Posted by: ktzefr | May 18, 2016

Roaming Yucatan’s Back Roads: Acancéh

Road to Celestun, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcettI grew up exploring the back roads of Appalachia, those curvy, mountainous ribbons of asphalt linking one small town to the next…roads that wander in a dozen different directions, never seem to end, and all look alike.  It’s easy to get lost, but getting lost is half the fun.  So I like to explore when I travel, and I look for a local guide who knows the back roads.  Yucatan’s roads are nothing like Kentucky’s hilly, crooked byways; they are as straight as an arrow and pancake flat.  Sometimes they lead to surprising places.


The extraordinary town of Acancéh (ah-kan-KAY) is a place that could only exist in Mexico.  Though it’s main plaza and surroundings could serve as a picture-perfect example of the history of Yucatan, from its Maya roots to Spanish colonialism to the modern era, the town has been generally ignored by tourism.  The central square, like every plaza in every Mexican town I have visited, is dominated by a church.  In the case of Acancéh, however, the yellow 16th-century Franciscan church shares this grandest space in town with a large, centuries-old Maya pyramid.


Maya pyramid at Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

Maya pyramid at Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

It’s fascinating to see these two standing side-by-side, especially when the hustle and bustle of the modern world is also happening around us.  People come and go to work and school and market.  There is laughter and music.  Barking dogs and birdsong.  The ruins are literally in the back yards of businesses and homes, and there’s a park across the street with fountains and gardens and a prominent deer statue.  Acancéh is the Maya word for “cry of the deer” or “groan of the deer” or “dying deer” or “lament of the deer” — depends who you ask.  Suffice it to say that it has something to do with a sad or sick deer.

The church on the town square — Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Natividad — is grand in size but simple in decoration…

Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de la Natividad, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcettIMG_4801









During the colonial period churches were often built with stones from the pyramids and many times they were constructed right on the pyramid site. But, for some reason, the Spanish allowed the pyramid in Acancéh to stand.  And there is a second one behind the first and a third ancient building a little ways down the street.  Archaeologists believe that between 300 and 600 AD, when Acancéh was an important Maya city, there were as many as 400 buildings in this area.

The pyramid on the town square…

Maya pyramid, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo: KFawcett

Maya pyramid, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo: KFawcett

The most fascinating thing about the plaza pyramid is the giant masks.  When one of the older layers of stone was uncovered it revealed several distinctive carved masks facing each of the cardinal directions.  They are some of the finest of their kind that survive.  The enormous masks are protected by corrugated fiberglass shelters atop a scaffolding with stairs that offer an easy climb up for a closer look.

Huge stucco masks atop the pyramid in Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

One of the huge stucco masks atop the pyramid in Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

IMG_4818We hitch a ride with a local taxi (Yucatan’s version of the 3-wheeler is used to haul supplies, firewood, food, and people — kids to school, grownups to work, travelers around town).  It’s just four blocks to the third restored building — the Palacio de los Estucos. 


This palace of stuccos may have originally been a residential complex for the rich or some sort of administrative building.  No one knows.  Today, it’s deserted — except for the iguanas.  There is no scaffolding, so I get my first experience climbing a pyramid the hard way, stone by stone.


Palacio de los Estucos, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

Palacio de los Estucos, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett


At the top, an arched passageway leads to the stuccos, which give this palace its name.  There are a number of identifiable figures — animals and glyphs.  Is that a rabbit in the center?  


Palacio de los Estucos, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

Palacio de los Estucos, Acanceh, Yucatan; Photo:KFawcett

I am captivated by the ancient masks and glyphs and the eerie silence of these places void of other visitors in spite of the activity going on around them.  I don’t realize until much later that I didn’t take a single photo of the town and surrounding jungle from atop the pyramids! 

And so we are off to the next stop…Tecoh (more on this town later). 

Enroute we pick up a hitchhiker, a young boy headed from one of the villages into town to sell sweets that his grandmother had made. 


Yucatan’s back roads are, indeed, chock full of all kinds of goodies!



Some tour companies and private guides now offer visitors day trips along the Ruta de los Conventos (Convent Route), stopping at a number of small towns and villages to see the old Spanish churches, Maya ruins, and markets, including Maní, Teabo, Chumayel, Mayapán, Tecoh, and Acancéh.


















  1. Definately glad that I signed up for your bio-email’s, you are a great writer and tourism rep for Mexico. Keep them coming please.

    • Thanks Clark. In spite of the bad press we often see about Mexico, it is a big country with so many wonderful and safe places to visit with great cultural experiences.

