This article is from the March 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

The Mayan Ruin of Dzibilchaltu

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at

About eight or nine miles outside of Merida, on the road that goes to Playa Progresso, is the small ruin of Dzibilchaltun. Although the site itself is said to be fairly extensive, little of it has been excavated, and you can see most of it in a couple of easy-paced hours. However, in my view, the best part of this place is its lovely cenote, so you might want to linger. 

I had never heard of this ruin, but my interest was piqued by a poster in a travel agency in Merida where I was booking a tour to Uxmal. The poster showed a solstice photo of the Temple of the Seven Dolls and it was striking. I’m sure there must be a tour that includes Dzibilchaltun, but after several days of trying to find one, I ended up just taking a cab for about $6. It took about fifteen minutes to get there. 

At the entrance is the tiny church still in use that serves the village of Dzibilchaltun. Following the dirt road, you come shortly to a modern little museum containing artifacts from various Mayan sites throughout Chiapas and the Yucatan, as well as some of the strange little figures from which the Temple of the Dolls derives its name. Perhaps the most interesting item is one of the actual ball court rings from Uxmal – the ring found at the site is a reproduction. Included as well are some of the 25 or so stellae that have been found at Dzibilchaltun. The museum is cool and well-laid out with bilingual explanations of each exhibit. As you exit the museum, the curving gravel path leading to the site is lined with more stellae. 

While Dzibilchaltun will never be considered a major Mayan site, it has a charm all its own that most of the larger, more impressive ruins don’t have. There are wildflowers everywhere (at least there were in the spring when I was there) and the excavated buildings are not far apart. There is a short raised causeway that connects the two most notable areas of interest – at one end is the Temple and at the other are two small plazas around which are several other partially restored structures, one of which is clearly the remains of a Spanish-styled church constructed of stones taken from collapsed (...or deliberately destroyed...) Mayan buildings. Along the causeway some residences of the elite inhabitants of the original city can still be found, complete with carvings illustrating the roles of the people who lived in them. 

However, for me, the most delightful part of the whole place is its beautiful cenote. Unlike many of the wells found in other ruins on the Yucatan (notably Chichen Itza), which are deep, stagnant pits of green water, Cenote Xlacah is large, kidney shaped, and is notable for its varying depths. On one side the water is 4 feet deep, on the opposite side 44 feet. It is a refreshing clear blue, sprinkled with lily pads and delightfully shaded by small trees, and a favorite place for locals to come for picnics and swimming. On my first visit, there were several Mexican families enjoying the cool water and nearly deserted grounds. On subsequent visits, I have always brought a bathing suit and a book. For all that the traffic going and coming from Merida is all around, this is one of the most peaceful places I have found to just zone out and relax.

As we are all aware, the Yucatan is fairly littered with some of the most significant of the major Mayan cities, each of which offers important insights into the pre-Colombian world of the area’s indigenous people. Largely unadvertised and therefore less known to some of us is the fact that one can also find multitudes of smaller, less impressive sites that are equally unique and illuminating examples of the architecture, culture and religious practices of these same people. Often, in order to find these more obscure sites, you have to dig a little, talk to the locals and just plain nose around, but in my experience, the people of the Yucantan, and Merida in particular, are very responsive to honest curiosity. My first visit to Dzibilchaltun was made by myself, but later – in asking questions of some local young people in a Burger King – I found a college student named Karime who took me back and explained to me what each of the structures was. I’ve met some lovely people in Mexico, but this young lady was probably one of the most impressive. Her knowledge of the area and her willingness to educate me remain some of my most pleasant impressions of Mexico, along with the delightful place she shared with me. So if you happen to be hanging around Merida with a free afternoon, by all means check out Dzibilchaltun – it is unlike any other place I have found so far and even if it doesn’t light your fire, you won’t regret the time spent there. I guarantee it.