Xel-Ha Ruins Are Always Worth a Visit When You Are on the Mayan Riviera

As soon as you start driving on the Mayan Riviera, in fact as soon as you land in Cancun, you’ll see signs for Xel-Ha Amusement Park.  I am not talking about that. I have never been in the park, and don’t intend to go. My own principles.

Instead, we always stop at the Ruins of Xel-Ha. I can’t go to Yucatan and not stop there.  I have somewhat of a love affair with the place. It was the first Mayan site I set eyes on, after reading about them and learning to decipher glyphs in my spare time.

Xel-Ha Ruins. House of the Jaguar.

When I first met my husband, he was reading about the Maya.  He attended workshops and studied everything written about them at the time.  When he showed me some pictures of a few sites in the jungles of Yucatan, and told me that excavations are still in progress in most of these places, I was hooked.

As a linguist, I was more intrigued by the glyphs, and I started studying them, until I was able to “read” some.

But we couldn’t visit Yucatan yet.  I was a visitor in the US, and if I crossed the border, I would not have been able to get back. So it wasn’t our first vacation destination.

As soon as we could, after we got married, we were on a plane to Cancun.  So it was our honeymoon, and we spent it sweating, climbing pyramids, wandering around ruins, and staying in tiny, out-of-the-way places. But that’s all another story.

Getting back to Xel-Ha. The first time I saw it, I was in awe.  Not necessarily about the ruins, though they are pretty spectacular for someone who has never seen any before.  What really got me was the paint inside the House of the Jaguar. We could walk inside it at the time, and I kept going in and out, marveling at how clear I could still see some of the images painted on those walls thousands of years ago. I won’t lie, I am sure I touched them.  So now, to protect it from visitors like I was in my twenties, it is closed, you can’t walk inside it. But an iPhone camera’s tiny lens can fit through the holes of the mesh that protects the entrances. So I was still able to take photos now, twenty-three years later.

Main Entrance to the House of the Jaguar

Since that first time, in 1995, Xel-Ha Ruins are still the first stop on our road trips through the Yucatan.

Still, we manage to be the only visitors at the site, even now.

The Ancient City of Xel-Ha

The name of the ancient city comes from Yucatek Maya, combining two words, Xel=spring/inlet and Ha=water. We could translate it into “Water Inlet”, which is just what Xel-Ha Lagoon is, where the waterpark is located now.

In ancient times, Xel-Ha was a port city for the much bigger site, Cobá. Some of its buildings date from as the Early Classic period of the Maya civilizations, as far back as 300-600 AD.  Other structures are more recent.

After it lay abandoned in the jungle by the coast for a few centuries, Stephens and Catherwood stumbled upon them in 1841. They described their journey on the peninsula in the Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published after their return.

Since then, some of the ruins have been reconstructed, but most of them still lay in the jungle.

Walking Through the Site

Before you set out on your adventure to see the ruins, make sure you use bug repellent, and take some with you.  We had to return to the car halfway through, because the mosquitoes were eating us.  I use essential oils for everything (almost), so I have a few different oil combinations that work. But you can find great, natural bug-spray in any supermarket in Yucatan. If you are like us, and only bring carry-ons for vacations, stop and pick one up in Puerto Morelos or anywhere along the road.

Bug warning out of the way, the walk is very pleasant, and mostly shaded, unlike many other sites.

Xel-Ha Ruins trail

On our last visit, I took a beeline to the

Pyramid of the Birds.

I walked fast so the mosquitoes would stay away and as soon as I reached the pyramid, I climbed the few steps leading to the frescoes. Standing right by the highway, with cars were zooming below me,  I couldn’t help but wonder how many people drive past it, rushing to the water park. They don’t even notice it, though all they would have to do is look up.

Pyramid of the Birds. Fresco. Xel-Ha Ruins

 

The frescoes on this pyramid are spectacular. No matter how many times I see them I still never get tired of them.

The Castillo Group

A lower, but much bigger structure, the Castillo is a great place to walk through.  I notice a worker, cleaning the area around it and  realize that it is another sign that they are trying to open it up for more tourists.  I don’t mind, though I’ll miss being able to have the site all to ourselves.

Inside the Castillo at Xel-Ha Ruins.

Walking through the Castillo was pleasant this time.  Usually it is too hot to spend much time in the open, but in January the weather is perfect.

The House of the Jaguar and the Cenote

We decide to take the sacbe, the remnants of the ancient road to the House of he Jaguar instead of returning to the front and walking on the well-maintained trail.

I am surprised when I don’t stumble on the rocks as I usually do when walking on the sacbe.  Then I realize that I am actually walking on a new trail, next to it.  They must have cleared it within the past few months.  It wasn’t there las March when we visited.

The paint on the House of the Jaguar is still as beautiful as ever.  In the winter sunlight it shows up even better than I remember.  The Mayan blue, covering much of the stucco, is one of my favorite colors.

I look through the mesh covering the side doorway opening, and notice that the winter sun makes the painting of the jaguar stand out more than usual. I stand there for a while, admiring it.

The Jaguar Inside the Temple of the Jaguar in Xel-Ha Ruins

 

Then I look over to the clear blue water of the cenote nearby.  We walk down close to the water.  It is pleasant to just sit there, and listen to the birds.

Cenote at Xel-Ha Ruins

In fact, I see one of the blue birds common to the area.  I recognize it as the Mexican bluejay and read up about it.  Believe it or not, it is a crow.  I thought all crows were black. Not in Yucatan. Even the crows are colorful.

