rather superstitious use in the ancient days, specifically for ballplayers.

One of the twin towers at Rio Bec Temple B, with it steep stairs.
One of the twin towers at Rio Bec Temple B, with it steep stairs.

Towards the center of the stairway, Humberto pointed out a niche, big enough for an offering. He showed us, by walking up a few steps, how men, especially ballplayers in the ancient Maya world, used this tower, before a game. They would walk up the steep and narrow stairs holding an offering to one of their gods, while keeping a perfect balance. When they reached the niche, then put the offering in, and asked for protection and strength for their upcoming game. Looking at the steep and narrow stairs they had to climb, I think they already showed their strength.

Rio Bec 2
Humberto showing us how the ancient ballplayers would walk up the steep stairs while holding an offering for the gods.

Humberto picked up some limestone pieces, eroded to sand.

“We use this stone to work on reconstruction. This is what they used when they built it. If we use the same, we can do it right.”

“But they tried using cement before they knew this.” He showed us a small portion of the walls, where the cement was obvious, and falling off already. “See? They ruined a part of the stucco.”

“Did you work at this building, too?” we asked him.

“No, not me, but my nephew did. They didn’t reconstruct much, just cleared it.”

Walking around the site, I noticed a checkerboard image on the sides of the doorways, a motif I’ve seen on many sites, but never knew what it meant. I asked Humberto if he knew what they represented.

“The different layers, the many dimensions of life,” he answered. “Our lives are not only one dimension, and this is how the ancient Maya represented it, by the boxes on different levels.”

Rio Bec. In the jungle of the Yucatan.
The checkerboard motif, common in many ancient Mayan sites, represents the different layers of life.

We Were Not Ready to Leave the Jungle

“This is the last of the building for Rio Bec,” Humberto said.

But we were not ready to leave the jungle. Especially since I heard him mentioning stelae in the jungle; I knew I couldn’t leave without seeing at least one. Stelae, ancient stories written in stone, always fascinate me, and I have trouble passing off an opportunity to see one.

“Wait, didn’t you say there were other ruins in the area?” I asked.

“Yes, many more. But to go there is another tour.”

“We’ll pay you for another tour. Can we do it now, since we are already here?”

He seemed surprised that we asked.

“Ok, I don’t charge you full price if we go now. But I have to ask my nephew if he can go, we need him, too.”

In the end, we agreed that we all had time for a few more ruins buried in the jungle.

More Sites in the Jungle

The next two sites we visited were little more than rubble. We walked through the jungle, on paths I didn’t even see. Humberto stopped a few times, pointing out a specific smell, looking for animals close by. We saw the tracks of wild pigs, smelt them, but saw none.

Ancient structure in the jungle.
Another ancient structure in the jungle we climbed through.

He stopped and picked a ripe fruit. We all shared it, and it was sweeter than anything I’ve ever tasted. He picked leaves from a tree that his people eat when they are hungry.

“Only one leaf gives us energy for a few hours,” he said. I put one away, in case I needed it if we stayed much longer – or if I got lost.

I slowed down and was behind my family and our guide. Though they couldn’t be more than a few feet in front of me, I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t see the trail they followed. I stopped and stood there for a few seconds, enjoying the sounds of the jungle. It occurred to me that it would be so easy to get lost here…

But sound travels far, and soon I followed the sounds of my family ahead of me. We reached another building, still standing, and walked through it.

“As you walk, please don’t touch this wall,” Humberto says, pointing to a wall we walked by. It still had ancient paint on it.

Dzib-il Tun. Humberto’s Ancient Dynasty

Back on the quads, we rode even deeper into the jungle. The trail narrowed, we often rode in the bushes on the side of the path. When we stopped, we couldn’t even park the ATVs next to each other.

We trekked on an invisible path only Humberto knew. I noticed him breaking off branches of bushes and trees on the way, maybe to mark our path. We were walking up a hill, and when we reached the top, Humberto confirmed my guess, when he told us to look back and he declared we climbed to the top of a pyramid.

Walking up a hill in the jungle
We were walking up a hill on a barely discernible path in the jungle.

After passing a few piles of rocks, we reached a stone filled with hieroglyphs laying on the ground, and we stopped.

Glyphs in the jungle
Glyphs in the jungle.

“This is the place of my dynasty,” Humberto said, “where my family originates from.”

We were quiet for a long time after this revelation. I had about a million questions, but couldn’t form one. Yes, the ancient Maya, who built one of the greatest civilizations on Earth, were still around, living quietly in villages, protecting the forests around their homes. I always knew this, yet I’ve never met one who traced his lineage back to ancient times, at least none who cared to share this with us.

I finally asked about the glyphs that he showed us. Tough badly eroded, a few were still barely discernible.

“See, my family name. Dzib Tun.”

Rio Bec stela
Humberto showing us a stela in Dzibil-Tun

“There are over 85 sites in this jungle, all belonging to different ancient dynasties,” he said, when we moved on. “They were our family homes. People in my village are all descendants of those who built these ruins.”

For us, these are the ruins of a great ancient civilization; For the Maya, they are the homes of their ancestors…

Suddenly I felt like an intruder, visiting these sites. Who are we to come here, intrude into these people’s lives, their past, their traditions?

Stela in the jungle
Another stela in the jungle, this one still standing.

