top of page
  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

The Mystery & Enigma of Maya Architecture

Maya architecture has three regional styles. Here Jim O’Kon, a specialist in Maya engineering and technology, encounters a range of exotic animals in the deepest rainforest whilst searching for the style of the Ruta Rio Bec

Aerial view of Rio Bec Temple B (Image: (c) Jim O'Kon)

Driving across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and traversing the Maya cities on the Ruta Rio Bec is a voyage brimming with ancient history blended into the experience of traversing a jewel of a rainforest. The magnificent Maya ruins constructed in the Rio Bec regional style are situated in the midst of a Biosphere Reserve that is home to exotic species of fauna including monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, toucans, macaws, parrots, wild boars, tapirs and dangerous snakes.

The jungle route affords the traveller the opportunity to view an incredible array of towering rainforest trees, a variety of exotic carnivorous plants, orchids of different species and myriads of insects. As you traverse the Maya sites it seems as though you are alone in the jungle and entering a state of suspended time. On the Ruta Rio Bec you will find yourself in mysterious places, zones of lost time and an enigma of otherworldly design.

The Rio Bec style

The regional architectural styles of the Maya include the Rio Bec, classic Puuc and Chenes styles. These styles are reflected in the design of the art and architecture that compose the magnificent structures located in ancient Maya cities. The Rio Bec style, with its mysterious and enigmatic designs found a special niche in the Maya philosophy of art and architecture.

Little is known about the secrets of the Rio Bec style. The monumental structures in the grand Rio Bec cities adopted this unique architectural style and the shapes and details of the buildings are enigmas of exotic design. They are spectres which materialise before your wondering eyes and will linger in your memories forever.

The cities decorated in the Rio Bec style offer a destination for pilgrims attracted by the mystical elegance of Maya artistry. The buildings exhibit examples of skilled stagecraft rather than functional design. At first glance the Rio Bec structures, carved with the typical details and decorations of a pyramid and its upper temple, appear to be actual functional buildings. You will see twin-towers that are shaped by narrowing toward the top giving an illusion of increased height that make them appear to be taller than they actually are.

Rio Bec Temple B (Image: (c) Jim O'Kon)

Their facades feature carved stone doorways that give the appearance of entrances to interior temple rooms that don't exist. Impossible slopes are carved in stone on the face of structures and stairs leading to the top that are not made to go up or down.

The Rio Bec style produced enigmatic temples and pyramids soaring above the rainforest that present no apparent purpose or function. The carved details, scrupulously preserved, present the vital and inseparable symbolic elements that shape the exterior appearance of the temple-pyramid.

Ruta Rio Bec is sited along a stretch of highway north of the Mexican and Guatemala border. The drive can be done in a day, but it is better to take your time enjoying Maya culture and history. The Maya cities in the Rio Bec region include Rio Bec, Xpujil, Becan, Chicanna, and Hormiguero. The ceremonial centres are grouped in close proximity. A base of operations in the village of Xpujil makes all the sites readily accessible.

Rio Bec

The ancient city of Rio Bec is a well preserved late classic ceremonial site secluded in dense rainforest. The road to the site is long and sometimes impassable but the effort to visit is worth the difficulty. The Rio Bec architectural style first appeared at Rio Bec and subsequently spread to other nearby sites.

Rio Bec was first discovered in 1912 by Dr Raymond Merwin and Clarence Hay and then subsequently ‘lost’ in the annals of Maya history. Temple B, the quintessential structure at Rio Bec, was the subject of a 60 year search throughout the dense jungle until it was rediscovered in 1973 by Hugh and Suzanne Johnston. Temple B, the most important building at Rio Bec, is significant in Maya history because its design characteristics serve as the basis for the Rio Bec architectural style.

The temples are characterized by a unique architectural style that began to appear during the seventh century CE and continued into the early twelfth century. The temple-pyramids consist of a range type building with typically two non-functional solid masonry towers located on both ends of the acropolis. The mysterious symbolic details carved into the stonework of the structure form the basis of the Rio Bec style.


Chicanna Structure II with mask of Itzamná (Image: (c) Jim O'Kon)

The site is near the main highway and is easy to reach. Arrival at the site places the visitor deep in the rainforest. Touring the site engulfs the visitor in a tunnel formed by the dense rainforest canopy.

Chicanna was built between 600 and 800 BCE. The name Chicanna means House of the Serpent Mouth in the Mayan language. The site received the name Chicanna because of an ornately carved doorway constructed to look like a large monster mouth. Elaborate stone architecture, pyramids and temples with incredible details are located around the site, which at 14 square miles is the largest of the Rio Bec cities.

Archaeologists stress the great beauty of Structure II, which is richly decorated with a huge mask of Itzamná, God the Creator. The mosaic of carved stone elements forms a fantastic work of art representing the face of Itzamná on the façade of the structure. The complex mosaic was stuccoed and painted with beautiful colours. The remains of red and blue stucco colours and red painted glyphs decorate the façade which is considered the most beautiful example of art within the area of the Rio Bec architectural style.

The pyramid at the site is topped by a tower that is articulated in carved stone details in the Rio Bec style. However, this structure has a small room at the summit and the doors are actually functional. Chicanna is truly a mystical site with its humid rainforest canopy and the exotic architecture that lends an air of mystery to the beauty of the site.


To read the full article which includes the sites of Rio Bec, Chicanna, Xpuhil, Becan and Horiguero:

CLICK HERE to download a pdf of the full article for 0.99p

CLICK HERE to download a pdf of the very first issue of Timeless Travels

CLICK HERE to find out more about what is in the first issue of Timeless Travels


bottom of page