The Cultural Heritage of the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico

As a direct consequence of the migration of the population and the ancestral settlement of the Mayan population, the Mexican Caribbean state of Quintana Roo is characterized by its diverse and rich cultural heritage.

The Cultural Heritage of the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico
The Cultural Heritage of the Mexican Caribbean: The Sacred and the Ancient Mayas. Photo by Pierce Levy / Unsplash

This Mexican Caribbean state is characterized by its diverse and rich cultural heritage, which is a direct consequence of population migration and the ancestral settlement of the Mayan population. Here, cultural traits of long tradition coexist with new manifestations that modernity and the baggage of the settlers bring with them, generating a dynamic and creative cultural plurality that is recognized as part of a development model.

The men and women who inhabit the territory have produced, in their historical development, material forms and objects, as well as symbolic discourses, which allow them to interpret their environment, relate, and adapt to it. As a result of these factors, an inventory of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that identifies particular groups and the entity, in general, is presented.

Archaeological zones and sites, civil buildings, fortresses, and monuments represent the history and artistic work that make up the cultural heritage of Quintana Roo. They are movable goods that were built by events that date back from the year 300 of our era to the XX century; from the imagination and the hands of the pre-Hispanic Mayas to the creativity of the carpenters and masons who built Payo Obispo.

According to data from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, there are 1800 archaeological zones and sites in the process of exploration and registration, 466 are registered in the Public Registry of Monuments and Archaeological Zones and 13 are open to the public. The heritage built by the Maya before the arrival of the Spaniards is worthily represented in places such as Tulum, Cobá, El Rey, San Gervasio, Muyil, Chacchoben, Kohunlich, Dzibanché, Kinichná, and Oxtankah.


Emblematically, this archaeological site represents the greatness of the pre-Hispanic Maya culture in Quintana Roo. In pre-Columbian times it was called Zamá and its diverse architectural and pictorial details denote that it was an important center of worship to the descending god. Its construction corresponds to the post-classic period between the years 1200 and 1450 of our era, although there is evidence of early occupation around the year 300. According to some testimonies, the city was still inhabited when the Spanish conquerors arrived. Currently, it is the third most visited archaeological site in the country.

El Rey

It is located in the current hotel zone of the main tourist city of Quintana Roo. Coexisting urbanistically with the big hotels of Cancun, this Mayan settlement of the III century AD was inhabited until the arrival of the Spaniards. Its inhabitants fished and traded with coastal towns such as Xcaret, Xel Há, Tulum, and cities in the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula. Imagining the life of the inhabitants of El Rey awakens the imagination with the best postcards framed by a turquoise blue sea.


Nestled in the jungle is an imposing Mayan settlement that dates back to 500 AD and maintained its occupation until the fifteenth century. In its moment of splendor, Cobá reached 50 thousand inhabitants. It stands out, among the exuberant vegetation that surrounds it, the building called Nohoch Mul, a structure 42 meters high from where the extensive Yucatecan plain is observed. The site preserves numerous inscriptions, ball games, and remains of an important Sac be. In the 6th century, due to its agricultural potential, demography, and socio-political structure, Cobá became one of the largest and most powerful cities in the northern Yucatán Peninsula.


Among the shade provided by a lush forest of corozo palms, the pre-Hispanic city of Kohunlich can be seen. Its name is attributed to the English word "cohoonridge". This important site in the south of Quintana Roo dates from 200 B.C. and its collapse is estimated in 1200. In its portentous buildings, ceremonial and residential, two architectural styles can be distinguished: that of the Bec River and that of the Petén; among them the Temple of the Masks and the Acropolis stand out.

Quintana Roo's historic building heritage is made up of 147 elements of its civil and religious architecture. Towns such as Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Tihosuco, Tepich, Sabán, Sacalaca, Huaymax, Xquerol, Chunhuhub, Polyuc, and Bacalar are places where one can still admire the churches built by the Franciscans during colonial times and also the former mansions of Spaniards and Creoles destroyed during the Caste War. The smoke of the fire was impregnated in the walls of these buildings as a testimony of a just movement of the Mayan people during the XIX century and that was, indirectly, one of the causes of the creation of the Federal Territory of Quintana Roo.


Until before 1847, it was the most remote and relevant colonial town in eastern Yucatan. Together with the town of Bacalar, they were the most important settlements, economically and administratively, of the Spanish crown in the territory currently occupied by Quintana Roo. However, on July 30 of that year, the Mayas decided to rise in arms and began the so-called Caste War. Tihosuco was besieged and taken by the insurgents and its inhabitants abandoned the place until it was repopulated by Mayan peasants in the third decade of the 20th century. The traces of that struggle remain in the church and convent of Niño Jesús as a testimony of that historical event.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto

The present city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto was founded in 1850 by the Mayas who were fighting during the so-called Caste War. Its original name was Noh Cah Santa Cruz Balam Nah and it was the capital of the rebellion for 50 years. From its church, called Balam Nah, the Holy Cross sent orders for the war. Remains of the military, economic and educational traces of the first half of the 20th century remain in this historic city: the train that ran from Santa Cruz de Bravo to Vigía Chico, during the boom of chicle exploitation and the indigenous boarding school built during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas.


