My girlfriend and I lived in Merida for about a month when a friend recommended visiting the Dzibilchaltun ruins — pronounced zib-bee-chal-toon — the closest Mayan ruins to the Yucatan city.
You’ll also see it spelled Dzibilchaltún with the accent.
“It has a cenote you can swim in, so, even if you don’t like the ruins, that’s still fun,” he told us.
He was born and raised in Merida. So, I figured it’d surely be him if anyone knew the hidden gems.
I googled Dzibilchaltun Mexico, and I knew instantly.
“We’re going tomorrow,” I said to my girlfriend.
Everyone knows about Chichen Itza (Chichén Itzá). It gets all the fame and glamor, and deservedly so. But, there are hundreds of ruins scattered around the peninsula. And they’re equally fascinating.
One of these is the Dzibilchaltun Mayan ruins.
Dzibilchaltún sits 30 minutes north of Merida’s center. The site sits back, nestled among thick vegetation that obscures it from plain view, inside Parque Nacional Dzibilchaltún, a “zona arqueológica” in Mexico.
Dzibilchaltún sits 30 minutes north of Merida’s center. The site sits back, nestled among thick vegetation that obscures it from plain view.
When was Dzibilchaltún built?
The ruins may not look like much at first glance, but it was once a critical and longstanding city for the Maya. Dating back to 500 B.C., people still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
And you can see its age when you look at the ruins.
The tall, imposing structures stand firmly on the ground, rising high into the air like a colossus ready to swing down on you.
The stone steps look easily traversed from afar but are an ankle sprain waiting to happen up close. Stones lie next to each other with large creases between them. And the grass grows in every nook and cranny it can find.
You can feel the history as you stand on top of the structures. It’s buried deep in the stones, and it has a certain magic about it.
Similar to the feeling of visiting Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, or another set of ancient ruins. Like the people and culture are still there, and at any moment they could appear.
Temple of the Seven Dolls
The most famous structure at Dzibilchaltún is the Temple of the Seven Dolls (Templo de las Siete Muñecas).
This structure gets its name from seven dolls found while they were excavating the site. No one knows their purpose or why they were in the temple.
Maybe these were the Cabbage Patch Dolls of the Maya?
The dolls are not the most fascinating feature of this temple, though.
What was Dzibilchaltun used for?
Humans learned a lot through Mayan math and Mayan astronomy. They built their structures perfectly aligned with the cardinal directions and, being agriculturalists, based their lives around the sun.
And the Temple of the Seven Dolls is no different. If you can, try to visit Merida’s Dzibilchaltun ruins on a special day: the Dzibilchaltun Equinox.
On the Spring Equinox (March 20 to March 21) and Autumn Equinox (September 22), visitors can watch the sunrise cast an interesting light and shadow mix through the doors and windows.
The equinoxes held special significance for the Maya because of their relation to planting and gathering harvests.
With the amount of planning and calculating that went into these buildings, I can guarantee I would have failed Mayan math classes.
The Temple of the Seven Dolls isn’t the only set of ruins onsite, though. The Central Plaza is where most of the ruins lie.
The Open Chapel
An open chapel (Capilla Abierta) sits in the center. Stones stack up to comprise a closed archway. Dirt and grime run down it, telling stories of a long existence.
The most intriguing thing about this chapel isn’t the building, however. It’s the surrounding buildings. Spanish custom was to destroy all native buildings, then build their own in their place.
This wasn’t the case at Dzibilchaltun.
On all sides, large Mayan structures surround the Open Chapel. Why these were left standing is still up for debate, making this an incredibly unique site in Yucatán and an interesting piece of anthropology and history.
Large parts of the chapel have been restored and replaced since the early 1900s, which is a tad bittersweet.
I could see these buildings and know their history because they’re still here. Yet, I’m fully aware that someone in the recent past reconstructed and restored them using modern tools and technology.
In other words, this isn’t the 16th-century Spanish-built chapel anymore.
It’s the Kim Kardashian version. Parts of the old remain, but it’s been largely overhauled and is completely different.
And now we arrive at the cenote in Dzibilchaltún: Cenote Xlacah. The perfect antidote for a hot day
This beautiful body of Aquafina-clear water is 144 feet deep and around 300 feet long.
Saltwater surrounds the Yucatán Peninsula and, with no nearby rivers, cenotes would have been the only water source for the Maya.
Because of this, they probably held ceremonial and religious importance, with researchers finding pottery and jewelry in the sinkholes.
Today, the spot is perfect for a local Mexican family (and the occasional gringos) looking to cool off in the Yucatán heat.
The day I visited Dzibilchaltún, around 10-15 families dotted the edges of the cenote.
How do I get to Dzibilchaltun?
The easiest way to get to Dzibilchaltun from Merida would be to take a taxi or an Uber. The ruins are only nine miles north of the city, so getting to them is easy. It takes around 19 min. to get there via car.
You can get a Merida-Dzibilchaltun bus, but this isn’t the easiest thing to find. You mostly have to look for the bus labeled ‘Dzibilchaltun’. Most information online about this is vague.
So using public transport is a more difficult option.
Dzibilchaltun Entrance Fee
The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance fee is around 230 pesos ($12) and includes everything.
I hope taking you through this step by step with me helped out! The ruins are a perfect day trip for singles, couples, and families, especially if you have kids who like to swim.
Be sure to let me know if this helped out in the comments. And, if you’re visiting Mexico, you should check out Holbox and a weekend spent there.