The Xcambo Ruins in Mexico is a lesser-known archeological site in the Northern Yucatan, close to the town of Telchac Puerto. Very little is known about the ancient city, which didn’t open to the general public until as recently as 2001.
The site is relatively small. But it is well worth a visit if you consider yourself a Mayan history enthusiast, or if you are already in the area exploring the pink lakes or the gorgeous beaches of the Ruta Esmerelda.
Xcambo (pronounced ¨Shh ambow¨) means ¨place of the celestial crocodile¨ or ¨place where bartering is done¨ in Ancient Mayan. Both theories of the name fit – there are crocodiles living in the mangroves near the ancient site, and Xcambo was once an important trade port.
Visiting the Xcambo Ruins Mexico
The Xcambó Archaeological Site is an off-the-beaten-path Mayan ruin in the Northern Yucatan. Over the last few decades, the site has undergone restoration by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), revealing a variety of fascinating structures and tombs.
Although historians and archeologists do not know anything about the rulers of the site or any notable figures that once lived here, it is generally believed that Xcambo was an important trade port. The Mayans would harvest salt from the nearby pink salt lake of Laguna Rosada.
Then, they would trade salt and a number of other commodities overland and by sea. In particular, Xcambo is believed to have built strong commercial relationships with the nearby cities of Dzemul and Ake, as well as Mayan settlements a little further afield.
Xcambo was an important commercial port during the Early Classic Period, which lasted from 250 to 600 CE. Many of the buildings and stucco masks that you can see at the site today date back to this period, and follow a Peten architectural style seemingly influenced by Mayan cities in Guatemala.
It continued to thrive during the Late Classic Period (600 to 900 CE) before ultimately being abandoned like many Mayan cities at that time.
If you enjoy escaping the crowds, you can spend a day of your Yucatan itinerary exploring the Xcambo Ruins, visiting Laguna Rosada, and then relaxing on the nearby Yucatan beaches of San Benito, San Bruno, or San Crisanto.
Structures at the Xcambo Ruins
The Xcambo site consists of three main groups of pyramids and structures: the East, West, and Central clusters, with the main civic/ceremonial group being part of the main plaza in the central group.
Here, there are eleven structures that surround a central plaza. They are impressive despite their modest size, and it is possible to climb to the top of most of the pyramids to enjoy a birds-eye view of the historic settlement.
The Xcambo Chapel of the Virgin
One of the most interesting structures at the Xcambo ruins is a weathered old Catholic church that features a small, carved stone statue of Jesus by its roof. The church looks out of place surrounded by tiered Mayan pyramids and presents an interesting contrast of ancient vs modern day Mexico.
The church is only about 50-60 years old. It was built by locals living in the area before Xcambo was excavated and designated as an important historic site by INAH.
The locals actually quarried some of the stones and other materials from the Xcambo ruins and temples to build the church! There is a little altar inside the chapel and many Yucatecans believe that an apparition of the Virgin Mary once appeared here.
So, to this day, people still make a pilgrimage across the state to pray at the little church. Once upon a time, the church had a perishable, thatched palapa roof. Today, it is simply left open.
The Main Plaza
The Main Plaza awaits in the heart of the Xcambo site. It is surrounded by various structures, such as temples and residential buildings which showcase the community’s architectural prowess.
The largest pyramid here is simply named as ¨Structure 1¨. It reaches a height of 35 feet over seven tiers.
Pyramids of differing sizes sit on the north and east parts of the plaza. Structure 4 on the east is a good place to climb if you want a photo viewpoint over the ruins.
The northern part of the plaza boasts a uniquely designed stepped pyramid that stands around 14 feet tall. The second tallest pyramid here is Structure 2 – a seven-tiered pyramid with a height of approximately 27 feet.
A sacbe (white stone road) connects the main architectural groups with each other. There is an interesting tunnel-like structure that leads downwards from the main plaza, yet seemingly leads to nowhere as the tunnel is blocked off part of the way down.
The Pyramid of the Masks
One of the most interesting buildings at the Xcambo ruins is the Pyramid of the Masks (marked as NE-23). The structure is aptly named as it is home to two large stucco masks that have withstood the test of time and the elements for more than 1,000 years.
