A one-hour drive to the south of Mérida lies a low range of hills called the Sierra Puuc, site of a chain of ancient cities so majestic as to have earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The largest city in the area, Uxmal was a regional capital during the Late Classic period (A.D. 750 – 1000) of Mayan civilization. It dominated the nearby cities of Kabah, Nohpat and Mulchic and the ruling dynasty forged trade and political ties with other city-states in the Yucatán, including Chichén Itzá, a rising power that later became a rival. At the height of its glory, some 20,000 people are thought to have lived in and around the metropolis.
Collectively known as the Puuc Route, the cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná share a distinctive architectural and artistic style. Most of the buildings are long and low and are erected on platforms. The lower half of the walls are smooth and give way to elaborate carved friezes featuring masks depicting Chaac, the rain god, on the upper section, in addition to serpents, birds, jaguars, Mayan thatched houses or na and geometric mosaic patterns. The buildings also feature columns, arches and courtyards.
Water was scarce in the area, in contrast to the Yucatecan plain, there are no cenotes in the Puuc hills, and it comes as no surprise that Chaac was especially revered. Chaac masks and the carved likenesses of frogs and turtles, the sacred creatures associated with the god crop up at sites throughout the area. At Uxmal, Sayil and Labná, the Maya built chultunes or reservoirs to store the precious rainfall during the dry season. By the first years of 11th century, these sites had been abandoned and, given their dependence on artificial reservoirs for water, prolonged drought may have played a part in their downfall.
Seventy eight kilometers and an hour’s drive to the south of Merida via Highway 261, Uxmal is the first stop on the Puuc Route.
Standing 93 feet high, the Pyramid of the Magician dominates the Uxmal skyline. Legend has it that a dwarf with magical powers built this pyramid in one night; however, archaeologists have discovered that the elliptical monument actually has five different building phases. Mayan rulers would often erect new temples on top of those of their ancestors, thus concentrating sacred power and legitimizing their own rule and the symbol of a royal headdress around the doorway of the pyramid’s Temple IV indicate that it may indeed have been used for accession ceremonies.
Archaeologists have been excavating the temple and palace complex behind the pyramid since the 1990s. One of their first projects was to restore the intricate façade of the Temple of the Birds. The Maya held a number of birds sacred – the quetzal was associated with the celestial serpent; parrots, macaws, eagles, hummingbirds and jays were associated with the Sun god; the heron denoted lordly power and the owl was a symbol of death, night and the Underworld. At the Temple of the Birds, the ancient builders honored parrots, swallows and quetzals.
Behind the Pyramid of the Magician lies a plaza surrounded by four long, palace-like buildings on stepped platforms, called the Cuadrángulo de las Monjas or Nuns’ Quadrangle. Archaeologists believe that the complex may have been the abode of the ruling elite or the priestly order.
American explorer John L. Stephens and his travel companion English artist Frederick Catherwood visited Uxmal in 1841 and 1843. Stephens marveled at the magnificent courtyard and wrote in his book Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán: “Passing through the arched gateway, we enter a noble courtyard with four great façades looking down upon it, each ornamented from one end to the other with the richest and most intricate carving known in the art of the builders of Uxmal; presenting a scene of strange magnificence, surpassing any that is now to be seen among its ruins.”
A magnificent mosaic of fretwork adorned with two-headed serpents, Chaac masks, owls, jaguars, warriors, thatched huts and the woven mat design denoting kingship extends along the facades of the four palaces. Each one is different and they are thought to be representations of the Mayan cosmos: the east and west wings associated with birth and the setting sun, and north and south with the heavens and the Underworld.
Leave the courtyard by the arch and you see the Ball Court laid out in front of you and behind that a manmade hill crowned by the Palace of the Governor, one of the Maya World’s greatest treasures. American architect Frank Lloyd Wright hailed this building, thought to have been the ruler’s palace and meetinghouse, as one of the most impressive ancient monuments in the world.
The façade depicts Lord Chan Chaak K’ak’nal Ahaw, Uxmal’s most powerful ruler, above the central doorway, two-headed serpents and Chaac masks. The play of light and shadow across the stones creates the illusion of a huge snake undulating across the surface. A two-headed jaguar throne and a column lie in front of the Palace and, together with the central doorway of the building, are aligned to mark the passage of Venus.