Goodbye Xel-Ha, Until Next Time

We spent more time in Xel-Ha than usual.  Since we are always flexible when we travel, it didn’t matter.  The weather was much nicer than we ever experienced it on the hot and humid peninsula.

I am excited to see how much they clear it by next time we go.  It might be a few years, we have other destinations in mind for a while, but I know that we will be back.  Though relatively small, this site is always going to be one of my favorites.

 

This post is for The Weekly Postcard Blog Link-Up Travel Notes & Beyond

Starting the New Year with a Trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

One of my favorite destinations, Yucatan is a place I can visit multiple times a year.  Which we did this time, returning after only a few months.  We were there in the spring of 2017, and we set off for the same destination once again, on New Year’s Eve.

View from the Top of Nohuch Mul, Cobá
View from one of the tallest pyramids of the peninsula, in Cobá. I have never seen the surrounding forest this green before. It’s winter, the wet season.

Air Travel on the Day of New Year’s Eve

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we set off to the airport on the morning of New Year’s Eve.  It was my birthday, and it was the second year that I spent half my birthday traveling.

Last year we were driving back from a short trip, but this time we were flying away for a week.  I’ve never been on a plane on a Holiday.  We try to avoid it, when we can.  However, this time it just worked out with our “free” tickets.  We travel on points many times, since we do have frequent flier miles and credit cards that add flying points from purchases.

The airport was almost deserted.  Getting through security was a breeze, and the flight itself was one of the most pleasant I have experienced in a long time.  The plane was half empty.

Since they had no stress that comes with crowded planes, too many different people to please, the stewardesses were at their most pleasant.  We could sit wherever we wanted, taken a whole row if we felt like it. When we commented on how we’ve never been on a plane so empty, and didn’t expect to be on one on a Holiday, the stewardess commented,

“Yes, because everyone thinks they don’t want to travel on New Year’s Eve.  You should not think like everyone.”

We landed on time, got our rental car, and by dinnertime, we were in Puerto Morelos, where I did make a reservation in a hotel, knowing that it might get booked.  We rarely make reservations, but this time I was glad I did.  It was the only way we got a room.  Though we could’ve slept on the beach, the weather was perfect, and there are no bugs by the ocean.

New Year’s Eve in Puerto Morelos

Once we got our room, we set off for dinner.  Our favorite restaurant, on the beach, was more crowded than I ever saw it, and they was closing for the night.

We stopped at one of the other ones we knew from the old days.  It was half-empty.

“Do you have reservations?”, asked the greeter.  We didn’t, so we couldn’t stay.

The same thing happened in two other restaurants.

We finally decided that we would eat some street food or a cliff bar for New Year’s Eve dinner.  But we walked around some more, off the main square.  We didn’t hope for much, all the restaurants that lined the streets were full.

Still, we stopped and asked if they had a table available at another one of the smaller restaurants we ate at in the past. Yes, they did, if we gave them a minute to set it up.  They moved a few chairs, and tables around, then invited us to sit.

Someone at a neighboring table tried to order two different things they didn’t have. We looked at each other and smiled. “Here we go again.” When our waiter got there, we asked,

“What do you have on the menu?”

“Almost everything”, he answered.  “Except coconut shrimp and any chicken.”

We still had a few choices. They did have fish, and that’s what I cared about. We were in a fishing village on the sea, after all.

The New Year’s celebration at midnight was subdued.  We watched kids lined up in front of a piñata in the shape of a person with 2017 written on it. They took turns hitting it, until it opened.  We weren’t close enough to see, but I think they had to break free the New Year, 2018.

A Week of Exploring Old and New Places on the Peninsula

 
We stopped at Xel-Ha Ruins, though I feel like I know every structure,  every stone and tree there.  It was the Mayan site I have ever seen, and as such, it will always have a special place in my hearth. We spent a few hours there, before moving on to our next destination. 
We always stop at Muyil (Chunyaxche), no matter how busy it gets (and it is still not too bad, once we pass Tulum).  The combination of great structures and a jungle walk makes it a treat. 
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
 
It was dinnertime when we arrived to Siiyil Noh-Ha. After settling in our hut, we climbed the Mirador – Lookout Tower – and enjoyed the view of the jungle canopy around us.
 
“We only have shrimp ceviche tonight”, our host told us, when we sat down for dinner. I never had it before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but didn’t have a choice.  We ordered one to share and I found my new favorite Yucatecan food. 
 
After two days in the middle of nowhere, with very limited phone and no internet service, we drove to Coba.  Two days exploring the ruins and the the town was perfect, while we tried to figure out what we would want to do next.
 
We found a great deal in a hotel we knew, so we returned to Chichen Itza. I know, I did say that I was done with the place, but it ended up being much more pleasant than I expected.  That is because we only used it for a base, to explore the back roads, the small towns, little-known ruins, places that we haven’t seen yet.  Yes, we still found some of those, close to the well-known and busy Wonder of the World.
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town
 

Another Great Trip to Yucatan

 
By the time we were ready to get home, we felt that we did a lot, once again. We didn’t swim much, except one day, since it was actually cold in Yucatan.  Relatively cold, meaning very pleasant for hiking and climbing pyramids.  
 
We explored sites we didn’t know existed.  Small sites, but still impressive, where we were the only visitors. 
 
We met volunteers who were cleaning another site. We talked to a Mayan who told us stories about the Caste War, the site and working with a renowned archaeologist I admire. I bought a beautiful huipil-like shirt made by his wife I met. 
 
We climbed cleared pyramids, and one that only has a trail leading up to the top, and is still covered by vegetation. 
 
We walked through the jungle and explored a colonial town we have never been in, where no one spoke English.  
 
As always, we left with plans to return soon.