The masks sit on either side of the staircase on the third floor of the pyramid. They are believed to represent the ¨celestial monster¨ and, according to INAH, show the path taken by the planet Venus in leading the sun from the underworld at sunrise.
Next to the Pyramid of the Masks is a colonnaded structure believed to be an ancient steam bath used by the nobles in the town.
The East Plaza
The East Plaza of the Xcambo Mayan ruins is actually a little outside the main entrance to the archeological site. To get to it, you can drive or set out on foot – it is a little way down the road from the way you come to get to the ruins.
The West Plaza
The West Plaza at Xcambo is believed to have been a predominantly residential area. There are some interesting stone tools and slabs in the area that were perhaps used for manual labor – the grinding of salt, etc.
Things to Know When Visiting Xcambo Ruins
Most Mayan cities are filled with information plaques that explain the various structures and areas that you see but information is scarce at Xcambo. At the time of writing (January 2024), there are also currently no local guides offering tours at the site.
Both of these factors are perhaps due to the fact that as of yet, little is known about the Mayans that once lived here. Admission to the site is 90 pesos per person (circa $4.50 USD).
Entrance is free for Mexicans on Sundays (be prepared to show a form of ID). It is free for the elderly (65+), the handicapped, and children under 13 every day of the week.
Remember to bring cash during your visit, as cards are generally not accepted at archeological sites in Mexico.
A couple of reputable local tour companies in Merida and Cancun and the Riviera Maya exist to help you plan an excursion to Xcambo and other nearby sites with the aid of a friendly guide.
Laguna Rosada salt flats
No trip to Xcambo is complete without visiting the salt flats nearby.
Laguna Rosada (pink lagoon) is still one of the Yucatan’s main salt production areas today, as it was during the days of the Ancient Maya. Although a lot of people come here to take photos in front of these characteristic pink lakes for their social media, it is arguably more interesting to see locals harvesting the salt from the water by hand.
The pink colors of the lake are actually created by a type of red brine shrimp that lives in the water. These salt flats were formed by the evaporation of seawater, resulting in the accumulation of salt deposits
There is a small wooden shack at the entrance to the lake where you can buy rock salt from the same lake the Mayans used to trade from. (A great Mexico souvenir if you’re a foodie and want to cook with Mayan rock salt, right?)
According to historical accounts, the ancient Mayans constructed shallow pools near the shore of the salt flats. They allowed seawater to flow into these pools and evaporate, leaving behind the salt.
Then, workers collected the crystallized salt, which was even more concentrated than the deposits found in the salt flats. This technique was simple but efficient and allowed the Mayans to produce and store large quantities of salt.
How to get to Xcambo ruins
It is tricky to get to the Xcambo ruins if you are not renting a car in Mexico. The nearest town is Telchac Puerto but there is no public transport that runs directly to the site from either Telchac, Merida or another nearby city called Motul.
If you are not driving, be prepared to take a couple of forms of public transport and a cab to get to Xcambo. Autobuses Noreste Yucatán operates a bus from Merida to Telchac Puerto every four hours each day.
A one-way ticket costs between 50 and 75 pesos ($2.50 – $3.50). When you arrive in Telchac, you need to take a cab to the ruins and negotiate a price to have the driver wait for you while you visit.
If you are driving, you can take the Mérida – Progreso highway 261 towards the coast and then turn onto Yucatan 27 towards Telchac Puerto, before following the signs to Xcambo. Alternatively, you can exit Merida by heading east on Highway 176 past Conkal, through Baka, and towards Motul.
Continue on the bypass north around Dzemul, and you will find the turnoff to Xcambo approximately 13 km beyond Dzemul. There is a small parking lot at Xcambo which is free to use.
Final thoughts on visiting Xcambo ruins
The Xcambo ruins are overshadowed by the likes of more famous Mayan sites like Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. However, visiting them is a highlight of any trip to the Yucatan peninsula and provides a fascinating insight into the Mayan empire that once thrived here.
If you visit during the peak Yucatan tourism season that runs between December and March, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some North American pink flamingos flying overhead as they migrate from Celestun in the west to El Cuyo in the east.
Be sure to combine your trip with a visit to some of the beach towns on the beautiful Yucatan coast. If this is your first visit to the Yucatan, you might also enjoy this post on safety in the Yucatan, or this article on the best time to visit.
Safe travels and enjoy Mexico! Buen Viaje! Xo