Of the military architecture that is integrated into the material cultural patrimony as a historical good, the Fort of San Felipe de Bacalar stands out. It was built between 1725 and 1733 by Marshal Antonio de Figueroa y Silva to contain and prevent attacks by pirates and buccaneers from the Caribbean. Bacalar was one of the objectives of Diego Grillo "El Mulato", a pirate disciple of Francis Drake who also attacked the port of Campeche in those years of the strategy of weakening the Spanish Crown by other European countries.

Caribbean Architecture

During the first decades of Payo Obispo -currently Chetumal-, the influence of the Caribbean was remarkable. Due to the origin of its first settlers and the strong ties with British Honduras, the picturesque civil architecture of its buildings, made of assembled wood painted in pastel colors and tin roofs, represent the artistic assets of the current capital of Quintana Roo. It is a group of carpenters' works that have great significance in an urban context.


The capital of Quintana Roo is the place where the main symbols that give identity to the state have been elaborated. During the administration of Governor Rafael Melgar, 1935-1940, representative elements such as traditional dress and folkloric dances were defined. It was in the pre-Hispanic city of Chactemal, conquered by the Spaniard Alonso de Avila, where that Andalusian arquebusier, named Gonzalo Guerrero, gave origin to the mestizaje that centuries later José Vasconcelos recognized as the main element of the national identity.

Quintana Roo is a melting pot where diverse populations and cultural origins are mixed. The result is an amalgam that allows us to see an intangible cultural heritage where the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge, and techniques of groups and communities are maintained and transmitted. A colorful identity is thus formed, with multiple facets that can be visualized in music, gastronomy, beliefs, craft techniques, rituals, festivals, and oral history.

Mayan embroidery

Embroidered blouses, napkins, and aprons have an important cultural significance because they are part of the handicraft tradition of the Mayan community. In towns such as Xpichil, there are recognized embroiderers of these garments who, using the techniques of xokbilchuy, manicté and chuyká, reproduce in shaded and bright colors the symbolic conception of their origin and nature.

The Maya pax

Linked to the history and identity of the Mayas of central Quintana Roo is the maya pax: music and dance of the macehualoob people, a term used by the descendants of the combatants of the Caste War. Its repertoire, the organization of the musicians, as well as its sacred and festive character, arose during that armed conflict. The group integrates instrumentally the violin, the tarola, and a double drum. It is performed during the patron saint festivities held in the Mayan sanctuaries of Xcacal Guardia, Chunpom, Tulum, and Chancah Veracruz, as well as in the Mayan churches of several communities. In the town of X-Hazil, the Mayan pax dance is still alive in the new generations. Children and young people have formed a group of dancers who revitalize the teaching and transmission of their culture.

Towns such as Señor, within the municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, represent the typical Macehual settlement. Its men and women maintain a popular religiosity around the Holy Cross, which is venerated in sanctuaries such as Xcacal Guardia and family shrines. Their houses with the elliptical base, wood and palm roof, dress, and traditional foods make up their intangible legacy.

Island traditions

The slender geography of Isla Mujeres harbors cultural traditions that are the product of its inhabitants' relationship with the natural environment and contact with other nearby places. The island's fishermen are the creators of the dish called tikin xic, and musically, since the second half of the 20th century, authors such as Virgilio Fernández and Emiliano Martínez have composed works with strong Cuban and Yucatecan influences that give shape to a musical repertoire of their own that today, thanks to their descendants, is still in force: the island trova.


The island of Cozumel is an important tourist destination that has managed to maintain a balance between environmental protection, cultural manifestations, and the arrival of thousands of visitors from other countries. Its beaches, coral reef, and cultural manifestations such as handicrafts made with marine materials are part of its attractions. An example of this is the black coral and shell works made by its artisans.

Migrant dances

The south of Quintana Roo was the object of repopulation policies in the seventies of the 20th century. Peasants from different states of the Republic arrived to settle and found the New Ejidal Population Centers. In this migratory process, the communities brought their cultural complexes: gastronomy, beliefs, music, and agricultural techniques. Morocoy is one of these settlements of settlers who, from arid Coahuila, dance Los Matlachines to relate to the sacred world, recreated in the tropics of Quintana Roo.


It was a Mayan settlement that had its beginnings in the late Preclassic (300 BC), reaching its population climax in the Classic (400-700 AD), it remained until the late Postclassic (1500 AD). It is located in a transition zone between the lowland jungle of the north of the Yucatan Peninsula and the tropical rainforest of the Peten, occupies an area greater than 40 km2, and consists of four groups of monumental architecture; Dzibanché is the main group.

The name with which it is known is due to the military doctor and amateur archaeologist Thomas Gann who during his visit in 1927 called it Dzibanché which means "writing in wood" because of the carved wooden lintels located in the openings of a temple.

In the architecture of the place, the Petén style is observed that was replaced towards the Classic period by temples with facades decorated with paired pilasters, very high vaults, and bases with bodies decorated with talud-tablero, the architectural characteristics associate it with the Kaan dynasty, important in the region.