The overlooked ruins of Comalcalco in Tabasco state are remarkable for a couple of reasons. Not only did they mark the very western edge of the Mayan civilization, but Comalcalco is the only Mayan city to have been built of brick instead of stone. The ruins are both well-preserved and largely void of crowds, making them a must for those passing through Tabasco.
Be sure to check the end of the article for info on reaching the ruins and where to stay in Villahermosa.
Comalcalco: A Brief History
As is the case with many Mayan cities, Comalcalo’s early days are largely a mystery. However, considering how the Olmecs, the Mesoamerican ‘mother civilization,’ lived very close by, the region was likely inhabited since as early as 800 BC.
Comalcalco then became a proper Mayan city from around 250 AD at the beginning of the Classic Period. In ancient times it was known as ‘Joy Chan,’ or ‘Surrounded by Heaven.’
But despite being fully Mayan, Comalcalco and its surroundings lacked something that all other Mayan cities had: stone.
The city’s original inhabitants instead used compacted earth which they then covered with stucco made from carbonized shells. They then began using kilned bricks around 500 AD, held together with mortar also made from crushed oyster shells.
Interestingly, with the stucco coverings long gone, visitors to the ruins today can observe both of these construction phases, sometimes in a single building.
Not only was Comalcalco the only Mayan city to use brick, but archaeologists discovered that many of the bricks were etched with designs, including animals, people and hieroglyphs. Incredibly, as many as 10,000 bricks have been found with designs etched in them before being placed in the fire.
Not long ago, one brick in particular caused quite a stir, as it was found inscribed with the Baktun (Mayan Long Count) date of 184.108.40.206.0 4 Ahau 3 Kankin, or December 21, 2012. If you’ll recall, there were countless theories and doomsday prophecies in the lead-up to 2012, and the Comalcalco brick discovery only added fuel to the fire.
Obviously, nothing happened on that date and the hype surrounding 2012 is now remembered in the same vein as the Y2K scare. But did the Mayans themselves really believe the world was supposed to end in 2012? It’s highly unlikely, as an inscription at Palenque even mentions the date 4772 AD!
Speaking of Palenque, Comalcalco likely served as an outpost of the mighty city for much of its early history. And it wouldn’t have just marked the western border of Palenque’s territory, but that of the Mayan civilization as a whole.
Comalcalco, however, would outlast Palenque, with many of the capital’s residents migrating there after the city’s fall in the 8th century.
From the 6th-10th centuries, Comalcalco was considered one of the most important cities in the northwest part of the Mayan world, and it wouldn’t be fully abandoned until around 1350.
Long after its fall, nearby residents would use bricks from the ruins in the construction of their own homes. As you’ll see during your visit, however, a good chunk of the original city remains intact.
Comalcalco is open daily. While the official hours are listed as 8:00-16:00, the site didn’t open until 10:00 at the time of my visit in 2022. Entry costs $75 MXN at the time of writing. (Learn more about reaching the ruins below).
Just past the ticket gate, you’ll find the on-site museum. Sadly, like a majority of the on-site museums I encountered at Mexican archaeological sites, it was closed. Hopefully you’ll have better luck during your visit.
Past the museum, you’ll walk down a long forested path before Comalcalco’s unique brick pyramid comes into view on your left-hand side. Known as Temple 1, this was the city’s largest and most important structure.
Temple 1 & the North Plaza
If you’re going out of your way to visit a site as obscure as Comalcalco, you’ve likely already been to several Mayan ruins before. And after having visited other sites, it’s rather surreal to see this Mayan-style pyramid made of brown brick instead of gray limestone.
Coming around the corner, you’ll encounter a long stretch of preserved stucco decoration which likely dates to the 8th century AD. While hard to make out, archaeologists have spotted what they believe to be a winged frog.
Frogs have long been associated with rain and rain deities in ancient Mesoamerica, suggesting what type of rituals may have taken place here.
Temple 1 consists of twelve tiers and is currently 28 m high, though it would’ve been slightly taller with its original two-room temple intact. Notably, it was originally oriented east toward the rising sun.
While climbing has long been forbidden, the spacious North Plaza offers plenty of views from which to see the pyramid in its entirety.
The plaza stretches out to 10,720 m, and would’ve once been entirely lined with temples. Only the ones on either side near the pyramid have been exposed, however.
Interestingly, archaeologists have pointed out the similarities between the layout of these temples and those of Palenque’s Cross Group.
Facing the pyramid from the center of the plaza, to your left is Temple III, constructed with a foundation of earth held together with stucco. You can then see a brick portion on top from a later construction phase.
No less than fourteen urns were found here, most likely belonging to members of the local elite.
To the right, meanwhile, is Temple II, a similar structure where human remains were found as well. While not accessible via the central staircase, visitors can climb up the side of the mound for more amazing views of Pyramid I and the North Plaza as a whole.
