Uxmal, (pronounced, oosh-mahl), is, in my opinion, the most aesthetically spectacular of all the Mayan cities. The beautiful jungle setting, the quality of the architecture, the state of preservation, the wonderful plazas replete with flowering trees. This place has it all, and it’s not even isolated–it’s a mere hour south of Merida, a city of a million people, and the capital of the state of Yucatan. You’d think it would be crawling with tourists! But that is absolutely not the case. And why not? Merida is a charming colonial city, the largest population center on the Yucatan peninsula, but it’s frankly not all that large an attraction for tourists. The flame that draws the legions of moths to this part of Mexico is Cancun, the world famous beach resort, located on the northeast tip of the peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo. Cancun, gateway to the Riviera Maya, received a respectable 4.8 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the premiere attractions in the entire Caribbean. People come from all over the globe, mostly for the beaches, the beer, and the bikinis, but the fact is, most of today’s tourists are no longer content to spend their whole vacation hanging out on a beach. Today’s tourists want variety, and a little excitement! They want–day trips! And a visit to a Mayan ruin makes for a unique and very popular day trip.
Every morning, rain or shine, squadrons of buses leave Cancun, hauling hordes of both foreign and Mexican tourists to Mayan ruins. But they’re not going to Uxmal, they’re going to Chichen Itza and Tulum, the two best known, most popular Mayan sites. These two destinations are in different directions from Cancun, so they can’t be combined, but either of them by itself makes a terrific single day excursion. Tulum is just two hours to the south, in a spectacular setting, right on the Caribbean. It’s a four hour round trip on good roads, in comfortable, air conditioned buses. You spend two or three hours at the ruins, and you call that a very good day. Chichen Itza? That’s the largest of all the Mayan cities. It’s farther, three hours to the west, so a six hour round trip, and you’ll need at least three hours at the ruins. That adds up to at least a nine hour day, but it’s still pretty casual, kicking back on those big, modern motor coaches. So–what about Uxmal? Unfortunately, Uxmal is four hours away, so you shoot a whole eight hour day just getting there and back. For most people, that tips the scales into the realm of the inconvenient, so they stick with Tulum or Chichen Itza, and Uxmal has remained a well-kept secret. It’s absolutely stunning, and it’s a snap to get to it from Merida. It’s just not easy to get to from Cancun, so few people have heard of it, and even fewer have visited.
The location of Uxmal, relative to Palenque and Cancun. Click for expanded view.
The name Uxmal is thought to be derived from the Mayan oxmal, which means “thrice built”, a reference to the various stages of construction–often separated by centuries–that are common to Mayan cities. Investigations at the site have confirmed that the city was actually rebuilt five times, with distinctive layers representing each phase. New buildings and larger pyramids were built atop existing structures, a perfect way for each new dynasty of kings to put their stamp on the place, by making everything taller, broader, and ever more impressive. The final version of Uxmal became one of the most important Mayan ceremonial centers of the late classic period, from 850 AD to about 925 AD. To put that in perspective, Uxmal was just starting to boom about the time Palenque began to fade. The two cities are separated by a significant distance, more than 500 km. While they may belong to the same tree (the sacred ceiba tree that supports the universe) they represent entirely different branches. Palenque is classic, old school, while Uxmal is thought to be at the pinnacle of post-classic Mayan art and architecture. The temple complex contains some of the finest examples of the Puuc architectural style in existence. The Puuc style is characterized by buildings with smooth, lower walls built of precisely fitted blocks, devoid of decoration, topped by ornate cornices with elaborate friezes of carved stone. The facade on the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal is 300 meters long, the second longest frieze in all of ancient Central America, and the complex as a whole, is, quite possibly, the best preserved Mayan ruin anywhere.
The Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, possibly the finest example of Puuc architecture in existence. Click for an expanded view.
I traveled from Palenque to Merida by way of Campeche, which was about a six hour drive, altogether. Campeche is home to one of Mexico’s largest fleets of shrimpers, so we of course stopped for a pretty great lunch of some of the freshest shrimp I’ve ever eaten. (There will be more about Campeche in a subsequent post to this blog–it turned out to be a very cool place)!
Coconut shrimp. Big suckers. (And tasty, too) Click? Of course.
My original intent was to use Merida as a base to explore Mayan ruins in the area, so we settled into the Dolores Alba, a quite decent hotel in the old part of town, and took a good look at our options. We found the Dolores by using the Mexican version of Expedia, a tool that proved to be surprisingly useful. The Mexican website was rather more comprehensive than the US version, listing far more hotels in the lower price ranges, and there were listings for even the tiniest towns and destinations in Mexico, with pictures, reviews, lists of amenities (important things like parking and wi-fi), plus current rates and availability. There’s a variable fee for the use of the service that isn’t entirely clear in the booking process, but it works out. They get you the best possible price–a negotiated rate, often cheaper than the best deal you can get walking in off the street with cash in your hand. The fees balance out with the discount, and what you end up with is the broadest possible range of choices, and the convenience of on-line booking, at little or no extra charge. We found some killer hotel options that way, including a place right next to the ruins at Uxmal. From our experience at Palenque, we’d already figured out that the best time to see these Mayan sites is right at the moment they open, when you’ve got that beautiful morning light, and before the crowds arrive. The ideal is to stay the night in the area, to make it easy to get there early, and Expedia made that possible for us. Our room was at a great place called the Uxmal Resort Maya. I won’t say it was perfect–this is in the third world, after all, so you can’t drink the water–but it was pretty darned nice, and for $40 a night, we felt we got a real bargain.
