Kohunlich Archaeological Site, Quintana Roo
One of the less visited ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, Kohunlich is easily accessible by car from Chetumal and southern Campeche. It’s trickier by bus, as these follow Highway 186 between Chetumal and Escárcega but do not enter the 9-km service road that leads to the ruins.
Like many Maya cities from the region, Kohunlich was founded about 200 years BCE (before the Common Era, or BC [Before Christ]). But it reached its height of civilization in the so-called Classic Period, around AD500-600. It makes sense that most of its buildings were constructed during this golden era of civilization, and the Temple of the Giant Masks (El Templo de los Mascarones) is no exception.
The most important ceremonial building during the city’s life, the Temple of the Giant Masks faces the setting sun. The pyramid-shaped building is adorned with three-meter-tall masks representing both the ruling family and the sun god, Kinich Ahau. Five of the original eight masks survive, flanking a central staircase. Because the archaeological site receives relatively few visitors, you can still clamber up the structure to get a close look at these monumental pieces of art, which are in surprisingly good condition.
In addition to buildings for religious ceremonies, Kohunlich served as a governmental center for the area. Administrative duties may have been carried out in the Palace of the Stelas (el Palacio de las Estelas) in the center of the site. Radiating out from a plaza of the same name were residential buildings, some housing a cadre of highly skilled artisans who made flint tools and shell artifacts. Another building, called the 27-Steps Compound, was most likely the residence of the ruling family. Archaeologists recognize the living quarters by built-in sleeping bunks, niches, and other elements.
Buildings were originally plastered and painted---often bright red---and adorned with figures and geometric designs painted in complementary colors. Although the molded stucco masks that the site is famous for are reminiscent of the Peten building style of northern Guatemala, architectural elements such as vaulted interiors and false stairways on the façade show ties with the Rio Bec cities of southern Campeche.
By 1200 all construction had come to a halt and the inhabitants began to move from the center of the city to the outskirts, for reasons unknown. Some people are thought to have inhabited buildings whose original purpose was religious or ceremonial.
The city’s exotic-sounding name comes not from the Mayan language but from a corruption of the name of a nearby farm, called Cohune Ridge. In the 1920s, when archaeologist Raymond Merwin first visited the site, this foreign-owned company harvested the oil of the cohune palm (also called rain tree, American oil palm, and corozo palm) native to Yucatan Peninsula and Central America.
The site is open daily from 8 to 5; the entrance fee is currently 55 pesos. There are bathrooms in the parking lot but no place to buy food or drink, so bring your own. Although guides are not normally available on site, signage in English and Spanish (and Mayan) is helpful. Just 69 kilometers (42 miles) west of Chetumal, Kohunlich is located 9 km (5.5 miles) off Highway 186, which connects Quintana Roo’s state capital with the Rio Bec archaeological sites of Campeche, including Xpujil, Becan,Chicanná, Hormiguero, and the granddaddy of them all, Calakmul. There are no direct buses, but those traveling between Chetumal and Escárcega, Campeche will let you off at the entrance road. If you decide to hoof it in, make sure to wear sun block and a hat and bring plenty of water.