Visiting Edzná: The House of the Itzaes

Last Updated on: 28th July 2023, 11:03 pm

Deep in the jungle, about 50 km southeast of Campeche, lies the once-mighty city of Edzná, one of Mexico’s most under-appreciated Mayan ruins. Known for its unique five-story pyramid, the site is not only well-preserved, but it gets just a fraction of the tourists of places like Uxmal. Those visiting Edzná in the early morning, in fact, can expect to have these fascinating ruins all to themselves.

For more information on visiting Edzná from Campeche and where to stay in the city, be sure to check the very end of the article.

Edzná: A Brief History

Edzná was settled as early as 600 BC, likely thanks to easy water access. Beginning as a small agricultural community, locals started building a series of canals and reservoirs from around 250 BC, and the city quickly thrived.

But after centuries of exponential growth, Edzná began to mysteriously shrink from around the year 150 AD. Things would then remain relatively quiet for centuries.

Throughout much of the Late Classic period (600-900), Edzná was under the dominion of Calakmul, a former powerful capital located in southern Campeche. And it was during this time that work would take place on the Great Acropolis and the ‘Building of the Five Stories’ for which the site is known today.

Interestingly, despite the quality of the monumental architecture from this time, the city would never again reach the size or population it had peaked at centuries prior.

From roughly 800-1000 AD, Edzná would be ruled by the Itzá family (best known for their glorious capital Chichén Itzá). But all local residents at the time were referred to as ‘Itzaes’ by outsiders, giving the city its name Edzná, or ‘House of the Itzaes.’

Notably, the structures from this period represent the Puuc style of architecture (best represented by sites like Uxmal), making this the southernmost of all the Puuc sites in Mexico.

Based on radiocarbon dating, Edzná is believed to have fallen in the 10th century, though archaeologists aren’t quite sure why. In any case, like many Mayan cities past their prime, Edzná would continue to function as a religious pilgrimage destination for many years.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Visiting Edzná: The Western Ruins

Arriving at the site, you’ll encounter a small hut featuring numerous stelae discovered throughout the ancient city. But as you’ll also pass through on the way back, let’s focus on the main site for now. (Check the end of the article for more information on the stelae.) 

It’s also near the entrance that you’ll encounter a fork in the road, with one path leading to a distant temple known as the Vieja Hechicera, or the ‘Old Sorceress.’ But as this path was closed at the time of my visit, we won’t be covering that section of the ruins.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

The first section of the city visitors encounter is known as the Courtyard of the Ambassadors. And it was likely here that foreign dignitaries were first welcomed by the Edzná elite.

The courtyard consists of numerous structures – including one with columns – surrounding a circular platform in the center.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Further east is the Platform of the Knives, a residential complex named after flint knives that archaeologists discovered here. It was built in the Late Classic period (600-900 AD) and is just one of many structures around Edzná to have been built in the Puuc style.

While hardly evident at first glance, it once contained no less than 20 rooms.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Nearby, you’ll see the spacious main plaza, along which runs a massive structure known as Nohoch Na, or the ‘Large House.’  The structure is a staggering 135 m long and consists of 15 steps along its side that reach up to 9 m off the ground.

Interestingly, it’s reminiscent of the Petén (current-day Guatemala) style of architecture, a region which Edzná had frequent contact with during its early boom period.

But instead of walking across the main plaza, return to the Courtyard of the Ambassadors area and head south, walking along Nohoch Na’s opposite side.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

It’s here that you’ll find numerous interesting structures, including a large circular building. While the landmark is unlabelled, the Mayans tended to build circular buildings for astronomical observations.

Walking along the back of Nohoch Na, you’ll see how it once contained multiple rooms at the top, likely used for administrative purposes.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Heading further south, you’ll arrive at a small pyramid, appropriately dubbed by archaeologists as the Temple of the South. And it stands right next to Edzná’s ball court, something few Mesoamerican cities lack.

The Mesoamerican ball game was highly ritualistic and symbolic, though it was also competitive. While rules varied from region to region, teams generally tried to get a heavy rubber ball through small stone hoops without using their hands. 

