The region of Río Bec, situated in modern-day southern Campeche, was among the most prosperous and densely populated parts of the Mayan world. No less than 45 Río Bec sites have been discovered in total, though only several are accessible today. While most tourists stay in Xpujil to visit the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, even closer to town is the archaeological site of the same name, in addition to the fantastic ruins of Becán and Chicanná.
Xpujil, Becán and Chicanná, all located along the highway west of town, can be visited on the same day by bicycle (see below). There’s also an additional site named El Hormiguero to the south that can be visited by bicycle or taxi, though the journey can be a challenge.
Additionally, the area is home a site known simply as Río Bec, though hiring a private guide in advance is a must. Further west, not far from Calakmul, is yet another Río Bec site known as Balamkú which you can learn more about in a separate guide.
To learn more about reaching Xpujil and where to stay, be sure to check the very end of the article. At the time of the writing, the three main sites each cost between $65-85 MXN to enter, while El Hormiguero is free.
The Río Bec Region: A Brief History
Becán and Chicanná began developing their monumental architecture from around the year 50 BC, though construction would mysteriously stop during the Early Classic period (250-600 AD). Interestingly, it was around this time that, based on archaeological evidence, the region saw incursions from Teotihuacán in Central Mexico.
The Río Bec region would then begin to thrive again from around the year 600. And it was during this time that the cities here would develop a unique architectural style, known for features like pairs of steep towers and fierce depictions of the creator god Itzamná.
Neither stelae nor inscriptions mentioning past rulers have ever been found at any of the Río Bec sites, leaving much of the region’s history a mystery. While we don’t have any evidence, there surely would’ve been a relationship between this region and Calakmul, just 24 km away. It’s probably no coincidence that the former mighty capital peaked around the same time (500-800 AD) as Becán and Chicanná’s resurgence.
The archaeological site of Xpujil shares its name with the nearest town, the base which most tourists use for visiting the Río Bec sites as well as Calakmul.
It’s an easy 15-minute walk from the town center. But as mentioned, it’s best to rent a bike beforehand so you can proceed further west to Becán and Chicanná on the same day.
Today, the site only consists of a couple of building groups, though this was once a sprawling city stretching out to several square kilometers.
Visitors will first encounter Structure 4, a former palace. Built atop a platform, it once would’ve been covered in stucco and painted in bright colors.
Xpujil’s main highlight is Structure 1, which is really a series of three tall towers. Interestingly, the third and tallest central tower here is unique in Río Bec architecture, and you’ll later notice how the other sites feature buildings with just two.
Amazingly, the third tower makes Structure 1 closely resemble the trimurti style of Hindu temples in Angkor, Cambodia.
The central tower reaches up to 18 m, and the structure once comprised of twelve rooms oriented to the cardinal points.
All three towers contained temples at the top, and they mysteriously contained staircases that would’ve been impossible to climb due to their steep angle. Archaeologists suggest, therefore, that they were merely symbolic.
On the way back to the entrance, you can walk by Structure 2, yet another former palace of the elite. Additionally, you’ll find a series of unnamed buildings that likely functioned as residences as well.
All in all, Xpujil should take you just 30 minutes or less to view, though you’ll have plenty else to see over the course of the day.
Becán is located about seven kilometers past the ruins of Xpujil, and the highway is mostly flat. A designated bicycle lane has recently been installed, though it wasn’t quite complete at the time of my visit. In any case, you’ll still have plenty of room to ride along the side of the highway itself.
Becán is the real highlight of Río Bec and where you’ll be spending most of your time. In fact, Becán is one of the most enjoyable Mayan sites to visit in all of Mexico. Not only are its structures highly impressive, but you’ll likely have the ruins all to yourself if you arrive in the morning.
First inhabited as early as 550 BC, Becán peaked around 600-800 AD before its abandonment around 1200.
The site was originally surrounded by a dry moat (Becán, in fact, means trench), and the ancient city was accessed via seven different bridges.
Today, the modern entrance takes visitors to an area on the opposite side of the East Plaza. Here you’ll encounter the back of what’s known as Structure 4. While the pyramidal structure is climbable, the main staircase is on the other side (more below).
Moving on, you can walk through an ancient passageway taking you to the Central Plaza, home to Becán’s largest buildings.
You’ll first encounter Structure 8, a steep pyramid which visitors can climb up with help from a handy rope attached to the top. The wide structure originally featured two tall towers on either side, the bases of which can still be made out today.
From the top, you can get a clear view of an even taller pyramid, Structure 9. But first, feel free to explore what were once Structure 8’s ceremonial rooms.
Structure 9 also features a rope to help visitors get to the top. And you’ll be thankful it’s there, as this is the tallest building at Becán, reaching up to 32 m high.