Back in the Present-Day Village

We returned to the village where we stopped at Humberto’s house. Now I noticed one of the buildings, with concrete walls, had beautiful murals on its walls. When I asked, I found out that it was the room they held the huipils and embroidered shirts Humberto’s mother made to be sold in markets. I couldn’t leave without taking a look.

As soon as I walked in, all the Maya ladies of the family came in to meet me. I met Humberto’s mother, sister and wife, and I wished for the umptieth time that I spoke their language, spent time with them, embroidering shirts and chatting about life in their village and in the rest of the world.

Even with the lack of real conversation, by the time I walked out, I felt accepted. I no longer felt like an intruder, but more like a family friend. I know we’ll return and visit them again.

A modern Maya home
A modern, though traditional, Maya home, in a village surrounded by the jungle.

FAQ About Rio Bec

  1. What is Rio Bec?

    Rio Bec is an ancient Maya archaeological site in Mexico, as well as an ancient Maya architectural style.

  2. Where is the archaeological site of Rio Bec?

    The ruins of Rio Bec are in the southeast corner of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, near the town of Xpujil.

  3. When were the structures of Rio Bec built?

    The structures in the archaeological site of Rio Bec were built in the Late Classic Period of the ancient Maya civilization, between the 7th and 12th centuries.

  4. What are the main characteristics of the Rio Bec style?

    The Rio Bec style temple-pyramids are low, ranch-style buildings flanked on two sides by very steep, tall pyramids with rounded corners.

  5. What other Maya archaeological sites showcase the Rio Bec style?

    Several structures in the nearby archaeological sites ofBecan, Xpujil, Chicanna, andHormigueroalso showcase the Rio Bec style.

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.

23 thoughts on “Rio Bec: An Amazing Adventure with a Local in the Maya Jungle”

  1. Looks like an out-of-the-book adventure. Or out-of-the-videogames, if you’re a nerd like me hahah! Looks like you had a great time, leaving with a lot of stories to tell. Thanks for sharing such amazing adventure!

  2. Ha ha I can relate to the terrifying experience of being on a quad bike! I tried it in Australia
    and it was quite a ride…the jungle trip looks amazing. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  3. What a great family activity! I’ve taught middle school Social Studies before, and learning about history is so much more powerful when young people have some context and firsthand experience with what they’re learning about! I’ll bet your kids will remember their visit forever!

    1. You are absolutely right! We’ve been taking our kids to these kind of places since they were little, and I can see how much more they learn than just reading this stuff from books! I feel so lucky to be able to take them to places like these.

  4. This is so cool! I’m no expert in Mayan history but the Rio Bec style sounds familiar — are there other ruins sites in the region that are related? It’s amazing how many ruins of what were once major cities are now just hidden in the jungle, off the tourist path even in a place as touristic as the Yucatan.

    1. Yes, there are quite a few other ruins in the area, in the same style. Some are excavated and more visited, like Xpujil, Chicanna or Becan, all in the vicinity. I am always amazed of how many of these ruins still sit in the jungle, known only to locals… apparently just in the jungle we were in they have over 80 of them – pretty impressive.

  5. What an adventure. It must have been like walking back in time! I do hope to experience this part of the world and immerse myself in the ancient structures of the Mayans. They are so fascinating!

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. I don’t know much about the Mayan culture so it was nice learning about them. Mayan were so clever, it’s unbelievable! I’m sure it must have felt great being in a place with so much history.

  7. What an amazing day! I know a few people have already said it but seriously, how special is it that your family gets to share trips like this? (Also, taking a page out of your book the next time I go to Mexico– there’s so much to see off the Lonely Planet path!)

  8. Wow, a really detailed post, thank you. Lovely pictures too – it’s almost like you expect Indiana Jones to come walking around the corner! We live in Panama at the moment and are making plans to visit the Yucatan soon.

  9. Most intriguing is that the jungle is the pharmacy for people who live here. And that what can help can also harm if used in too big a quantity. What an adventure to tour Rio Bec!

  10. Haha this definitely sounds like an adventure … the ride in an ATV just to get there! Glad your daughter made you smile on that journey into the jungle, and boy oh boy, wasn’t it worth it! Such rich Mayan history, I live it! Pinned as I would love to visit here. #feetdotravel

  11. Great article! How is Rio Bec compared to the other similair ruins of Becan, Xpujil, Hormiguero etc?
    As I see the pictures there are no any views from high piramids like in Becan or Calakmul?

    If I have only 2 days in the area, what ruins do you recommend?

    1. Thank you! Becan is definitely larger and it has at least one higher pyramid; we climb done in Rio Bec, to, but it wasn’t extremely high. The draw of this site is its remoteness, and the fact that it is still in the jungle, unexcavated. if you prefer the excavated sites, where you can see all the structures, Becan and Xpujil are definitely the ones to visit. And if you are in the area, but only have two days, I would start with Calakmul; it is much larger than any of the other ones in the area, it has two of the highest pyramids, and you even have plenty of jungle paths, and opportunities to see wildlife. Although you’d have to spend a full day in Calakmul, including getting there. I would recommend Becan next, and Xpujil. But if you have a half a day left, you shoudl consider Rio Bec. Hope this helps.

      1. Thanks! Yes, I think I will heading to Calakmul, and then Becan. If I have enough energy and time I will consider the Rio Bec. You write in a very interesting way. Keep sharing your travels!

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