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Tuesday, 01 May 2018

Lost in the Jungle: The Mayan Temple of Faces at Kohuhlich

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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A visit to two cities of the ancient rulers of the Yucatan: Kohuhlich & Tulum


The vines covered the grey stones with a lattice work of green. The cries of the howler monkeys from the trees sounded a warning to residents long gone. I climbed up narrow and steep steps of the temple toward the sky. You could almost imagine the priests of the temple looking out over the whole city from their vantage point at the top of the Temple of Masks at Kohuhlich. This old Mayan city sits near the border with Belize in southern Yucatan, Mexico, and is slowly being recovered from the jungle which has been trying to envelope it for hundreds of years.

The cloudy sky made the green of the jungle seem more luminous and the ruins more ominous. You enter the city along a dirt trail and the first structure you see is the Temple of the King. A stone pyramid guards the eastern entrance to this ancient city. The many city structures include a palace, ball court with stone bleachers, a large Acropolis, the Stellae Structure, and the Merwin courtyard named for the man who discovered it around 1909.

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The Temple of Masks sits at the far end of the city and faces to the west. It is only partially excavated but my tour guide told us the hill we were climbing to get to the temple was actually the lower unexcavated portion of this Mayan early classical pyramid that if fully cleared would be taller than the one at Chichen Itza. A huge thatch roof has been constructed to protect the structure and the impressive stucco masks that adorn each side of the main staircase. The masks faced west and must have been visible all over the city as the sun reflected off their painted features.

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The Temple was built around 500 A.D. and was originally painted red. A sign at the entrance of the complex gives a hypothetical representation of what the pyramid would have looked like. The masks were thought to represent the Sun god but later theories believe they are the faces of the former rulers of this important Mayan city along the southern trade route of their empire.

The masks are almost 5 feet tall and are flanked with images of snakes and other Mayan symbols. Five masks remain and the ones on the left side of the pyramid are better preserved. You can still see the traces of red pigment dotting their features. The faces are all different and it is amazing to think I might be looking at the likenesses of long dead Mayan Kings.

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The eyes of the masks are carved with a intricate pattern and the mouths seem to have fangs protruding from the sides. The Headdresses are still visible but must have been more impressive in color. Who were these rulers of this ancient city and how did they earn the honor to be preserved for hundreds of years? I will probably never know.

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The sun began to peek thru the clouds as I wandered thru the ball court and you could see where hundreds would have sat to watch an important game that had ceremonial and sacrificial significance to the Mayan people. The broken remains of twin columns hint at the structure that must have been at the far end of the Merwin plaza. The Acropolis is the largest structure in the city that is excavated and once held residential areas on its summit. This city has one of the most intricate rain water channeling systems that lead to a large reservoir that supplied the water for this city that is not near any river or stream. Much excavation remains if Kohunlich is to be restored to the level of Tulum or Chichen Itza.


Tulum is another ancient Mayan city that was built much later than Kohunlich. I visited it a day after I saw Kohunlich. It gives a totally different experience than the remote Kohunlich. It is fully excavated and this city by the ocean was surrounded by a stone wall. The only Mayan city built on the Caribbean.

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Tulum was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the landward side by a wall that averaged about 10 to 15 feet in height. The wall also was about 25 feet thick. There are five narrow gateways thru the wall and I had to bend over to pass through the western entrance. These low gates resulted in visitors entering the site in a respectful bowed posture. It is this impressive wall that makes Tulum one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya. It was occupied when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

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El Castillo (the Castle) overlooks the turquoise Caribbean waters and sits above the rest of the city. A stone stairway faces the city while the ocean side has a steep slanted wall. The wind blows strong here and gives the name to another temple facing the water called the Temple of the Wind. No jungle remains here and the sun must have beat down hard on the people as they went about their daily lives 800 years ago. While there are engravings and images on some of the buildings like the Temple of Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God, none compare with the masks of Kohunlich. However the location by the sea and its fully visible buildings makes Tulum unique and its architecture worth visiting.

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While Kohunlich is miles away from any town or facilities, Tulum is much closer to Playa del Carmen and has a well developed tourist center with shops and restaurants at its entrance. Tulum is much more crowded and commercialized. Kohunlich still feels isolated and remote.

Two different Mayan cities that share a common history but reflect different time periods of one of the greatest civilizations to inhabit the Americas. I will always remember Kohunlich and its temple with faces of long dead kings and Tulum for its beautiful vistas of the Caribbean.


©Jim Chamberlain

If you go:

Several different tours operate to these sites out of Costa Maya for Kohunlich and out of Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen for Tulum. They are numerous other Mayan sites you can also visit in the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Check your Tour company's safety record as some recent incidents have caused at least one cruise line not to use some operators any longer. Spring and Fall are the best times as temperatures are moderate and hurricane season is June thru September.


Last modified on Tuesday, 01 May 2018

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