Located around 50 km from Mérida near the town of Maxcanu, Oxkintok is one of the more obscure Mayan archaeological sites. But it’s arguably among the best.
The extensive ruins are home to multiple pyramids and even an ancient labyrinth, while just a few kilometers away is the fascinating Calcehtok Cave, where important Mayan rituals took place for centuries.
Out of all the accessible Mayan sites in Mexico, Oxkintok is easily the ‘wildest.’ While some of the structures have been fully excavated, some remain partially covered in overgrowth, allowing you to feel how an adventurer from a few centuries ago might’ve when stumbling across the ruins.
The current accessible archaeological zone is actually only a fraction of Oxkintok’s original urban sprawl. Looking off into the distance in any direction, you’ll spot numerous untouched mounds that were clearly manmade.
For more information on reaching the Oxkintok ruins from Mérida, be sure to check the very end of the article.
Visiting The Ruins of Oxkintok
Oxkintok lies about 6 km from the town of Maxcanu. Even though the road is a bit rough, you shouldn’t have trouble getting a local rickshaw driver to take you there (more below).
Before your visit, understand that the site is teeming with swarms of tiny mosquitos that won’t leave you alone for a moment as you explore the ruins. You’ll probably want to come prepared with bug spray.
Even if you’re the type who rarely gets bit, the mosquitos can be highly annoying. Then again, they only add to Oxkintok’s wild, off-the-beaten path feel.
At the time of writing, entrance to the main site costs $65 MXN. As we’ll cover further below, visitors to the nearby Calcehtok Cave must be accompanied by the ruins caretakers, with whom you’ll have to negotiate a price.
The Oxkintok Archaeological Zone is divided into several different areas, or groups. And just near the official entrance is the Dzib group, which is home to some of the site’s most ancient structures.
Some of the manmade plazas, in fact, date back to 300 BC – just a few centuries after the site was initially settled. That makes Oxkintok one of the oldest-ever Mayan sites!
At the edge of the area, you’ll find an arch similar to those found at sites like Kabah and Dzibilchaltún. As we’ll cover shortly, it’s not the only such surviving arch at Oxkintok.
The Dzib group is also home to a large and long palace. While there didn’t seem to be any rules against climbing it, you’re unlikely to get very far, as the upper level is entirely covered in thick overgrowth.
After visiting sites like Oxkintok, it’s easy to understand how so many ancient structures throughout Mexico were mistaken as natural hills for centuries (and surely many still are!).
As with most Mayan sites – and Mesoamerican sites in general – Oxkintok was home to a ball court, where the highly ritualistic Mesoamerican ball game was played.
But what makes this one special is that archaeologists believe it could be one of the very oldest surviving ball courts in the Mayan world!
When visiting the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida, you can even see a well-preserved ring from this court, with many of its hieroglyphs still intact.
Elsewhere in the Dzib group are features like a round platform and a former temazcal (steam bath), while at the edge of the area is what appears to be another section of the palace.
Walking up the steps, you can see some remnants of beautifully carved patterns in some of the stone.
Moving along, a pathway takes you to one of Oxkintok’s most famous and enigmatic structures: the Labyrinth. Also known as Satunsat or Tzat Tun Tzat, the Labyrinth appears relatively simple at first glance.
But there’s a lot more to it than first meets the eye. The rectangular structure actually consists of three stories, which isn’t obvious until you walk around to the other side.
While the subterranean areas are off-limits, visitors can enter the uppermost level and walk through its narrow corridors. But with its roof missing, it’s not nearly as mysterious or intimidating as it must’ve been in ancient times.
Archaeologists believe that the Labyrinth may have been built to replicate a cave, which is interesting considering how there’s an actual cave just nearby where many sacred rites were carried out.
The structure may have also functioned as some sort of observatory, as some ventilation shafts seem to line up with certain solar phenomena.
The Labyrinth is another one of Oxkintok’s oldest structures, though it was renovated at some point in the 6th century AD to convert it into a regular palace.