As you can see, the North Plaza still contains a myriad of untouched mounds, and one can only imagine what the site would look like if it were fully excavated.
In the distance, you can also spot the Acropolis, the other main section of the Comalcalco ruins which is where you should head next.
The Great Acropolis
The Great Acropolis, which likely would’ve been an exclusive zone for the Comalcalco elite, contains no less than seven temples and an extensive royal palace. Visitors disappointed to find Palenque’s palace completely off-limits will be delighted to have full access to this one.
You can either immediately make a left and head toward the palace, or first head straight south along the bottom edge of the complex, which is what I did.
Those who choose the latter option will encounter the Tomb of the Nine Chieftains on their left, recognizable for its vaulted entrance. Nine stucco relief figures adorn the walls, possibly representing the Nine Lords of the Underworld of Mayan cosmology.
At the southern edge of the Acropolis, you’ll reach a spacious plaza surrounded by multitiered structures. And a staircase then leads you to uppermost portion of the complex.
(Sadly, while this portion of Comalcalco does contain some informational signage, the signs are so weathered that they’ve become completely ineligible!)
Heading up the steps, the path will take you north and then down into the main palace.
The long palace stretches out to 80 m long by 8 m wide. Consisting of long vaulted galleries, it was possibly adorned with a roof comb in Mayan times, though no decorations have survived.
As mentioned, Comalcalco’s Acropolis contains not just a palace but multiple temples, some of which were built in the Palenque style. The area also featured a council house and a temazcal, or traditional Mesoamerican steam bath.
Additionally, you’ll also find a chultun, or traditional Mayan water tank, as well as a sunken courtyard where numerous important ceremonies would’ve taken place.
At the northern edge of the Acropolis, you can also enjoy a spectacular view of Temple 1 in the distance with what are known as Temples VI-VIII in the foreground.
Just to the west of the main Acropolis is a cluster of three interesting temples, the first of which is Temple VI. Dedicated to Itzamná, the Mayan creator god, the temple consists of three tiers and features a well-preserved stucco mask of the deity.
In the center is Temple 7, or the Temple of Venus, with stucco depicting seated figures. All the way at the end, meanwhile, is Temple 8, or the Temple of the Jaguar.
Temple XII & Beyond
There’s still one more temple accessible to the public at Comalcalco. Known as Temple XII, it lies to the south of the complex and you already would’ve seen it from above when walking along the Acropolis.
Little information exists on the structure – either on-site or online – but it’s a secluded and well-preserved temple that’s accessible via a forested path. Surely, there’s a lot more to it that will be revealed with future excavations.
While no excavations seem to be currently taking place at Comalcalco, archaeologists are aware of an entire additional area known as the East Acropolis, but it has yet to be fully uncovered.
Its unique bricks aside, given its size and historical importance, Comalcalco certainly deserves a lot more attention from both archaeologists and the public.
Comalcalco is just about an hour’s drive from the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa. But reaching the archaeological site can be a little confusing for those not from the area. Luckily, the day trip is much more straightforward than it first seems.
Most travelers arriving in Villahermosa do so at the main ADO bus station. Naturally, most people are first going to check the ADO website for the timetable for Comalcalco. And there is indeed a bus listed (run by AU) – but just one per day at 7:00 am!
Fortunately, you don’t need to bother with this bus at all, as just a few blocks north of the ADO station is a small station of the Comalli Plus company, which runs regular buses between Villahermosa and Comalcalco throughout the day.
While they don’t have a set timetable, buses from both cities depart every forty minutes or so, so you shouldn’t have a problem catching a ride there and back.
The bus won’t take you right up to the ruins, however, but to the modern town of Comalcalco. The ruins are about an hour away on foot but just about ten minutes away by taxi, which you should be able to hail for around $50 MXN.
If all that sounds like a hassle, or if you’d just prefer the expertise of a local guide, consider booking this tour online.
Villahermosa has a small domestic airport with flights coming in from Mexico City, Guadalajara and a few other locations.
If renting a car is not an option, most people are likely to visit by bus from Palenque, a journey which takes just a couple of hours.
Villahermosa’s ADO bus station is quite large, and if you’re coming from farther away, you should be able to find direct connections from a wide variety of cities. You can check the ADO website for more details as well as schedules.
Leaving Villahermosa, I took a direct bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a long ride that lasts over six hours.
As most coach buses between San Cristóbal and Palenque now take the long route via Villahermosa due to safety reasons, the Tabasco state capital is a logical place to break up your journey.
Villahermosa is a medium-sized city and the attractions mentioned above are all walkable from the center (or with a quick cab ride). Fortunately, the main bus station is centrally located and is also walkable from the center of town.
If you’re also planning to visit Comalcalco, I’d recommend staying somewhere within walking distance of the main bus station (as mentioned, the Comalli Plus company which runs buses there is just north of the ADO Station).
I stayed at an Airbnb called Centric Suite, which was well-located and had fast internet, but was rather noisy at night.