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Doorways that resemble gaping jaws, like this one at Chicanna, are an element of Rio Bec style

Ruta Rio Bec is an official name given to a series of Mayan archaeological sites lying along highway MEX 186 through the southern Yucatán peninsula, mostly in the state of Campeche. The route is marked with signs.

Rio Bec architecture[edit]

Mayan city builders used different construction techniques at different times and in different regions. Common elements of cities built using the Rio Bec style include:

  • Towers topped by false temples, emulating Mayan cities from the Peten region (especially Tikal), the towers serve no function and neither do the temples, they are meant to impress from a distance
  • Pseudo-doorways also are non-functional and purely decorative
  • Rounded corners on buildings
  • Decorated facades and doorways often with animal faces (enter the door through the jaws of a jaguar, snake, dragon, etc.)

Mayan archaeological sites on the Ruta Rio Bec[edit]

The core sites that make up the Ruta Rio Bec are:

Main building of Group B at Rio Bec

If you were in a hurry, you could drive the route in a single day, but you'll want to allow time to explore the different ruins and to learn a bit about their history and cultural significance.

Although not officially part of the Ruta Rio Bec, other Mayan sites nearby absolutely warrant a visit while you are in the area. Especially Calakmul, which is a large site set in the middle of a pristine jungle. Balamku is another local Maya site; it does exemplify elements of Rio Bec style but archaeologists didn't discover it until after the official Ruta Rio Bec had been published. Spending 2-3 days based in Xpujil could be a good strategy.


The archaeological zone lies just west of the modern town of Xpujil. Some Rio Bec features you can see at Xpujil include the mock pyramid architecture of the Main Temple with its non-functional steep staircases. The temple features a monster mask shape on the central doorway, another hallmark of Rio Bec style.

Witz masks, Structure V at Hormiguero

Rio Bec[edit]

If you want to experience an Indiana Jones feeling as you explore the Ruta Rio Bec, then you must visit the site that lends its name to the style. It's remote. It's hard to get to. There aren't any canned tours on tour buses. You'll probably be the only person at the site when you visit. Group B exemplifies almost everything about the Rio Bec style. It's got impossibly steep fake staircases leading up the non-functional towers and it's got rounded corners that are very unlike the square geometry of sites like Chichen Itza.


Monster mouth doorway at Chicanna

Until recently, access to the ruins at Hormiguero was unrestricted and free of charge. There were no facilities there (not even a parking lot) and access was via a dirt road. Now that the government is poring money into new infrastructure projects in the region that's likely to change. For the time being, Hormiguero is a lightly visited site that locals will be happy to guide you to if you'd care to hire a knowledgeable guide. The site is lightly maintained with many structures only partially excavated and rarely reconstructed. It's a site with grassy trails and a quiet atmosphere. The most important ruins at the site are Structure II and Structure V with its spectacular rounded corners (a Rio Bec signature) with its detailed relief sculptures called the Witz masks.


Chicanna was built around 300 AD and abandoned around the 11th century, then lay undisturbed in the jungles near Calakmul until the mid 1960s when archaeologists stepped foot in it for the first time in almost a millennium. The most famous "must see" building is Structure II, also known as the Serpent Temple, which is where you find the cool doorway of the gaping serpent jaws.


Becan is an oddly fortress-like city that's known for very high structures and a moat around the core city. Originally thought to have been built as a defensive fortification, anthropologists now believe that the "moat" was actually just the holes left in the ground from stone excavated to build the city. Moat sounds better though, plus you could put alligators in the moat for added protection.

Get in[edit]

From Chetumal, drive west on federal highway MEX-186 to Xpujil.

From Escárcega, drive east on federal highway MEX-186 to Xpujil.

From Cancun, Tulum, Chetumal, Merida or Campeche take the Tren Maya to Xpujil.

In Xpujil, you can hire a tour guide or a taxi to take you to the different sites. Several lodging and restaurant options are available in Xpujil.


  • Since you will be outside for long periods exploring various ruins, ensure that you wear a wide-brimmed hat to provide some shade and wear loose and light clothing. Be certain to bring plenty of fluids and at least some snacks.
  • The sunlight will likely be intense for much of the day. Wear a hat and bring sunscreen.
  • Do some preliminary research on the different sites before you visit. Otherwise they will start to blend into one another and you will not appreciate the differences between most of them.

Stay safe[edit]

Travel to the archaeological zone is generally safe as far as crime risks go, but natural risks are what you should watch out for.

  • Sunblock is a necessity, along with a hat and sunglasses. The afternoon sun in southern Mexico is extremely bright and light skin burns easily. The higher the SPF, the better.
  • Mosquito repellant is also a necessity. The Rio Bec area is a jungle environment and the sites are in a natural state. There's mosquitos and they may carry tropical diseases, from malaria to dengue. Some travelers recommend long pants and long-sleeve shirts to provide additional protection.
  • Animal risks beware of lifting or moving rocks because snakes and scorpions may be hiding there. Watch where you walk and what you touch. If you wander into the jungle, don't pet the jaguars and don't feed bananas to the howler monkeys.
  • Water bottles should always be carried at any archaeological site. The INAH staff usually sells bottles at the site admission booth, but some of the sites around Rio Bec are unmonitored by INAH. Besides, the day you depend on water being there is the day the water delivery guy calls in sick. Bring at least 1 liter at a small site or 2 liters at a large site like Edzna, where you may be walking around for several hours.

Go next[edit]

This itinerary to Ruta Rio Bec is a usable article. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.