While exploring the structure, be sure to look off into the distance, where you can clearly make out some of ancient Oxkintok’s many unexcavated pyramids.
The Ah May Group
Just next to the Labyrinth is the Ah May Group, which long served as Oxkintok’s central plaza. While not obvious at first, the entire area was built atop a huge manmade platform stretching out to 15000 m2.
The plaza is home to twenty structures in total, but the most significant one by far is the multitiered pyramid which reaches up to 15 m high.
As was fairly common at Mayan cities, the structure was gradually developed in phases over the centuries, resulting in a rather unusual form that gradually reveals itself as you make your way up.
Reaching the uppermost level of the multitiered base, you’ll encounter another small pyramid that was apparently built here a lot later.
You’ll also be able to see some remnants of galleries which likely served as a royal residence. They’re reminiscent of Puuc architecture dating from around 600-800 AD.
Visitors who like more of a hands-on experience will be pleased to know that the entire structure is climbable (at least during my visit), including the uppermost pyramid.
While there’s not a whole lot up there now, the top of the pyramid would’ve been home to a temple with two rooms, while additional temples were built on either side of the staircase.
The main reason to make your way up here, of course, is for the views. Not only can you enjoy a clear view of the Ah May Group and Labyrinth below, but the various mounds in the distance give one a sense of how much larger Oxkintok originally was.
The main reason to make your way up here, of course, is for the views. Not only can you enjoy a clear view of the Ah May Group and Labyrinth below, but the various mounds in the distance gives one a sense of how much larger Oxkintok originally was.
The experience reminded me of my visit to Cantona in the state of Puebla, which is also a highly underrated site of which only a fraction has been uncovered thus far.
Back at ground level, you’ll encounter an additional gallery known as MA-9 located at the northern edge of the Ah May Group. It contains several rooms that likely served as a palace. Today, they contain nothing inside but dense vegetation.
The Ah Canul Group
Arriving at the Ah Canul group, you’ll encounter yet more palaces. It was here that the earliest dated hieroglyph at Oxkintok was discovered (487 AD), though the palaces’ ‘Proto-Puuc’ architectural style suggests a later remodeling.
Moving on, you’ll reach the Ch’ich Palace, one of Oxkintok’s most remarkable highlights. It’s yet another royal residential complex, but this time centered around a spacious central plaza.
Featuring tens of rooms in total, its Classic Puuc architectural style suggests a construction date of roughly 750-1000 AD.
The most noteworthy structure of the complex is the ominously-titled ‘Devil’s Palace.’ Archaeologists named it as such after an anthropomorphic column here representing a skeletal figure. But as you’ll notice, the palace remains home to at least several.
While the on-site sculptures have been badly eroded, those visiting Mexico City can find a remarkably well-preserved statue at the National Museum of Anthropology.
Like the others on-site, this figure is depicted with a protruding belly, though it also features a lot more detail. The person depicted is covered in what appear to be feathers, while his shoes seem to be made of turtle shells. He also carries a fan in his left hand.
As with the Dzib group, this palace complex also features a prominent arch. But with the world beyond now nothing but wild jungle, one can only guess where it once led.
The impressive Ah Canul group doesn’t end with the Ch’ich Palace complex, as it contains an additional northern plaza. Here the main structure is a pyramid that archaeologists call CA-4, and which dates to 300-400 AD.
Like much of Oxkintok, this pyramid is also climbable, and the upper level provides clear views of the plaza and its numerous other structures.
Other buildings in this plaza include Palacio Pop, named after its flooring that was painted with a design resembling matting (pop). And there’s also an interesting structure featuring four columns, which has been mysteriously left unlabeled.
Oxkintok Pieces at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
In addition to the artifacts pictured above, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida features several other impressive artifacts from Oxkintok. For example, you’ll find a tall, detailed stele inscribed in 849 AD – among the last recorded dates found at Oxkintok thus far.