Part of one of the original rings remains here, though much of it is missing.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

Further south still is a fascinating structure called the Temple of the Masks. Along its lower wall, you’ll spot two plaster faces representing the Mayan sun god, albeit at two distinct phases: sunrise and sunset.

The faces were originally painted red, though green was used for their jade earplugs. Notably, the masks here are similar to those at the Temple of the Masks at the site of Kohunlich, Quintana Roo – not far from Calakmul. 

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Further east is the Little Acropolis, an artificial platform which reaches five meters off the ground. Measuring 70 m on each side, it contains four temples precisely oriented to the cardinal directions.

Considered one of the oldest surviving parts of Edzná, it dates to the Early Classic period (300-600 AD) and was originally built in the Petén style of Guatemela.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

Some of the oldest stones were then reused during later reconstructions. And somewhat mysteriously, during the Postclassic period (1200-1530 AD), well after the city’s fall, religious pilgrims placed numerous stelae found all around the city at this acropolis.

While most are now gone, as mentioned above, they can be seen within the hut near the site entrance (more below).

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Finished with Edzná’s minor structures, it’s time to move on to the main event: the Great Acropolis. Returning to the main plaza and ascending its central staircase, be sure to turn around to take in the view of the Nohoc Na in all its glory.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

The Great Acropolis

Unlike the ancient Greek acropolises that were built atop natural hills, the term ‘acropolis’ here refers to an entirely manmade platform. And its truly massive, measuring out to around 170 m on each side and containing no less than ten structures.

The buildings here have also been aligned to the cardinal points, with the main pyramid facing west.

For those who’ve arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds, you’ll have to point your camera toward the sun to photograph the pyramid straight on. But if you have the patience to wait a few more hours, the lighting should eventually improve significantly.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

Commonly known as the Building of the Five Stories, or simply the ‘Palace,’ there’s nothing quite like this pyramid elsewhere in the Mayan world. The Mayans built other stepped pyramids at places like Chichén Itzá, of course, but this one uniquely features rooms at every level, adding up to 27 in total.

The closest thing to it in Mexico would probably be the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajín, Veracruz. But that was built by a different civilization in a distant part of the country.

The view from the Southwest Temple

The Building of the Five Stores reaches up to 31.5 meters at its highest point. And in addition to simply facing west, it was aligned so that all its rooms would be illuminated by the light of the setting sun each year on May 1 and August 13. 

While we’re not completely sure why, the dates may have had some important agricultural significance. 

Visiting Edzná Ruins
The Temple of the North

As you’ll notice, there are numerous other structures around the acropolis from which to view the pyramid. In the morning, the best views are from atop the southern buildings known as the House of the Moon and the Southwest Temple.

On the northern side of the acropolis, meanwhile, is the Temple of the North. Established as early as the 4th century AD, it was built over a few centuries later. The upper temple was then added to during yet another construction phase before being remodeled sometime after 1100.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

At the time of my visit, those visiting Edzná could climb atop all of the structures – except for the House of the Five Stories itself, that is. While I did see a couple of people ascend to the top, they appeared to be either archaeologists or maybe a tourist and private guide with special permission.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

At the time of writing, the average visitor will only be able to get as close as the base of the staircase. But it’s here that one can observe an interesting series of well-preserved Mayan hieroglyphs.

While the last date inscribed here is 731 AD, the pyramid likely saw later renovations. Taking a look at the top, the upper temple resembles structures found at Becan and in the Puuc region, suggesting multiple stages of development.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

Having seen all the permitted areas, I considered calling it a day. But after the pair who’d climbed to the top of the pyramid went on their way, the Great Acropolis and Edzná as a whole remained completely empty for quite some time.

Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn’t resist checking out the pyramid from its opposite side.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

From the other sides, the Building of the Five Stories looks like an entirely different structure. Instead of neatly lined rooms at every level, you’ll instead find interesting curved shapes protruding from its multiple tiers.

Visiting Edzná Ruins

The structure features three additional main staircases in addition to a couple of smaller ones. As clean and modern as the pyramid appears from the front, its backside is a chaotic and seemingly random mix of shapes. But this only add to its intrigue.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins

Leaving the Great Acropolis, visitors can exit through the Northwest corner via a building known as the Puuc Patio. As the name suggests, it contains Puuc-style geometric motifs.