I’ve never been big on Expedia, or Orbitz, or any of the other websites people use for booking travel. My usual preference is to just go wherever it is that I’m going, and then find a place to stay after I get there. I rarely make reservations in advance, because I prefer not to lock myself in to a set schedule or itinerary, and I don’t like putting money down on hotels I’ve never seen. That technique has mostly worked for me in the past, but on this trip? Expedia.mx found me such nice rooms, at such great prices, that I’ve become a believer. Oh, I should mention that the Mexican Expedia is all in Spanish, and the prices are in Pesos. Don’t worry about it. If you’re traveling in Mexico, you need to know this stuff anyway, so it’s good practice.
When we got to Uxmal, a mere hour’s drive from Merida, we went straight to the archaeological park. There’s a pay parking lot with plenty of spaces. The charge is just 22 Pesos for the whole day, and there were no hustlers offering to watch, or wash, my car. The entry fee to the ruins was steep, compared to Palenque: 254 Pesos, about 16 bucks, but it turned out to be well worth it. There were no more than two dozen other visitors at the time we were there, so it was almost like having the place to ourselves. This was mid-October, still the rainy season, so still the off-season for tourist destinations, very much to our advantage. Up to that point we’d been really lucky with the weather. We’d had some rain in the afternoons and evenings, but all the mornings had been clear, and we were able to really enjoy the lack of crowds, at the hotels, in the restaurants, on the roads, and most definitely at the ruins.
When you enter the ruins at Uxmal, the first thing you see is the back side of the Pyramid of the Magician. At more than 115 feet in height, this is the tallest, most impressive monument at the site, and when you walk around to the front side, maybe move back a bit, so you can really take it in? That thing is one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen anywhere. There’s a powerful energy in that spot–maybe something to do with all the blood that was shed on the altars of human sacrifice at the top of those impossibly steep steps–but more than any building or other structure at any ancient ruin I’ve ever visited, more than any demonic ancient sculpture I’ve ever seen, that pyramid at Uxmal quite frankly terrified me. They won’t let you climb it anymore, because the steps are deteriorating, but even if it was allowed, I don’t think I would have tried–out of respect for all those lost, tortured souls who died there. Call me crazy, call me melodramatic, but I could feel all that, and it creeped me out. According to legend, the pyramid was built in a single night by a dwarf with supernatural powers–with the help of his mother, who happened to be a witch. Studies show that the structure actually took about 400 years to reach its current size, having undergone five separate phases of construction, just like most of the rest of the city.
Just beyond the Pyramid of the Magician you’ll come to the Nunnery, so called by the Spaniards who first visited the site, because they thought that the 74 small rooms surrounding the courtyard resembled nun’s cells. The stone latticework on the upper section of the quadrangle is an extraordinary example of the artistry of the Mayan stone masons. As you move around within the nunnery, the pyramid looms above you, and it’s easy to imagine Mayan priests emerging from the temples at the top of the structure, with their elaborate feather headdresses and their sumptuous robes, facing a throng of people in the plaza down below.
Map of the ruins at Uxmal. Click for an expanded view.
Coming down out of the Nunnery and moving to the west, past the remains of the ball court, then through an open area, you come to the Governor’s Palace, with its 300 meter long upper facade, and next to that, the half-finished Great Pyramid, and next to that, El Palomar, known as the the Pigeon House, and the Casa de Las Tortugas, the House of the Turtles. Unlike Palenque, there have been very few intensive studies of the ruins at Uxmal, and for such a well-preserved archaeological site, very little is actually known about the place. The buildings here all have fanciful names given to them by the Spanish, because nobody knows the real original uses of most of these structures.
Unlike most Maya sites there are no cenotes, no natural wells in the limestone bedrock at Uxmal. Instead, there is a series of man-made reservoirs and cisterns lined with lime mortar for storing rainwater in the dry season. The scarcity of water in this part of the Yucatan explains the ubiquitous depictions of Chaac, the Mayan rain god, on every building and every facade throughout the ceremonial complex. It’s highly probable that any period of extended drought would have created a significant hardship on the residents here, and drought may well have been the cause of the city’s abandonment, not long after the final phase of construction was completed in the 10th century AD.
If you visit Uxmal, take your time. Really look at the facades, at the fine details. The totality of this ancient city in the jungle is utterly spectacular, but it’s the small stuff that is so truly astonishing. The minute attention to detail here is unparalleled. Click the thumbnail (below) to view a gallery of photos from Uxmal. Take your time with the photos as well, and I believe you’ll understand why this one is my favorite!
Uxmal! Click the thumbnail to view a photo gallery. Don’t forget to click the “i” symbol at the lower right of the screen to view the captions.