A short drive from the Xtampú Salt Mines lies the ancient Mayan site of Xcambó, a small group of low-lying pyramids, temple complexes and stone structures that would have once been a thriving and important commercial port – exporting what else but salt – and one of the few Mayan sites built on the coast.
Salt production was the mainstay of Mayan life at Xcambó from the late pre-classic period of 100 BC to 250 BC – reaching its peak trading capacity between 250 AD and 900 AD when it was the most important commercial port in the entire north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. In the Mayan-Yucatecan language, Xcambó has two meanings, one option being ‘celestial crocodile’, whilst the other, a more likely name, is ‘a place of barter’, with salt trading both to the nearby cities of Thó (modern day Mérida) and Izamal, but also the far-flung corners of the Mayan world such as Guatemala and beyond to the ancient Toltec city of Teotihuacan and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan both high up in the centre of Mexico. During the excavation of the site, more than 600 human graves were recorded (many skulls with jewel-set teeth), buried along with hundreds of precious objects, many of foreign origin.
We had the whole site to ourselves in the intense heat and blazing sun of late morning – well, just us and the many large Iguanas baking themselves on the stone blocks. Us, the Iguanas and some huge raptors, circling and swooping beneath the jungle canopy every now and again, plunging low to the ground looking for a nice plump snack or two.
Xcambó isn’t a large site, it’s quite intimate actually. It’s set in a jungle clearing and some of the buildings have a distinct miniature ‘Tomb Raider’ look about them… But what it lacks in size it makes up for in presence. Unlike other Mayan sites nearby, you can freely clamber over the ruins – the pyramids and low stone-built platforms. And standing in the grassed central ‘court’, with the swaying palms and scurrying iguanas, you can close your eyes and just imagine the bustling street-life and busy trade that once thrived in this place.