Exploring Kohunlich Maya Ruins and Temple of the Masks

The Mexican government is reporting an impressive tourism boom to its Maya ruins region this year.  This is mostly attributed to the December 21 apocalyptic prophecy due to the ending of an ancient Maya calendar – all myth as we were told repeatedly.  Our Western Caribbean cruise last month included the port of Costa Maya which offered various ruins to explore.  We were here a few years ago and decided to visit one we haven’t seen about two hours away – Kohunlich (pronounced KOE•HOON•LEECH).

Kohunlich Mexico plaza

Kohunlich was first discovered in the early 1900s by an American archaeologist and re-discovered by a group of villagers in 1968.   Excavations began in 1969 but two-thirds of the area is still buried.  This ancient city was built in the early 6th century and abandoned in the 12th century.  Since the site’s original name was not known, it was called Kohunlich which was derived from the English word “Cohoon Ridge” — for the numerous Cohoon palms, which resembled mini coconuts, common in the area.

Kohunlich Temple of the King

Kohunlich Temple of the King

Its distance from major tourism areas gave the place a serene and mystical atmosphere.  Surrounded by a lush rainforest, most of the remaining structures on site were used for religious, administrative and residential purposes.  Many of the stuccoed buildings were primarily painted red embellished with stuccoed figures and geometric designs.  It was a good exercise to imagine it in its days of grandeur and visualize the residents in their daily routines.

Kohunlich stelae plaza

Kohunlich Stelae plaza

The largest construction building originally shaped like a “C” was the Acropolis.  This was a vast residential complex which had 26 feet (8 m) high vaulted interiors.

Kohunlich Acropolis

Kohunlich Acropolis

The center stairs led us to multiple chambers and patios that looked out into the plazas.

Kohunlich acropolis

Kohunlich Acropolis

Next to the Acropolis was the palacio.  The palace didn’t exactly exude royal dwelling standards but was considered an elegant residence for the more prominent Kohunlich people.  Not much of the structure remains with trees and plants invading its crevices.

Kohunlich Palace

Kohunlich Palacio

The Western Residential Complex housed the high ranking artisans who specialized in shell artifacts.  It was believed that the ancient city was a regional trading center.  Worker and peasant quarters were placed elsewhere far from these residences.

Kohunlich residential complex

Kohunlich residential complex

One of the great things about Kohunlich was the freedom to explore and climb the structures compared to other Maya ruins in the area.  The wide open spaces were perfect for kids to run around in and discover hidden corners.

Kohunlich acropolis

While there were plenty of structures to see, Kohunlich’s main attraction and most important architectural site was the Pyramid or Temple of the Masks built around 500 AD.

Kohunlich temple

The impressive masks made up the lower side panels of the pyramid with the center stairs leading to chambers on top.  These  sculpted stucco masks were about 6-8 feet ( 1.8 -2.4 m) high each still showing remnants of their original color.
Kohunlich Mexico Temple of the Mask

They were positioned to look towards the sunset and believed to represent Kohunlich rulers in the form of the Maya Sun God “Kinich Ahau” – one of the more important Maya deities.

Kohunlich Temple of the masks

The magnificent three-dimensional faces and its surrounding areas were filled with many symbolic messages open to many and debatable interpretations.

Kohunlich Temple of the Masks

These remarkably well preserved masks were protected through the years by a construction of a later temple over them.  It is now covered and protected by two large thatch roofs though obscuring some of its views.
Kohunlich Temple of the Mask

To see these masks up close, we had to climb the adjacent steep stairs and patiently waited for our turn to see the intricate details carved on them.   Although, it was definitely worth the climb to the top of the stairs for stunning views of the forest canopy.

Kohunlich forest view

Was it worth the long, four-hour round trip bus ride?  Absolutely.  The masks were incredible Maya treasures and were truly unique.  The park-like setting, sprawling plazas, captivating history and remaining structures were amazing.  It was a memorable visit and ignited our desire to explore more archaeological ruins in the future.

Kohunlich Maya ruins

Visiting Mayan Ruins with Kids

These Mayan ruins can only hold kids’ interests for a limited time.  We knew it would be a challenge to keep them occupied but one of the great things about Kohunlich was the expansive grassy areas to run around in and structures to climb and explore.  But, we also wanted our kids to walk away from here with some knowledge.   We engaged them in a few activities to experience these amazing ruins that maybe you can try with your kids.

  • Close your eyes and imagine how this place looked back then using what’s left of the ruins.  We gave them summaries of what we learned from the guide and pointed out what building they were looking at used to be.  Luckily, some of the architecture held their interest long enough to ask questions.
  • Ask them to identify items they saw in the surrounding the area of the masks and what they may have meant.
  • Ask them what they thought kids their age did in this area or how they lived.

Have you been to Kohunlich or any of the Maya ruins in Mexico?

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