Egypt is not the only place with pyramids. And if there is one thing you should know about Yucatan, Mexico, it is the numerous Mayan ruin sites that dotted the peninsula. Out of all the Mayan ruins worldwide, Uxmal (pronounced Ush-mao), located 62 km south of Mérida – capital of the Yucatan State, is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with the nearby and much more crowded Chichen Itza. Being no less majestic and magical than Chichen Itza in my opinion, the fact Uxmal is less visited by tourists makes it a much more enticing and awe-inspiring Mayan ruin experience.
In case you don’t know yet, the Mayans were the folks whom we said predicted the 2012 doomsday when they actually didn’t. Mayan culture is known for having devised an extremely accurate and complex calendar system (even more so than our modern one) that not only measures time but can also be used to interpret the order of the universe. The remains of these ancient Mayan cities around Yucatan Peninsula dated from about 3,000 years ago and are great sites to learn about the Mayan civilization and the Mexican history.
Uxmal, in particular, was founded A.D. 700 and had some 25,000 inhabitants. Because of the structures’ extraordinary display of late Maya art and architecture in design, layout and ornamentation, the richness of the iconography in the buildings that showcases the complex Maya cosmogony and the importance of this city as a capital for economic and socio-political development of the prehispanic Maya civilization, Uxmal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance.
Uxmal is the headquarters of economic and political power of the Puuc (meaning “hills” or “chain of low mountains”) region, which was an important centre of trade and exchange of ideas of the south-west Yucatan. The importance of Uxmal mainly lies in the enormous amount of work invested in the construction of its buildings and its unique architectural style.
Interestingly, this important port of trade is also connected to neighbouring Maya site Kabah, Labna and Sayil by sacbes –large raised stone pedestrian causeways.
Some of the prominent structures of Uxmal are:
Pyramid of the Magician
The name of Uxmal, meaning “thrice built” or “three harvests”, refers to this pyramid (this pyramid however was rebuilt for 5 times though). At the height of 35 meters and composed of the superimposition of 5 temples, this pyramid began in the 6th century and took over 400 years to complete. It is featured in a famous Yucatec Maya folklore named the Dwarf of Uxmal, in which the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the king of Uxmal.
This pyramid is not just different from Egyptian pyramids, but is also unusual among Maya structures. The layers for this stepped pyramid are oval or elliptical in shape, instead of the common rectilinear plan. The newer pyramid constructed atop of the older ones was built slightly to the east of the older ones, so the temple on the west side of the old pyramid could be preserved. The western staircase is also situated that it faces the setting sun on the summer solstice. When the pyramid unfortunately is no longer opened for visitors to climb, the steep 60 degree staircase still features intricate sculptures of Chaac, the snake-like Mayan rain god, which are impressive sights in themselves.
This 320-foot long building is the very reason why Uxmal is architecturally significant. Though it was thought of as one of the last buildings constructed on the site (around 987 AD), the Governor’s Palace is regarded as one of the best example of Puuc architecture in existence. This well-designed building standing on a raised platform up to 12 metres is one of the longest façades in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and is decorated with a profusion of symbolic motifs, carvings of serpents and lattices, and 103 stone masks of the rain god Chaac. Masks of the rain god adorn the four corners and create a serpentine molding as they are placed diagonally. The throne with a majestically seated sovereign is placed at the center, surrounded by intertwining serpents and masks. To top that off, this structure is high enough that you get an amazing panoramic view of Uxmal when you are standing on it.
The Nunnery Quadrangle
This is a collection of four elongated buildings beside the Pyramid of the Magician. It was named Casa de las Monjas (The Nunnery) by the Spanish because the 74 small rooms that face the inner courtyard reminded them of a Spanish convent.
The Ball Court
A large ball court just outside the Nunnery Quadrangle was used for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, in which players had to struck the ball with their hips, and in some versions their forearms and even rackets, and score it pass the hole. As major games had important ritual aspects, some versions of the game allegedly required the WINNING team to give their hearts as sacrifices for the gods, and the captain’s head was to be used as the core of a new ball. O___O
There are many other structures on the site, like the Pigeon Coop, the House of the Turtles, and the Great Pyramid etc. Uxmal is opened Monday through Sunday from 08:00 to 17:00. The total fee for entrance as of April 2014 is 199 pesos. Since the sun can be maddeningly hot, it is recommended that you either arrive at Uxmal early or in the late afternoon to avoid the mid-day heat and the crowd.
Interestingly, the layout of Uxmal’s structures does not follow a geometric order, unlike most pre-Hispanic cities. Its spaces are organized according to astronomical phenomena eg the ascension and descent of Venus; and the topography of the land. So another important reminder is to wear comfortable walking shoes, sun protective clothing (a hat is a must!) and bring a lot of water as Uxmal is huge (cover about 150 acres), hilly and mostly unshaded.
As mentioned above, the Puuc hills where Uxmal is located are also home to various Mayan sites that are equally impressive. This string of well-restored archeological sites, including Mayan sites Kabah, Sayil, X-Lapak, Labna and Uxmal itself, are linked along a road commonly called the Ruta Puuc and is a doable day trip. To do this route, you can either drive, take a tour or take a bus tour (available only on Sunday, departing from Merida TAME second class bus station at 8am and returning at 4pm for 179 pesos). For more information, check this website out.
If Uxmal is your sole target from Merida, you can either go there by:
Car: Depart Merida from highway 180, turn into highway 261. Follow the highway all the way till you see the sign of Uxmal. Or just follow your GPS. The drive should take a little over an hour from Merida.
Bus: Go to TAME second class bus station on Calle 69 between 68 and 70. Take buses operated by Sur (very safe and comfortable. I fall asleep on the air-con bus almost immediately). A one-way ticket cost 56 pesos. The bus ride took about 1.5 hours. Buses depart from Merida very frequently. Just ask the counter for the next bus.
** We were told the return buses will depart from Uxmal bus stop (just outside the Chocolate Museum. There is a bench.) at 12:20, 15:20 and 17:20. Having bought a return ticket at Merida, we waited for three hours since 15:00 and the buses never came. At last a minivan offered to take us back to Merida for 46 pesos in under an hour. We asked for refund at the TAME station and got it.
Taking a Tour: Ask your hotel for local tours. The tours usually cover Uxmal and Kabah and depart at 9am.
By: Frances Sit