Another stele, meanwhile, depicts a ruler in royal garb, as well as a jade funerary mask that was common throughout Mesoamerica.
The Calcehtok Cave
The Oxkintok ruins on their own are among the most impressive Mayan ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula. But those making it out here absolutely shouldn’t miss the nearby Calcehtok Cave, which had long been considered sacred by the Oxkintok elite.
With hardly any information available online before my visit, I was under the impression that I could just walk to the cave on my own from the ruins. But it turns out that visitors aren’t allowed to freely explore, and that having an official guide (in this case the Oxkintok caretaker) is a must.
And this is for the best, as not only would you not be able to see anything without a flashlight, but the guide will point out a lot of details and hidden symbolism that one would never figure out on their own.
As mentioned above, unlike the main ruins, there’s no official set price for the cave. Annoyingly, you’ll have to do a bit of haggling and negotiating. Being on a budget, I first agreed on a price to simply be driven to the ruins on the caretaker’s motorbike and be chaperoned to the cave.
But on the way there, he told me a lot of interesting info about Oxkintok and its surroundings, and so I agreed to pay more for a more in-depth guided tour. Our agreement also included transport back to Maxcanu when the tour was over with.
The guide begins with a look at the red-colored paintings on the cave’s ceiling. While the exposure has been boosted greatly in the photos above, you won’t be able to see any of the details without a flashlight when visiting the cave in person.
Represented in the paintings are deities like Chaak (the Mayan Tlaloc), various, animals, mythological figures and glyphs for numbers.
But why were they painted along the ceiling? The series of images seem to represent the trajectory of the sun as it passes throughout the underworld each night – a common theme and artistic motif also found throughout ancient Egypt.
In the Mayan religion, caves were symbols of – and literal portals to – Xibalba, or the underworld. While indeed associated with death and a place full of tests and challenges, Xibalbla was still an important and sacred realm.
Through rituals associated with Xibalba, the Mayan elite hoped to establish communion with powerful deities as well as the souls of their ancestors.
In addition to the ceiling paintings mentioned above, the cave is also home to numerous carved stones depicting deities, animals and skeletons. In some cases, rocks were placed to catch the light of the sunrise during equinoxes and solstices that shone through certain holes in the ceiling!
What’s especially fascinating about the Calcehtok Cave is that almost everything here remains untouched as it was first discovered by archaeologists.
Furthermore, the cave was in use since the earliest days of Oxkintok, making it both one of the oldest and most authentic ancient Mayan sites that’s open to the public.
As is common at Mayan caves, Calcehtok is home to many broken pottery shards. These were typically broken during certain rites as offerings to the gods.
Another notable finding in the cave is a set of carved stone phalluses – likely related to some sort of fertility ritual. And the guide even told me that one large stone somewhere was used for human sacrifices!
To this day, much of the cave – particularly its upper levels – has yet to be explored at all. Another cave just nearby, meanwhile, also remains completely untouched.
As part of our deal, my guide drove me back to the town of Maxcanu on his motorbike. I then briefly checked out the main church in the town center before hopping on the bus back to Mérida – just missing a torrential downpour.
As mentioned, to get to the ruins of Oxkintok, you’ll first have to get to the town of Maxcanu from Mérida. Simply head to the main ADO bus terminal, from which you can take a direct bus run by the Sur company. The one-way journey lasts about 80 minutes.
At the time of writing, buses depart at 8:00, 9:00 and 10:30. I’d originally planned to take the 9:00 bus, but there turned out to be a huge line on this weekday morning. I had to wait 30-40 minutes before buying my ticket, and I ended up having to take the 10:30 bus instead. It’s best to take potential long lines into account when planning out your day.
Another thing to know about this bus route is that you can only use the orange-colored ‘Ahorro Bus’ electronic bus card. While I already had one of these cards, it lacked balance. Oddly, the station has a machine installed for checking your card balance, but not one for topping it up! So I ended up having to wait in line to get it topped up by a staff member.