      • I agree. Every time we have been to MX we have rented vehicles and traveled the countryside.Our next trip is to Telchac Puerto, we plan on driving the area within 3 hours of the house. Previously we have been to Cabo/San Jose del Cabo/Cancun/Tulum/Akumal, this trip we will fly into Merida and check out the Yucatan. Your writings will help us a lot as we love to see the ancient historic area’s with less tourists. Once again thanks for writing these articles you have composed.

      • Clark — Merida is one of my favorite cities in Mexico — clean, pretty, safe with excellent museums, galleries, and restaurants. The historic center is huge and you could spend days exploring and not see everything. Lots of interesting day trips in easy distance. Don’t miss Celestun’s mangroves. The only disappointment you may have is in the beaches. Neither Telchac nor Progreso nor others along the west coast of the Yucatan are nearly as pretty as Tulum/Akumal/Cancun. Much less touristy, however, except for the cruise ship port in Progreso. If you like cenotes, see the pretty one (and great little museum) at Dzibilchaltun (15 min. from Merida enroute to Progreso).

      • From all of your travels versus ours, which are your favorite places overall? Ours would be Grand Cayman and Maui. We are looking forward to Merida area and Yucatan visit, we knew the beaches would not compare to Tulum-Akumal/Cancun, but we will have our own pool and can walk the beach for shells, enjoy the people and sights of the area. My wife does not do spicey foods and that seems to be our biggest problem travelling to MX, but having so much fish available has always been the life saver. We do love to travel, and also to come back home; I am foreign born but visiting home every 2 years is adequate to check in on family/friends, home is the USA for my first choice. We live in such a great world don’t we?! Really looking forward watching the manufacture of sissal from a cactus plant! I still have some of your stuff to read but will get to it soon.

      • My favorite island is St John in the US Virgins. Also enjoy island hops to the BVI. Maui is lovely, but my favorite in Hawaii is Kauai. Love the choice of restaurants on Grand Cayman but a bit too crowded on beaches and doesn’t have the natural beauty of the Virgins. So depends what is a priority for you. I like Yucatan, of course, but my favorite Mexican state is Guanajuato for the historical cities (Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Dolores Hidalgo), and the great cultural activities, art, music, food, etc. always a fiesta! Not all Mexican food is spicy once you get away from the Americanized version of the beach resorts. In Merida, for example, there is a large Lebanese population and some wonderful places for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. Italian, Greek, French, etc. Also many other regions in Mexico are represented with all kinds of Mexican dishes that are terrific and not spicy/hot. You may enjoy a tour of Sotuta de Peon to see how the sisal is produced. You can have lunch there and there are a number of little towns and villages, including Acanceh, in that area.

      • How will you ever write more articles if I keep bothering you. In regards to Grand Cayman, we have never stayed on 7 Mile Beach side, we always go to the opposite end or around the horn where we can see 7 Mile Beach at night from Starfish Point. The beach there is fabulous, and quiet with minimal tourism; We tend to go to 7 Mile Beach on days when cruise ships are not docked. I check the schedule online and plan ahead to go to that side on those days. I am out on lots of people, maybe because I was in Customer Service for many years. Kauai was nice but it seemed to have businesses start closing down, we had a condo there for several years so naturally we would agree it is beautiful, I like Barking Sands as it is off the beaten path and isolated. I already have Sotuta de Peon on the agenda to visit as it caught my interest and then your suggestion of Acanceh and inside Merida for carriage rides,flowers,fountains, museum’s and Cathedral. I appreciate the insight on other foods and will pursue European flavor. Have you used the drug buying ability in Progreso, not that I need a lot as I am taken care of by Uncle Sam treating Agent Orange symptoms, but my wife likes Penicillin and Nexium, I have read that there are loads of drug sources there!? I did find the rental vehicles to be very high priced, even for Mexico in Merida, but it is a necessity, and getting around is just far more convenient with a vehicle. Stick shifts work for me but automatics are a lot easier when your lost in the city! Thanks as always for taking time for us out here.

      • Clark…yes, I must go back to Cayman and stay somewhere besides 7 Mile Beach. I did love the variety of excellent restaurants and the people are super friendly. My husband and son also enjoyed the diving. Not sure about over the counter stuff in terms of price, but I know lots of prescription meds are easily available over the counter. We went to Kauai many years ago and I know the lovely place we stayed has been closed for some time. Too bad as it is such a naturally beautiful island. Favorite restaurant in Merida: Apoala, at Parque Santa Lucia, four blocks from the main plaza. Eclectic mix with excellent Oaxacan selections. I didn’t have anything I would consider spicy/hot, but I did eat chapulines/grasshoppers for the first time! Any questions, email: with “blog reader” in subject. Happy travels.

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