For those doing further travels throughout the region, the Puuc style is best appreciated at sites like Uxmal and Kabah

Visiting Edzná Ruins

This patio, which almost feels like its own small acropolis, is likely where high-ranking officials of Edzná lived. And heading back toward the entrance, you’ll once again pass by another former residence, the Palace of the Knives, before coming full-circle.

All in all, the archaeological site could be considered medium in size, and visiting Edzná shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. But the rare treat of being able to enjoy the ruins in silence will make many visitors want to linger for longer.

Visiting Edzná Ruins
Visiting Edzná Ruins
The Puuc Patio
Visiting Edzná Ruins

Edzná's Stelae

As mentioned above, numerous stelae were uncovered at Edzná – as many as 32 in total. But while they were originally placed all over the site, religious pilgrims would later move most of them to the Little Acropolis.

Today, you can find many of them on display in a small hut near the ruins entrance. They depict former rulers of the city as well as a ceremony related to the sacred ball game.

Additionally, you can also find a serpent head, much like those discovered throughout Chichén Itzá.

The San Miguel Fort & Archaeology Museum

Those staying in Campeche shouldn’t miss a visit to the San Miguel Fort, which houses one of the finest Mayan museums in the country. While most of the artifacts here come from sites like Calakmul and Becan, you’ll find a few Edzná items as well.

Artifacts include a small altar depicting a former female ruler from the 7th century in the company of a dwarf. A large stele, meanwhile, depicts another powerful 7th-century ruler – this time a king.

Edzná Stelae
Edzná Stelae

Additional Info

Getting to Edzná from central Campeche is easy. Regular colectivos run from the city center directly to the entrance of the ruins and the ride lasts a little under an hour.

The colectivo stop is located southeast of the walled city, a block south of the Baluarte de San Pedro and just east of the main market. You’ll find it on a side street off of Calle Nicaragua (the stop is clearly marked on the app).

For those who want to arrive at the ruins at opening time at 8:00 in the morning, the first colectivo conveniently departs around 7:00. The ride costs $40 MXN at the time of writing.

Getting back is a bit trickier – or at least it was in my case. Arriving at the ruins, the driver assured me that I could just wait by the ruins entrance and a Campeche-bound bus would appear each hour.

But after I was finished with visiting Edzná, I waited and waited by the entrance and nothing came. Finally one did, but it turned out to be heading in the opposite direction. After an hour had passed, I began to doubt whether all the Campeche-bound buses really made the slight detour to stop here.

And so, despite the sweltering heat, I decided to walk a little while to the nearest point along the highway, where I’d be able to see all Campeche-bound vehicles passing by.

Luckily, one appeared just five minutes after I got there. I can’t be certain, though, whether or not it had actually stopped at the ruins entrance just prior.

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of public transport or would prefer to be guided by a local expert, consider this highly-rated and reasonably-priced guided tour from Campeche.

I stayed at Hotel Maya Becan, which I’d recommend to those looking for an affordable private room in a convenient area. While not located within the walled city, it was just five minutes or so from the entrance, making it easy to reach most sites of the main sites in Campeche on foot.

With tax included, I paid about $420 MXN ($20 USD) per night, and my room included a private bathroom with air conditioning.

It was just a couple minutes on foot from the colectivo stop for visiting Edzná, and it was also a fairly easy walk to the Sur bus terminal to travel onward to Xpujil.

As the capital of the state of the same name, Campeche is well-connected by bus with many other cities throughout the region.

Buses depart regularly from Mérida, with the journey taking just a few hours. You can also find direct buses from Cancún and Ciudad del Carmen (not to be confused with Playa del Carmen).

Campeche has two main bus stations: ADO and Sur. The ADO station is too far from the center to walk, though a taxi should only cost you $50 MXN.

The Sur terminal is located about 15 minutes on foot east of the center, and this is the station you’ll want to go to for direct buses to Xpujil, the nearest town to Calakmul.

Note that you can find Mérida-bound buses at both bus stations.

Campeche also has a small airport with connections to Mexico City.

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