Ruins of Xtampak: Enigmatic and Not a Day-Trip

The name Xtampak comes from the Yucatec-Maya language and is usually translated as meaning old walls.

Santa Rosa Xtampak, also known as simply Xtampak, is a remote archaeological site located in the municipality of Hopelchén, Campeche.

The archaeological site is surrounded by thick vegetation in the interior of Campeche, which aside from housing a few farms and Mennonite camps, is sparsely populated. This extremely rural region of the Yucatán Peninsula has a charm all its own, which is a little hard to describe but feels wild and tranquil at the same time.

Santa Rosa Xtampak was first settled by Mayan peoples sometime in the early 4th century BCE. These early settlers likely came from city-states already established at the far southern end of what today is Campeche and northern Guatemala. There is good reason to believe that even during this early stage of occupation large structures were erected. But sadly, not much is known about them as they were destroyed to make way for new constructions.

Chenes-period sideway connecting chambers in Santa Rosa Xtampak.

The city seems to have reached its zenith between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. This period also bore witness to a large construction boom in a style known as Chenes. Because of its size, as well as its political and economic ties with the great city of Uxmal, many archaeologists believe that Santa Rosa Xtampak served as a regional capital for the entire Chenes region. Other important centers likely under its influence include Dzibilnocac, Hochob, and El Tabasqueño.


When entering the site you will walk down a clearing in the jungle for 10 minutes or so before reaching its core. Take it easy and enjoy the surroundings and make sure to keep your eyes open to detect unexcavated mounds and exotic birds. Before you know it, you will reach the heart of the site and come face to face with El Palacio, one of the most beautiful feats of architecture in the entire region.

El Placio at Santa Rosa Xtampak is impressive for its size, complex architectural design, and abundant flourishes.

This massive complex has 44 individual chambers spread across its three floors. A large stairway at the front of the structure connects all three levels and ultimately leads to a richly decorated room at the top of the structure. There are also several well-preserved internal stairways that allowed for more direct movement between chambers.

One of the most unusual aspects of Xtampak’s Palacio is that it appears to have been designed from the outset as a multi-story structure, in contrast to multi-level buildings elsewhere in which various levels were added over time. The structure also features several recessed wall panels which were likely richly adorned with brightly painted stucco. There are also several niches that were almost certainly adorned with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures representing either local nobility or deities of the Mayan pantheon.

The room at the center of this complex is decorated with snakes and iconography that makes allusions to the deity Itzamná. The general design of the structure follows conventions similar to those of Chenes’ Monster of the Earth temples but with an emphasis on Itzamná. It has long been hypothesized that a connection exists between the Monster of the Earth and the Sky deity.


A wild tillandsia grows on the grounds of Santa Rosa Xtampak.

Directly behind the Snake Mouth Portal is a pyramidal structure with a stone mask at its base, likely representing Itzamná once again. It is interesting to note that while Monster of the Earth temples represent entrances to the underworld of Xibalba, this Snake Mouth Portal complex seems to be doing the opposite iconographically as it signals to the heavens. This is not just because of its emphasis on Itzamná or the positioning of the pyramid, but also because of its references to serpents, which in Mayan cosmology are actually associated with the sky, not the Earth realm or ground. Though this may sound a little counterintuitive, remember the feathered serpent deity Kukulkán, also known as Quetzalcoatl.

If you go

At a distance of 177 kilometers from Mérida, the site is not exactly close, but the state of the roads is what makes access challenging more than the distance itself. Travel time from Mérida is roughly four hours

You will likely have a hard time finding a tour to Santa Rosa Xtampak departing from Mérida, Campeche, or any nearby communities. You will almost certainly have to drive there yourself or hire a driver who is familiar with the region. If you can choose a vehicle, I would recommend a Jeep or some other type of vehicle with 4×4 capabilities.


Carlos Rosado van der Gracht    Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.   Photos by Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

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