Say “Xel-Ha” and many tourists visiting Tulum, Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Akumal will think of an all-inclusive snorkelling theme park. However, located just opposite this theme park – and with a significantly smaller entrance fee – lies another Xel-Ha: the ancient Mayan ruins.
Receiving just a fraction of the amount of visitors the commercial park gets, Xel-Ha is a surprisingly overlooked gem. With its well-preserved, colourful murals, convenient location and stunning cenote one might presume a visit here would have you fighting crowds. But on the contrary, odds are you’ll have this site all to yourself.
Here’s a post with all you need to know to plan your visit here!
Xel-Ha: From Trade Port to Iguana Territory
Inside the dense Yucatán jungle the sounds of the busy highway located right next to this site are easy to phase out. Colourful butterflies flutter by and bright blue and yellow birds swoop over our heads, chirping and tweeting loudly.
Walking around the area, it feels as though we are the first visitors in a long time. Hundreds of iguanas scatter as we move along the paths. Compared to the lazy, sun-loving iguanas at the Tulum ruins, these guys are clearly not as used to seeing humans and seem almost shocked we dare intrude and disrupt their day. We move along carefully, trying not to disturb them.
History in a Nutshell
- The roots of Xel-Ha go back as far as around 300 B.C.
- By 600 A.D. Xel-Ha had established itself as one of the key coastal trade ports of this region. Presumably Xel-Ha was one of the most important ports of the great city of Cobá, located further inland. Read more: Visiting the Ancient Mayan Ruins of Coba – A Complete Guide
- Many also believe Xel-Ha was used as a pilgrimage port for the sacred Mayan journey to the island of Cozumel, located off the coast from Xel-Ha. This annual pilgrimage, popular around 1200-1500 A.D. was in honour of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and health.
- During 600-900 A.D. new structures were built around several of the older structures. Largely thanks to this, many of the older murals hiding inside the older structures survived the test of time.
- The site was abandoned after the Spanish conquest during the 16th century.
Magnificent Ancient Mayan Murals
Xel-Ha might not be able to boast with the highest pyramids or the most meticulously excavated ruins. But it does have something that you won’t see visiting Chichen Itzá, Cobá or Tulum: beautiful murals.
I’ve visited a lot of ancient Mayan ruins and so far Xel-Ha is the only place where I’ve been able to see murals on site. This makes it a true must-see on the Yucatán peninsula. I know all you fellow ancient Maya fans out there can understand how special it is to see those beautiful, colourful murals in the surroundings they were intended for!
Unfortunately, the conservation of these murals is not great. Who knows how long they’ll be visible? I’m hoping that if this site would get more visitors, it would help prove how important this place is and thus help direct the funding needed. Either way, go before it’s too late!
Enjoy Natural Wonders
Of the few visitors that do visit most come to see the murals. However, as with many of the other archaeological sites in this region, there’s much more than history.
As cenotes were important and sacred to the ancient Mayans, it comes as no great surprise that there’s one here as well. However, the beauty of it does – you wouldn’t expect to find such a special place in this empty archaeological site.
Sitting on the edge of the cenote, admiring the still water is almost a spiritual experience. But if you’re feeling like it’s the perfect spot for a nice, cooling dip I’m sorry to tell you that won’t happen. There’s no swimming allowed here. But sit still for a while let your thoughts wander and imagine what it was like living here a thousand years ago.
In addition to the cenote there’s also lots of wildlife to admire, like the birds, butterflies and iguanas mentioned earlier. Remember to watch your step walking around the site!
There’s also less popular wildlife: mosquitoes a-plenty. So I’d suggest bringing an eco-friendly repellent with you.
How to See the Xel-Ha Ruins
You’ll notice once you arrive, that this is a very different experience from the mayhem of for example Chichen Itzá or Cobá. There are no guides offering their services and no shops selling souvenirs. A refreshing and welcome change if you ask me.
This also means that exploring happens independently. There are some information boards by the structures, but if you’re craving more history I recommend reading up ahead or bringing a good guidebook with you.
Close to the entrance you’ll find a map. I always suggest snapping a picture of these before proceeding, so you can check the map if you feel lost (remember, most likely you’ll be the only one here, so there’s no one to ask).
There are three main groups of structures. I recommend starting with the Lothrop Group and the Pyramid of Birds. The latter is where you’ll have the chance to admire some interesting murals depicting among other things – birds, hence the name of the structure. As previously stated, the murals were protected since another structure was built around the older one. When the newer building collapsed, the older one with the murals emerged. The murals are an impressive 1400-1700 years old.
From the Lothrop Group you can continue towards the Palace Group. There are two structures in the Palace group, dating back to 1200-1500 A.D.
Once you’ve seen the Palace Group continue along the trail towards the House of the Jaguar. The highlight of visiting this group of structures is the mural depicting a jaguar hanging upside down with its tongue out. You’ll find the cenote by this group of structures.
How to Get to Xel-Ha Ruins
Xel-Ha is located as conveniently as it gets. It’s right by the highway 307 between Cancún and Tulum and it’s super easy to find.
If you’re arriving by car, there’s free parking by the entrance.
Driving from the direction of Cancún (or Playa del Carmen) towards Tulum be on the lookout after you pass Akumal. Xel-Ha will be at your right side, on the opposite side of the sea and the theme park.
As it’s right by the highway you can get here with one of the colectivos (local shuttle bus) going between Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
In case you don’t have a car, but prefer to avoid the hassle of colectivos, taxi is also an option.
What to Bring
As there are no vendors on site or by the entrance, make sure you bring some water with you. Although most of the area is protected from the sun by vegetation, it still gets pretty sweaty.
The site is fairly small, but the walk to the House of the Jaguar and the cenote is around 500 metres from the entrance. There’s also a bit of uneven terrain whilst exploring the ancient structures. So a pair of good shoes is recommended.
Last, but not least – as previously stated, bring some eco-friendly insect repellent. The mosquitoes here are extra pesky!
Here are the most important facts in a nutshell:
- The ancient Mayan ruins of Xel-Ha offer a relatively unique opportunity to admire beautiful, colourful Mayan murals.
- In addition to the murals, one of the absolute highlights is the gorgeous cenote.
- Although it might look tempting, remember that swimming in the cenote is prohibited.
- The area is quite small and this site can be explored in as little as an hour.
- There’s free parking right outside the entrance gate.
- Xel-Ha ruins are located some 15 minutes from Tulum pueblo and the site is literally right by the highway – super easy to find!
- The entrance fee is only 75 Mexican pesos (around 4 euros).
- Bring some eco-friendly mosquito repellent and water.
- There are toilets by the entrance gate.
- This site is a must for all fans of the ancient Mayan empire.
- It’s also suitable for those who want to see at least some ancient Mayan ruins, but don’t want to invest time and money on one of the larger sites like Chichen Itzá or Coba.
- Opening hours are from 8.00-16.30.
- In contrast to the more famous ruins in the region, there are no crowds to beat. That makes this the perfect place to explore if you don’t like waking up early. Arrive whenever suits you best.
- No vendors on site or outside.