Inside of the House of the Jaguar. Xel-Ha Ruins, QR

Xel-Ha Ruins – Off the Beaten Track on the Maya Riviera

Xel-Ha Ruins have nothing to do with the amusement park in the Xel-Ha Lagoon. Thousands of tourists visit Xel-Ha Park, but even in January of 2024 very few of them stop at the archaeological site across the street. Hidden in plain site on the busiest stretch of the highway on the Maya Riviera.

Understandable, since the site if fairly small and although they changed the old sign to a larger, clearer one, most visitors of the Maya Riviera don’t pay attention to the small Xel-Ha ruins along the highway.

However, we are usually in search of Maya ruins on the peninsula, and try to avoid well-known tourist destinations. I have never been at the park, and don’t intend to go. I’ve snorkeled in Xel-Ha lagoon in the early 1990s, before it became a huge attraction. We only shared it with a few locals, no tourists even knew about it. It was the first place I remember where they asked us not to wear sunscreen and shower before getting in the crystal-clear water. They took its protection seriously; I can only hope they still do.

Now, instead of trying to fight the tourists for a spot at the lagoon, we stop at Xel-Ha ruins, the archaeological site on the other side of the highway. Even now, after so many years of revisiting the ruins, I can’t drive through the Yucatan Peninsulawithout stopping there. It’s an old love affair with Xel-Ha Ruins, the first Maya site I set eyes on.

House of the Jaguar at Xel-Ha Ruins
The House of the Jaguar

My Honeymoon in Yucatan

When I first met my husband, he was reading about the Maya. He attended workshops and studied everything written about them at the time. Soon after we started dating, he showed me pictures of a few sites in the jungles of Yucatan and told me that excavations were 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. I could recognize glyphs, I learned about most of the excavated and known sites, I learned a lot about ancient Maya history.

But I couldn’t visit Mexico and the Yucatan yet. I was in the US on a visitor visa, which didn’t allow me to return once I left the country.

When we eventually got married, the Yucatan was our honeymoon destination. The sites I visited on that trip far exceeded my expectations. During my first trip to Mexico, I fell in love with the place.

We spent our honeymoon sweating, climbing pyramids, wandering around ruins, and staying in tiny, out-of-the-way places, and having the time of our lives.

Xel-Ha Ruins was the first Mayan site I set eyes on

One of the first places we stopped after our first night in Puerto Morelos was Xel-Ha Ruins Archaeological Site. 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 enter 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.

Main Entrance to the House of the Jaguar
The 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 peninsula.

Even in 2024, we still managed to be the only visitors at the site, though I’m not sure for how long. But for now, we enjoy it.

The Ancient City of Xel-Ha

One of the ancient Maya archaeological sites in Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan Peninsula, Xel-Ha Ruins were built as a port city, connected to and serving the much larger site of Cobá.

The name of the ancient city reflects this. It originates in 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.

According to archaeologists, Xel-Ha was a great commercial port between 600 and 1200 AD. However, it was occupied since early times, and until later.

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.

Xel-Ha Ruins Today

You can visit three groups of structures at Xel-Ha Ruins, connected by a shaded trail through the forest.

The Palace Group and the Pajaros (Pyramid of the Birds) are close to each other, while the third one, with the House of the Jaguar, is near the cenote.

We usually start exploring the site at the Pyramid of the Birds.

The Pyramid of the Birds

The Pyramid of the Birds.
On the Pyramid of the Birds. Beyond the trees is the highway…

The structure, a small pyramid, consists of a platform with the remains of rooms on top. The most interesting – and my favorite – feature is the wall on top, with frescoes on each side. While we used to be able to get close to them, this is no longer possible, but they are clear even from a short distance.

The Pajaros, or birds on the north side of this wall, gave the pyramid its name. The birds, mostly red – are encased in two rectangular panel, bordered with red.

On the other (north) side of the wall, a different mural depicts a mural of a warrior in full regalia, and a checkerboard pattern in red and yellow.

The reason we see these murals is that this structure is an older version of this pyramid, encased in a newer one that eventually fell apart. It is one of the earliest structure at Xel-Ha, built in the Early Classic period of the Maya civilization.