A smart way to avoid potential hassle would be to get one of these cards and top it up in advance, so you can head straight for the departure gate when you arrive at the station. (From my experience, some buses in Mexico that use this card also accept cash, but the drivers on this particular route do not.)
As mentioned above, from Maxcanu, you can simply hire one of the local rickshaw drivers to take you to the ruins. As I’d read online that the road to the ruins was pretty bad, I was looking for a regular taxi but didn’t find any. Fortunately, though, the first rickshaw driver I asked agreed to take me for a reasonable fee of 60 pesos.
Also, as mentioned, I ended up having the ruins caretaker drive me back to Maxcanu as part of our agreement. Otherwise, I would’ve had to walk most of the way back, as the ruins are quite remote.
Fortunately, getting back to Mérida was straightforward, as there is a woman at the little bus station whom you can pay in cash to top up your bus card.
At the time of writing, bus is the only way to reach the Oxkintok ruins for those traveling independently without a car. But fairly soon, the anticipated yet controversial Tren Maya should be up and running, and Maxcanu/Oxkintok will be one of the stops.
If one were to read mainstream news articles or comments on social media, it would seem that almost the entire world is opposed to the Maya Train project. The new project is set to connect tourism hotspots like Cancún and Tulum to numerous small towns of cultural significance (like Maxcanu) throughout eastern Mexico.
This would bring a lot more visitors to off-the-beaten-path ruins like Oxkintok. And more visitors would equal more revenue, which could be used for further excavations of this massive ancient city. During my visit to Oxkintok, the ruins caretaker seemed very much in favor of the Tren Maya project for this very reason.
And as someone who’s spent years living in Japan and enjoyed its highly efficient rail system, I feel building a modern rail network in Mexico is just common sense and long overdue. It’s about time that developing nations see East Asia and Western Europe – and not the United States – as the models to follow when it comes to building transport infrastructure.
But why are so many people against the project? Curiously, many individuals who seem to not have cared much about archaeology at all before are now suddenly up in arms about the railway project potentially destroying precious archaeological sites.
But based on what I’ve seen, when critics are asked how the rail project is any worse than the countless highways built throughout the peninsula, they simply dodge the question. While I didn’t take any pictures, on my way to and from Oxkintok, I passed a modern highway that cuts through the outskirts of Oxkintok. And it was obvious that large parts of an ancient palace had to be destroyed to make room for it. Where were all these ‘experts’ when this highway was built?
Without going into much detail, I think a large majority of opposition to the Tren Maya project is solely based on politics, with people’s emotions toward the current president getting in the way of rational thinking.
Another valid concern, however, is that the rail network could damage a lot of the underground cenotes to be found throughout the region. Admittedly, I know little about this particular topic, and I guess only time will tell if the environmentalists turn out to be right or not.
But assuming proper care is being taken in regards to both local archaeological sites and the cenotes, I’m really looking forward to getting to explore the Yucatán Peninsula by train in the near future.
In Mérida, it’s best to stay as central as possible. Some popular mid-range hotels in the center include Casona 61 and Kuka y Naranjo. Those on a tighter budget should also enjoy the highly-rated Hotel Santa Maria and Hotel Real Toledo.
The outer districts of Mérida are home to some great and affordable Airbnbs, but there’s one main reason to avoid them: the sprawling city’s terribly inefficient transportation system.
While it’s easy to get to the center by either bus or colectivo from just about anywhere, it’s surprisingly challenging to get from the center to another part of town.
As Mérida is so spread out, things may be much farther apart in reality than they appear on a map. Before making any booking, it’s best to confirm the precise walking distance from your accommodation to the city’s main square, Plaza Grande. From there, you can easily get around to most of the major sites.
Also within the historical center is the main ADO bus terminal and the regional bus terminals run by Autoprogreso, Noreste, Oriental and Centro. As mentioned above, it’s the ADO terminal that can take you to Maxcanu and the Oxkintok ruins.