The first of many fabulous ruined Maya cities we visited in south-central Campeche was Chicanná, directly across Highway 186 from our comfy hotel, the Chicanná Ecovillage. Despite its small size, this archaeological site was impressive, and a good introduction to the many others in this little-visited part of Mexico. It was only discovered in 1966.
After paying the reasonable entrance fee, we walked down a stone-lined, tree-shaded, dirt path and paused to read several signs explaining the history of the site and the general characteristics of the ancient Maya cities. There we were approached by a pint-sized tour guide. Despite being in the fifth grade and being named (or more precisely, nicknamed) for a Mexican dessert, “Flan” turned out to be both informative and entertaining.
The first building we came to, and the tallest on site, is two-story Edificio XX, oriented to the cardinal compass points. On the first floor are the remains of 11 rooms; here benches built into walls (probably for sleeping) were decorated with human faces within flower motifs. On the façade’s second level are the remains of a large zoomorphic (animal-inspired) mask. A cascade of representations of the “long-nosed god” along both sides of the building were supposedly placed there to guard the mouth of this sacred figure. Decorative roof combs (typical of Palenque, Yaxchilan, and some other Maya sites) at the top of the building were originally decorated with sculptures of gods as well as city rulers.
Archaeologists have discovered at this site objects of jadeite, alabaster, and obsidian. These ceremonial and utilitarian artifacts came from cities in present-day Central America, showing that Chicanná was part of a commercial network stretching from Belize and Guatemala to farther north along the Gulf of Mexico. Chicanná was first settled approximately 300BC, and most likely abandoned by AD1100. The city reached its height in size and importance in the Late Classic period (AD550 to 700). Chicanná is thought to have been an elite suburb of neighboring Becán, which rose to power after the fall of Calakmul to its rival, Tikal.
The most important building onsite is Edificio II. Its façade has remnants of a giant stucco mask of the creator god Itzamná which still retains faint vestiges of paint. One of the characteristic elements of the so-called Chenes style, this mask surrounds a doorway that represents the god’s open mouth, with large teeth above and below it. Stylized eyes, nose, ears (with ear bobs) and other details of the Earth Monster must have been seriously impressive when painted in red, black, blue, and other bright colors.
This and other masks at Chicanná may represent the Chenes style, but other architectural elements link it to the Río Bec group. This denomination describes both the location (more than a dozen sites in south-central Campeche) and the overall architectural style. The Rio Bec style is characterized by elongated rectangular buildings flanked by slender lateral towers and false stairways.
Before the tropical heat sent us scurrying back to the Chicanná Ecovillage for an afternoon siesta, our 10-year-old guide showed us the rest of the site, including the remains of a steam room, several more ceremonial and living quarters, and a chultún: part of a system for storing water in this area of unpredictable rainfall.
We said good-bye to our young guide and wished him a long and successful career. With his tip money, he planned to take his siblings to the circus. Way to share the wealth, Flan!
Chicanná Travel Info
The site is open seven days a week from 8AM to 5PM. The entrance fee is currently 42 pesos. It’s free on Sundays for nationals and Mexican residents. From Campeche City, take Hwy 180 south to Escárcega and then Federal Hwy 186 east toward Chetumal, Quintana Roo. The site is 8 kilómetros west of Xpujil, the nearest town of any size. For lodgings we recommend Hotel Chicanná Ecovillage (www.chicannaecovillageresort.com), directly across the highway from the archaeological site. There are more humble lodgings in the small town of Xpujil and a few in Becán.
Campeche City to Chicanná – 292 km (175 miles)
Escarcega to Chicanná – 151 km (94 miles)
Chetumal, Quintana Roo to Chicanná – 124 km (77 miles)
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