Little-known Maya Ruin Near Bacalar
by Mari Pinkowski
Laguna Bacalar has become a favorite place to sneak off to when we are looking for R&R. We are owner/operators of a very popular B&B, La Selva Mariposa, just outside of Tulum, and we believe that we are able to better serve our clients with passion and enthusiasm if we take regular breaks to enjoy this beautiful country we now call home. We have fallen in love with a little rental house, Casa Bacalar, adjoining the Rancho Encantado property. The house is perfect for one or two couples and is beautifully decorated with Mexican art, textiles and accents. Just thinking about the stunning fresh flower arrangements in one-of-a-kind vases placed around the house, makes me long to return.
The other alluring factor is its proximity to Rancho Encantado, where delicious fresh meals await you. The friendly staff is more than eager to deliver them to the casa. What more could you want? www.casabacalar.com.
On our last visit, we decided to tear ourselves away from the hammocks overlooking the turquoise lake of seven colors and explore the nearby ruins of Chacchoben. As we drove along, I read to my husband, Lou, the details from a little book by Luis I.Tellez that I found at Casa Bacalar. It is also for sale at the gift shop at Chacchoben.
"Chacchoben, meaning 'Place of the Red Corn' is located 57 miles north of Chetumal."
It is only a few miles off Highway #307 as you are travel west on Federal Road #293. We had less than a 45-minute drive from Lake Bacalar. This is a fabulous area for "birders," as many of the 593 species of birds found in the Yucatán Peninsula can be seen in the large trees inside and bordering the ancient city.
"By 1950, many archeological sites had been reported, but sites in Quintana Roo had not been fully mapped. Dr. Peter Harrison from Tulane University documented Chacchoben between 1972 and 1977. He is responsible for mapping the main group of buildings and five smaller ones. Later after examining shards of pottery, Dr. Robert Fry from Purdue University determined that Chacchoben was inhabited from 1000 B.C. until 1540 A D. The height of activities appeared to be during the Classical Period, between 300–600 A.D. This was an active period of trade with North Belize and the Peten Region."
Both Lou and I were fascinated with the brief history of the site we would momentarily be visiting. It helps to have at least a general knowledge of ancient sites before you begin your tour. To our amazement the Mexican state and federal governments, along with an archaeology team led by Juan Rique Flores, chose the site of Chacchoben for excavations since little had been explored in the area. This project gave a boost to the economy by hiring local workers of three nearby pueblos, Lázaro Cárdenas, Chacchoben and Ávila Camacho to excavate the site. The excavations show that all of the buildings visible today are from a long period of occupation which dates from the first three centuries A.D.
We pulled up to a large parking area and to our surprise spotted many large tour buses. We walked out into the unforgiving light and inquired about getting a guide—$40 US for 50 minutes for up to five persons. We felt this was a little high for our budget, and while contemplating our possibilities, Lilian Virginia Martinez, a young guide at the site, introduced herself and offered to take us on a tour for only $30. guide Virginia, above
She let us know that many of Chacchoben's visitors have come from the cruise ships stopping in Mahahual and were well into their tours when we arrived. She proudly told us that this is the first Maya ruin site that is being run totally by members of the neighboring pueblos, rather than employees of the federal government. The pride she showed was evident in the overall feeling and appearance of the site. We knew we had a perfect match with Virginia as our guide when she took us first to examine a cluster of cohune palms. To our delight, she was as passionate about the flora of the area as we were. We quickly slipped into a rhythm and moved along the sandy paths together.
The palm trees were heavily loaded with seed clusters. Tiny black Maya stingless bees were busy collecting pollen in and around the seeds. She informed us that it takes 300 small coconuts to produce one liter of oil and it takes 40 years before the palm is ready to produce seeds. Contributing to the economy, locals use the tiny hand-size coconuts to make little carvings for sale.
We entered the ruin site and came to the first grouping. We could see that only some of the structures had been reconstructed and others were in the condition they had been found in more than 10 years ago. All buildings are in the Petén style, like those in Palenque, Cobá and Uxmal. Rounded corners are a common feature of this architectural style.
The main structure in this grouping is 52 feet tall with stairs on four sides. There is evidence that the structures encompassed several building phases. It was common practice among the Maya to reuse stones from older buildings when a new building was under construction. This makes it difficult to tell accurately the dimensions of several sub-structures. Inside one of the less obvious structures was a beautiful painted altar that had been found during excavations. I found it so interesting that the room was left exactly as it had been when the altar was discovered in order to show us how the room was laid out during ancient times. I could almost sense their spirits in this place that still holds many secrets.
We lost focus on the ruins as we talked about the trees surrounding us. We compared them to trees on our property at La Selva Mariposa and verified that we have ramón, cedro or mahogany, chicozapote, alamo and banyon trees. We have not yet identified the allspice tree she showed us and were intrigued by the peppery smell of the crushed leaves. We are sure that we do not have the huge guanacaste tree that has seed pods that are shaped like elephant ears. We have seen this at Punta Laguna and know it is a favorite of the spider monkeys.
Virginia and her sister, who is also a guide when she is home from college, are raising trees on their property and are as intrigued as we are about the medicinal uses of the plants. After talking to Virginia, we knew we wanted to purchase the kuk orchid (ardilla). It is the antidote for the horrid mosca chiclera bite that spreads a life-threatening virus. As we maneuvered our way down the path, sharing it with a battalion of ants, we were aware of Mother Nature's presence.
We approached what is known as the Great Base and stood there stunned for a moment, contemplating its vastness. Virginia showed us how we could identify the original stones separated with a mixture of sascab/chicle/sea shells and water vs. the new construction that has been put together with cement, creating a smoother surface.
The Great Base is the ceremonial center of the site. It has a quadrangular base that measures 324 feet by 336 feet. The five temples on the top have been cleared and restored. The base was artificially constructed. They used rough stones to a desired height with a layer of sascab (limestone powder) as a floor. The temples were constructed on top of the base. It is not possible to climb to the top of the pyramids, but we could not help but wonder what the Maya saw when they surveyed the land from this high perch.
Virginia pointed out a flat rock with rounded edges on the left side of the staircase. She shared with us that on the day of winter solstice (shortest day of the year) at 3 p.m. you were able to see the light of the setting sun shining directly through that hole in the rock. She also said that on the day of the summer solstice (longest day of the year) at 8 a.m., for only five minutes, you were able to see the light shining through the opening at the top of this 60- foot-tall pyramid.
Unfortunately, the stelae are in poor shape and do not give archaeologists much information about life at Chacchoben. There is much excavation to be done that perhaps will answer many questions and fill in the blanks missing in the history of this interesting site. Although Chacchoben was no longer a major city during the post-Classic period, archaeologists know that Chacchoben remained important as a place of pilgrimage from about 900 A.D. to 1517 A.D. because of the great number of incense burners that were discovered during excavation. Perhaps Postclassic Maya who visited this ancient city felt the presence of their ancestors who shared stories from an earlier time.
After sharing e-mail addresses and hugs with Virginia, we made our way back to our car and headed to Casa Bacalar for a relaxing afternoon kayaking along the edges of the turquoise lagoon.
Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the #1 B&B in Tulúm, La Selva Mariposa (www.laselvamariposa.com). Mari's stories about life in a small Maya pueblo can be found on www.sac-be.com and in her two published books, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail and Shifting Gears: A Journey of Reinvention available on www.amazon.com.