While the top once contained a temple, there’s not a whole lot to see. The real reason to make the climb is for the spectacular views of Structure 8 and the landscape of rural Campeche in the distance.
At the western end of the Central Plaza is Structure 10, which once depicted a mask of Itzamná, the Mayan creator god.
A common decorative feature of Río Bec architecture, the face here is largely damaged, but visitors can still see well-preserved masks at Chicanná and Hormiguero (more below).
Moving on, the ruins of Becán continue to impress, as the West Plaza contains even more remarkable structures.
Here you can walk along the opposite side of Structure 10, a building that once contained twelve rooms in total. All around it, meanwhile are other unlabelled but well-preserved structures.
Just nearby, you’ll find a common feature at nearly all Mayan sites: the ball court, where the traditional Mesoamerican ball game would be played. The symbolic game represented the movement of the cosmos and cycles of life.
Around the corner is a small shelter containing a remarkable stucco mask. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time of my visit, but I managed to catch a glimpse by peaking through the window. The figure is believed to represent royalty.
Heading back east, visitors will find themselves south of the East Plaza, facing the backside of Structure 1. The long building, which is one Becán’s oldest, features ten rooms on its upper story. It also features two towers on either side.
Walking around to the opposite side, you’ll find yourself standing within the East Plaza. In the center stands a circular altar built sometime in the 12th century. It was likely dedicated to Kukulcán, or the Mayan version of Quetzalcoatl, introduced to this region from Central Mexico.
And it’s also in the East Plaza that you’ll once again encounter Structure 4, the first structure you encountered upon entering the site. But on its front-facing side, you’ll find a staircase taking you to the top.
From here you can enjoy the views of the plaza before walking around the building and heading for the exit.
Ceramic items from Becán on display at the Fort of San Miguel’s archaeological museum in Campeche
Chicanná lies 3 km west of Becán, and you’ll have to make a left off the highway and continue south down a dirt road to reach it.
Given Becán’s original size and how densely populated the Río Bec area was in its prime, some archaeologists suggest that Chicanná was once a suburb, or possibly even part of, Becán. In any case, it functions as its own archaeological site today.
Upon entering the site, you’ll encounter Chicanná’s tallest building, Structure 20. The steep tower once featured eleven rooms, while the front facade was ornately decorated in the Chenes style. Built in the 9th century AD, parts of the interior are still accessible.
Heading deeper into the forest, you’ll next encounter Structure 11. The largely ruined building once featured twelve rooms. Interestingly, it’s suspected to be one of the oldest building in the entire region.
Nearby is Structure 1, a long building flanked by two towers on either side. It reminds one of Structure 1 at Xpujil, albeit without the third tower in the center.
The main star of the show here is the well-preserved god mask building, officially known as Structure II. Notably, it faces east – a highly important direction in Mayan cosmology. And it depicts the creator god Itzamná, who was often represented as a fierce monster.
It’s interesting to observe the similarities between these portals and those in Asia adorned with the likeness of Kala, the god of time who was also depicted as a monster.
This is widely considered one of the best-preserved depictions of Itzamná in Mayan architecture, and you’ll want to take your time admiring it from both up close and afar.
As intimidating as the facade appears, it actually marks the entrance to the residence of a high-ranking official! It likely served a ceremonial purpose as well.
Other buildings you’ll see around here include Structure 3, consisting of several buildings joined together over time. And on your way out, you’l encounter Structure 6, a 7th-century building decorated with mythological beings.
Ceramic and stone items from Chicanná on display at the Fort of San Miguel’s archaeological museum in Campeche
Located 14 km south of Xpujil, the ruins of El Hormiguero (or just Hormiguero) are the least essential and the hardest to reach of the sites mentioned in this guide.
But if you find yourself with a free extra day, you might enjoy a visit if you like having ruins all to yourself. Hormiguero is also home to a fierce Itzamná mask that’s even bigger than that of Chicanná.
But how to get there? The ruins are located about 14 km south of Xpujil. A taxi should cost you around $400 MXN roundtrip, while it’s also possible to go by bicycle.
Considering the journey there to be part of the whole experience, I opted to get there by bike, but it ended up being a long and grueling trip. Therefore, I’d recommend most people go by vehicle.
I was warned at the bicycle rental place that it would be a challenge, as the final leg of the journey consists of a bumpy, unpaved road. But it wasn’t that section of the trip that turned out to be the hardest.
The portion along the highway was actually the most difficult. In contrast to the relatively flat and smooth road to the three sites mentioned above, Highway 260 is full of multiple of steep hills.