Located next to the Palace of the Governor, the simple colonnaded House of the Turtles is named for its stucco sculptures of turtles, a creature associated with fertility and water.
Located on another mound next to the Palace of the Governor, the Great Pyramid consists of nine stepped terraces and four temples and was probably never finished. The presence of macaws and parrots on the temple frieze led archaeologists to believe that it was associated with the sun god although rain god masks are also visible.
Walk through the trees beyond the Great Pyramid and you’ll see El Palomar, called the House of the Doves by John L. Stephens because its nine roof crests reminded him of a dovecote.
Other groups at Uxmal, some of which have yet to be restored, include the Cemetery Group with its skull and crossbones motifs, the Stela Platform, North Group, Chimez Group, Phallic Temple and the House of the Old Woman or la Bruja (the witch who was the mother of the dwarf of Uxmal).
The evening Light & Sound Show is well worth staying on for. One by one the temples and palaces are illuminated as the narrator tells of life in ancient Uxmal and relates the legend of Sac Nicte, the fair princess of Uxmal, who was kidnapped by Prince Canek of Chichén Itzá, on the eve of her wedding to the rival Lord of Mayapan.
A 30-minute drive from Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest site in the Puuc hills. It was one of Uxmal’s vassals and the solitary arch that stands in the bush to the west of the highway marks the end of a sacbe or causeway that once linked the city to its powerful neighbor.
Kabah is famous for the Codz Poop, or the Palace of the Masks, a name that does justice to its magnificent façade consisting of 250 Chaac masks. Archaeologists working inside the palace found sculptured doorjambs showing foreign warriors and the statues of two men with tattooed faces who were probably nobles, in a pile of rubble.
Other groupings at Kabah include the Great Teocalli, a temple-pyramid mound yet to be restored, the East Group, where 14 chultunes were found, and the Building of the Columns.
Seven kilometers south of Kabah is Sayil, which means “place of the ants” in Maya and ants and termites do indeed thrive in the dry jungle and bush land surrounding the site. Recent research reveals that Sayil was a “garden city,” its palaces and more humble dwellings surrounded by orchards where chile, corn, herbs, and fruit trees were grown and irrigated with water from chultunes.
Sayil is famous for its three-tiered Palace, a long building containing 94 chambers, porticos, columns, Chaac masks and sculptures of the descending or diving god. The building owes its distinctive orange color to iron oxide deposits in the soil that once covered the limestone.
Other groupings at Sayil are the El Mirador Temple and the South Palace.
The site of Xlapak is best known for the Palace, a tiny but richly carved building in a forest clearing.
Ten kilometers to the east of Sayil, Labná is famous for its monumental arch, which was the gateway between the ceremonial plaza and a courtyard surrounded by palaces. The arch has an open work roof comb and its finely carved façade features Chaac masks, Mayan huts, nobles and geometric motifs. The largest building at Labná, the Palace is an unfinished masterpiece. Rain god masks and fret designs adorn the façade, further embellished by a huge sculpture of a reptile, possibly a crocodile, with gaping jaws that reveal a human head. Other groupings at Labná are El Mirador, a temple with a striking roof comb, El Castillo and the East building.
After you have visited Labná, if you still have time to spare why not visit Loltún Caves, which lie en route to the market town of Oxkutzcab. Loltún means “stone flower” in Maya, a reference to the stalactite and stalagmite formations in the different galleries, some of which have roof openings letting in light, tree roots and jungle creepers. Prehistoric cave paintings point to the nomadic bands of hunters who used the caves on their travels. The Maya later visited Loltún to quarry clay and stone and to make offerings to the gods. During the Caste War which began in 1847 and quickly spread through the Yucatán, the caves also offered sanctuary for Mayan refugees.
A guide will lead you through the caves pointing out strange rock formations resembling elephants, flowers and jaguars, haltunes or natural reservoirs and metates which are the stone grinding tablets used in ancient times to ground corn.
Getting to Uxmal
Uxmal is 78 kilometers and an hour’s drive to the south of Merida via Highway 261. Thomas More Travel offers day trips to Uxmal and a two-day trip with an overnight stay in Mérida. If you would like to explore the other Puuc Route sites, private van trips with a guide can be arranged or you may rent a car and explore this fascinating area at your own pace. There are hotels and restaurants in the Uxmal area and you can also use Mérida as your base.