The highlight to any visit to Kohunlich is the Temple of the Masks. This pyramid, set on a hilltop at the very back of the complex and is usually the last thing a visitor sees. It is partially covered with a thatch roof to protect the large masks on either side of the central stairs.
Visitors are free to climb to the top, but should take care because the footway is steep and uneven. Along the way you will be able to get a close-up view of the masks which give the pyramid its name. I will share more photos of the masks on the next tip.
On the east side of Merwin's Court is Kohunlich's Ball Court. It is fairly well-preserved and is exceptional because of its short length - 42 meters. Most Mayan sites of importance have such a court; many are larger.
The game played here had great symbolic content, which appears to have been related to a belief in the hereafter and to sacrificial rites.
According to our Mayan guide, young men who were the WINNERS in the game were put to death by decapitation, so that they could become rulers in the next world. They were assured of clear passage to Mayan Heaven without taking the intervening thirteen steps that the losing players have to do.
I suppose they must have been brainwashed from a very early age to believe such a notion. This reminds me of the same kind of blind faith that is instilled into young men of the Muslim religion who volunteer themselves to become suicide bombers, on the promise that they will be given a harem of virgins in paradise.
Some believe that in the Mayan games it was not the winners but the losers of the game who were sacrificed by being put to death. Perhaps it was either one or the other - depending upon the particular game being played.
On the far end of Merwin Plaza, across from the Temple of the twin columns, is what remains of the Building of the Eleven Doors. There's not much left to this ruin, and it would probably take an archeologist to determine that this structure once had eleven doors. Today the place is wide open.
On either side of the Temple of the Masks main stairs are a series of five stone masks. Originally there were six, but one was stolen. The faces are all representations of the sun god Kinich Ahau, although slight differences between them have suggested that each is also a portrait of a deified ruler.
The masks have conspicuously large lips and noses and the original colored stucco is still in evidence. They are are adorned with ornaments and headdresses. These masks are unique to Mexico. Two less impressive examples are at the Mayan site of Edzna. Archeologists believe that there was once some connection between these sites.
The Plaza of the Stelae constitutes the central space of the Kohunlich archeological site. It is one of the largest in the south of the state of Quintana Roo. This would have been the scene of various public events and ceremonies among the Mayan people who built and inhabited this ancient city.
With a little imagination one can see the parade of human activity that took place here between 800 and 1400 years ago, although it is very peaceful and quite today.
To the extreme east of the Plaza of the Stelae lies the Temple of the Stelae, also sometimes called the Palace of the Stelae, built around 600 A.D. At the base of this impressive structure stand three plain stelas which were probably stuccoed and painted in pre-Hispanic times.
A stelae is an ancient stone monument.
To the south of the Plaza of the Stelae, shaded by tall, Cohune palm trees, lies the Merwin Plaza, named after the man who discovered the city of Kohunlich. Surrounding this plaza are very low, ruined buildings.
This small square was built after the Plaza of the Stelae, perhaps to be used as a center for minor ceremonies. It is built in Rio Bec style. The buildings are lined with stuccoed figures, all painted in red.
To one side of Merwin Plaza is the Temple of the Twin Columns, so-called because of a double line of short columns lining its entrance.
According to our guide, this feature of twin columns is unique to Konulich among the Mayan archeological sites.
The Acropolis, the largest structure in Konhulich, was originally a "c" shaped building. It's most notable feature is the false steps on the North and East sides. Also, it has a vaulted interior eight meters high. The Acropolis is built in the Rio Bec style from Campeche.
This building was later covered entirely by a huge platform which may have held a residential complex with restricted access. Another residential wing seems to have been added toward the southwest at a later period. Ancient graffiti can still be seen on some of the interior stuccoed walls.
The Western Residential Complex can be seen on your left, immediately after entering the Kohunlich ruins area. This area is thought to have been inhabited between the years of 600-1200 A.D., and is probably functioned as living quarters for a group of high-ranking artisans who were dedicated to the manufacture of of shell artifacts.
By observing the distribution of the rooms one can see that they were the result of various construction periods - perhaps over centuries of time. Rooms have been sub-divided, remodeled and, in some cases, demolished. This probably occurred due to the need of expanded living quarters as the population grew.
The Palace holds a prominent place between the Western Residential Complex and the Acropolis. This construction was undertaken around the year 600 A.D. and was originally a one story structure. Later the first primitive dwelling was demolished and a platform was built upon which an elegant resident was built. It probably housed some of the highest-ranking people of Kohunlich.
Various modifications of the Palace took place over a 600 year period. It was even vandalized since many of the objects which were once in its interior were found thrown away as junk on the west side of the platform.
Kinichna is close by and contains a single large temple. This temple is unique as it has a giant base for a foundation. There is a large structure as you drive up the road to get to the site, which is under reconstruction. Kinichna is not listed on some maps.
Kohunlich is noted for its magnificent stucco masks of the Sun God, Kinich Ahau. These masks make up the lower four panels of the Pyramid of the Masks, and are noted for being the most refine and sensitive deity portrayals in all of Meso America.
Originally, each of these masks had been painted bright colors. Much of the red paint can still be seen on the mask surfaces.
The sloping thatched roof was installed by restorers of the site. It acts as a protective shield for the beautifully preserved set of stucco masks underneath.
On the path leading to the ruins, you will see an upside down tree. Our guide said it was uprooted and re-planted this way as a marker by the explorers who found the ruins, so they would be able to find it again - without signalling the site to other explorers in the area. What I can't figure out is:
1) how it continued to stay alive (since it is does not appear to be dead), and
2) wouldn't the sight of a tree growing upside-down attract MORE attention to the area, thus negating the purpose?
Thinking too much again - must need more tequila...
There are two pyramids at Kohunlich which can be climbed - the Pyramid of the Masks and the Temple Major. Both are STEEP and have no hand railings, so you must be very careful. Also, if you suffer from a fear of heights (as do I), be sure to not go alone. I had to sit on the steps and "bump" my way back down - a rather long and tedious method indeed!
The view from Temple Major was stunning - looking out into the jungle foliage, lots of beautiful exotic birds, and we could hear a jungle cat! The Pyramid of the Masks is also fantastic, but you are looking in, rather than out, since the 8' stone carved masks are the highlight here. I have another tip about that one especially.