Must-See Destination in Costa Maya, Mexico: The Mayan Ruins

Last updated on January 27th, 2023 at 03:04 pm

Planning to vacation in Costa Maya, Mexico this year? Regardless of how you get there, there’s one destination you certainly won’t want to miss: the Chacchoben ruins. This lesser-known site is an unforgettable way to experience the history and culture of the ancient Maya.

History of Chacchoben, the Mayan Ruins

Once a mighty city, it is thought that this area was inhabited off and on from 200 BC until AD 700. These dates are educated guesses, and the dates vary greatly among experts. One thing that is agreed upon is that the ruins are Mayan in origin and they are very old, to say the least.   

Unfortunately, little is known about how Chacchoben started. It is felt, from archeological evidence, that it had once been a vibrant community in Mayan days, but was abandoned and then reoccupied several times. 

The name Chacchoben is Maya for “place of the red corn” and is located about 56 miles west of Costa Maya. It is thought that it had, at one time,  been a prestigious ceremonial center.

The ruins were discovered by a farmer in 1946 when he was looking for land to be able to expand his crops. He farmed the land surrounding the ruins and built his house on the site. In 1972, a traveling American archelologist made an official report to the Mexican government. Excavation of the site in 1994 was undertaken by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). 

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Opened to the public in 2002, these ruins are about an hour’s drive from the cruise port of Costa Maya. Located in the midst of a tropical rainforest, the ruins are a collection of pyramids and temples. The ruins are not extensive, but they are a facintating look back in history. It is remarkable to understand that these were built entirely by hand, and not with today’s modern equipment. Not just the physical labor is impressive, but the mathematical calculations necessary to get these structures right is amazing. 

You will find that when you leave the ship at the pier in Costa Maya, there will be tour guides willing to take you to the Chacchoben ruins. Know that there is also the town of Chacchoben, which is about 15 minutes away from the ruins, so know which location you are being taken to before boarding a tour bus. 

Large stone pyramid-shaped temple with many stairs leading to the peak where there is a cave-like opening.
Photo credit Arian Zwegers: Temple 1

Once at the ruins, you can explore the area on your own or pay a nominal fee for a tour guide to take you around the site. Chacchoben is less-visited than other ruin sites, so crowds are not usually a problem. Covering about 2.3 square miles, only a portion of the site is open to visitors. The rest of the site is covered in vines and surrounded by the rainforest, so not conducive to exploration. 

There are three excavated groups that are situated around a large plaza called The Grand Plaza. The first structure once you enter the complex is Plaza B, or the West Plaza.

Stone ruins of a two-level building. Short walls are open and two stone steps lead up from the ground level to what was once a room
Photo credit Steve Mellard: West Plaza

Temple 24 is the largest structure in the ruins and is a pyramid that rises off a platform base of 5 tiers with an unrestored temple top. It is 36 feet tall with stairways on all four sides. Two of those stairways go to the top and two go to the fourth level. Smaller stairways lead from the fourth level to the summit of the pyramid. At the summit there are a number of rooms, none of which have any roofs.

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Pyramid-shaped stone temple with stairs lining the sides. The top appears to be cut off, revealing a wide flat base instead of a peak.
Photo credit Steve Mellard: Temple 24

On the southeast side of the Grand Plaza is a series of platforms. They are arranged around an elongated “U” shaped plaza. This is known as the Road Group. The remains of small structures are located on a number of long, low stepped platforms. Archaeologists think that these structures may have been residential structures at one time.

Tall trees surrounding a large platform with 4 stairs leading from the ground to the platform.
Photo credit davidi1329: Road Group

East of the Temple 24 plaza, is the Acropolis Plaza. To reach this plaza, you need to go through a heavily forested area first. The Acropolis is a group of structures that is set on a huge platform terrace that is about 16 feet high. The platform terrace can be accessed by two wide stairways that face onto the Grand Plaza.

Looking up a large set of stone steps from the ground.
Photo credit Steve Mellard: The Acropolis Stairway

Temple 1 has been restored by clearing the forest and vines that have surrounded and choked off the pyramid. This pyramid rises from a base atop the Acropolis platform and is 42 feet high. On its top are two small unrestored structures. There is a single grand stairway that faces back across the plaza terrace. A carved stone monument sits in a small, two-tiered, multi-room structure with a  single stairway that is located at the foot of the pyramid.

Located at the base level of the Acropolis terrace is the Temple of the Vessels. This pyramidal structure has a single, broad stairway that faces Temple 1. An attached shelter is at the rear of the pyramid that preserves a portion of the original 1,200 year old, red stucco finish that still adheres to the pyramid surface.

Pyramid-shaped stone ruins with a center staircase running up the middle.
Photo credit Steve Mellard: Temple of Vessels

Next to the Temple of the Vessels are two structures that are called The Twins. These small structures have a design that is similar to the structures that make up the northeast corner of the Acropolis terrace. 

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The area around the ruins is filled with numerous species of flora and deer, peccary, armadillo, gray fox, spider and howler monkeys. Deeper in the rain forest there are jaguar, ocelot, puma and tapir. 

This lady gives you a detailed account of her trip to the Chacchoben ruins. She does a good job of letting you know what to expect. While the video is from a few years ago, not much has changed in the process of getting there or in what you will see:

Travel to Costa Maya, Mexico

For more information on the Chacchoben Mayan ruins, check out Windstar Cruise’s travel guide on the historic site. Whether you seek out a cruise ship excursion or a guided tour, your trip will guarantee that you find Costa Maya unforgettable.

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