And as the only bicycles I could find to rent in Xpujil were single-speed bikes designed for a casual ride through the city, this was not an easy trip, to say the least.
And with the heat and humidity in this part of Mexico, I went through no less than three liters of water throughout the roundtrip journey!
But now onto the archaeological site itself. Given the isolated location, you’re bound to spot some wildlife here. I encountered some monkeys sleeping in a tree by the entrance, while I spotted a gray fox near the parking lot on my way out.
Entry is free, and visitors simply have to sign their name in a notebook to enter. Reaching the ruins, El Hormiguero begins with the main event: a massive building with a huge depiction of Itzamná in its center.
As mentioned, it’s even bigger than Chicanná’s and is situated at an even higher level, with the top of the building reaching up to eight meters off the ground.
Information on El Hormiguero is scarce, while the site also lacks any explanatory placards. But coming from the other sites mentioned above, you’ll find many similar buildings, including a tall tower with a temple at the top.
Other structures contain detailed stucco motifs, while another plain-looking building appears to have been some kind of residence.
In total, over 80 structures have been identified at Horimiguero, though only a fraction have been excavated. During my visit, I also came across several forested trails, though they didn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.
Interestingly, the name Hormiguero translates to ‘anthill,’ and I did indeed encounter some anthills while exploring the ruins.
As mentioned above, Xpujil, Becán, and Chicanná can all be visited on the same day by bicycle from Xpujil. But where can one rent a bicycle?
While I saw a couple of hotels listed online, neither of them were renting out bicycles at the time of my visit. The only place in town I could find that had them was Hotel Casa Marán, and the price was $200 MXN ($10 USD) for the day.
As mentioned, their bikes were basic city bikes, which is fine for riding along the flat Highway 186 to reach the three main Río Bec sites.
For those visiting El Hormiguero to the south, however, that highway is much more hilly. I’d recommend taking a taxi for about $400 MXN instead.
As for visiting the archaeological site simply known as ‘Río Bec,’ arranging a visit requires an advanced booking with a local guide, who will take you via ATV to the ruins. And these excursions don’t come cheap. While I didn’t end up going, you can learn some more details here.
As small and remote as Xpujil may be, its location on the main highway between the cities of Chetumal and Escárcega means it’s not that difficult to reach.
For those coming from Campeche, at the time of my visit in 2022, direct coach buses were available from the Sur bus terminal. I took a 13:30 bus that arrived several hours later. I believe there was also a bus departing around 8:00. As the timetables seem to change frequently, be sure to confirm at the bus station in advance (no web sites seem to list this route for whatever reason).
If direct buses from Campeche don’t happen to be available at the time of your visit, take a colectivo or coach bus to Escárcega and then transfer there.
For those coming from the opposite direction, buses running west from Chetumal and Bacalar (both in Quintana Roo) also run along this highway.
There’s also a regular bus route running in between Palenque, Chiapas and Chetumal/Bacalar that will pass through Xpujil, but they only seem to run at night.
Xpujil’s bus terminal is conveniently located right in the center of town.
Also note that in between Xpujil and Bacalar lie two excellent ruins called Kohunlich and Dzibanché. As public transport to them would be tricky if not impossible, you may want to hire a private driver on your way to one town or the other.
With a driver from my guest house, I arranged a trip that began in Xpujil, stopped at the two sites, and ended in Bacalar for $1500 MXN.
As Calakmul becomes more well-known, more and more travelers are including the nearest town of Xpujil in their itineraries. Additionally, as the beautiful lagoon of Bacalar becomes increasingly popular, many are realizing that Xpujil is a quick drive away.
As such, there are quite a few accommodation options to choose from. Being a budget traveler who prefers a private room and bathroom, I went with Hotel Chaac Calakmul. I had a nice experience there, as it was well-located and had functioning internet and AC.
I paid roughly $14 USD per nigh including tax. The owners also run a travel agency, so it was easy to arrange private transport with one of them to Kohunlich and Dzibanché. They also arranged shared transport to Calakmul for $500-600 MXN.
Most people visit Xpujil to see the Calakmul ruins and biosphere reserve. But while Xpujil is the nearest town, it takes nearly two hours one-way to get there! (As you can tell, Calakmul is really, really isolated.)
As such, some people prefer to stay within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve itself. If you’re considering this, you’d probably need your own car, as the site is nearly an hour from the highway. While I have no experience with them, you might want to contact Visit Calakmul for more information.
Note that while staying in Calakmul would be a great experience for those hoping to see wildlife and visit the ruins upon opening, they would make for an inconvenient base for visiting the Río Bec sites mentioned above.
Regular shuttles can be arranged from Xpujil to Calakmul, but not from Calakmul to Xpujil, as far as I’m aware.