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

Pyramid of the Birds. Fresco.
The fresco of birds that gave the Pyramid of the Birds its name

Standing on the small pyramid 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.

The Castillo or Palace Group

The Palace group consists of two main structures, the Mercado and the Palacio. The remains of both are platforms with lower walls on top.

The Castillo or Palacio is the larger of the two, a great structure to walk through. The mercado looks like it might have had columns.

Inside the Castillo at Xel-Ha Ruins
Inside the Castillo, walking through a maze of stone walls.

I noticed a worker during one of our latest trips, cleaning the area around it. Another sign that they are trying to open it up for more tourists. I’ll miss being able to have the site all to ourselves.

Walking through the Castillo was pleasant in January. Other times we visited, in spring, it is too hot to spend much time in the open.

The House of the Jaguar

A new trail near the sacbe (the remnants of the ancient road) leads to the next group, dominated by the House of the Jaguar.

This group consists of the House of the Jaguar and several smaller structures, around a plaza, near the cenote.

Casa del Jaguar, or house of the Jaguar was my favorite structure at Xel-Ha when I first visited the site. At the time they allowed visitors to enter it, and I walked through its rooms (felt like a maze), and had a close-up look at the paintings on its walls. Some of the paintings are visible through the mesh that now protects them, but it is harder to take a photo of them.

The House of the Jaguar has two intact columns at the doorway, and above the doorway you can still see inset panels with paint on them, one with clearly visible red handprints.

Other structures in this group consist of a small shrine, and a larger structure on top of a low platform.

The Jaguar Inside the Temple of the Jaguar
You can still see parts of the jaguar painted in ancient times; his tail and paws on top, his head on the bottom.

The Cenote

A crystal-clear cenote surround by trees is near the House of the jaguar group. We like to sit on its shore, listening to the birds.

We see many of the blue birds common to the area. I recognized 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.

Cenote at Xel-Ha Ruins
The cenote by the House of the Jaguar

Walking Through the Site

No matter the season, before you set out on your adventure to see the ruins, make sure you use bug repellent, and take some with you. There were times when we had to return to the car halfway through because the mosquitoes were eating us, and we forgot the repellent. 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.

Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are also useful when walking through Xel-Ha Ruins, and don’t forget to take water. Although the site is small, and many of the trails are shaded, you will still spend time in the sun.

Xel-Ha Ruins trail
The shaded trail at the ruins of Xel-Ha.

Leaving Xel-Ha Ruins, Until Next Time

During out winter visits, we spend more time in Xel-Ha than usual, since it is more pleasant; The weather is much nicer than we ever experienced it before on the hot and humid peninsula.

Update in January 2024: We stopped at Xel-Ha Ruins during our latest trip to the peninsula. Though many more things changed since our latest visit (right before CoVid), Xel-Ha ruins were still the same. We were once again the only visitors at the site, though one car stopped while we were leaving. The site is still hidden plain sight along the busy highway.


  1. Where are the Xel-Ha Ruins?

    The Xel-Ha ruins and archaeological site is on the Yucatan peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. You’ll find them off the road on Highway 307, 122 km south of Cancun, 30 km past Playa del Carmen, and 13 km north of Tulum. If you are driving from Cancun, the entrance is on the right, before you reach the entrance to the Xel-Ha Eco-Park.

  2. Is it worth visiting the Xel-Ha Ruins?

    Though you won’t find large pyramids or spectacular structures in Xel-Ha, the site is still worth a stop. Easily accessible, it is still remote enough to get few visitors. Overshadowed by the nearby Xel-Ha Eco-Park, most people pass by it on the way to its famous namesake. Because of this, you’ll most likely find yourself alone at the site, with iguanas for company. The structures still have ancient paint and discernible images on them. Within the site, you’ll find a beautiful, deep cenote by one of the greatest structures, shaded by trees.

  3. How old are the structures at Xel-Ha Archaeological site?

    Some of the oldest structures in the ruins of Xel-Ha date from 300-600 AD, but the Maya used the site mainly between 600-1100.

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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