Episode 394 – Uxmal

In December 2021, at the beginning of our Viking World Cruise, we docked in Cozumel. Many of our fellow passengers took a tour from there to the famous Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, while Ted and I (and Karen and Al, who’d toured Chichén Itzá back in 2015) toured the much smaller ruins at San Gervazio / Ix Chel Episode 147 – Cozumel in Ruins. That’s where we learned about Mayan pyramid structure, and Sacbé, the “white road” connecting important Mayan cities.

Uxmal is located 62 km south of Mérida, which is why we were able to make so many interesting stops (cemetery, lookout, hacienda) along the way as we approached the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route) that in modern times is a road connecting the area’s five important Mayan ancient cities: Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna.

This amazing interactive map contains official Cancun tourism board photos and descriptions of each of the main buildings at the Uxmal archeological site: Cancun.bz/uxmal

Uxmal is a much less visited site than Chichén Itzá, largely because it is much further away from the tourist meccas of Cozumel and Cancan. That was good for us. Around 7000 visitors go to Chichén Itzá each day; only about 500-700 to Uxmal.

The site entry and introductory sign – as always in Spanish, English, and Mayan.

Once through the ticket booth, it becomes apparent just how huge this site is – about 150 acres just for the central ruins, with the “city” reaching far beyond – and how relatively well preserved it is. Even before the restoration work, Uxmal was in better condition than many other Maya sites. We’d learned at San Gervasio that, like the Egyptian pyramids, Mayan structures would have had smooth exteriors, with the stepped stones filled with a cement-like compound made of crushed limestone mixed with tree resin and honey, smoothed and polished by hand to a marble-like sheen. Uxmal was a bit different; it has remained in better condition at least in part because it was built with well-cut stones set into a core of concrete instead of using plaster to hold the stones together. Nonetheless, at some point in the 10th century, construction here stopped, and, before the Spanish came, the Maya left. One of the most repeated theories about why relates to the lack of water at this site, and the frustration of its inhabitants at being unable to convince the gods to provide it, but no-one really knows why Uxmal was abandoned.

A few of the rainwater collecting cisterns found at Uxmal. Each home had a cistern, but sadly there was just not enough rain.

The very first “wow” is the Pyramid of the Magician (aka Temple of the Soothsayer) a stepped pyramid which rises 27.6 metres/90.5 feet in five concentric sections. It was a common practice here not to destroy a temple that had become too small, but to fill the old temple with stone to keep it from collapsing and then build the new temple pyramids around and on top of the old one, so there are other temples within this large one.

Top:we approached the pyramid from the back, with its corbel shaped open arch and square window, both oriented to allow the sunlight in at specific times and seasons. Bottom: mAs we moved around the pyramid, we noticed workers cleaning foliage from between the stones. Even though they had hard hats and harnesses (a bit of a rarity from what we’ve been observing in the Yucatân), it’s not a job I’d want!

Zoomed in details of the upper levels of the Magician’s Pyramid.

Next we moved into the “Quadrangle pf the Nuns”, built from 900-1000 AD. There were never “nuns” during Mayan times; the name related to nuns was assigned in the 16th century because the Spaniards thought the area resembled a convent: four palaces placed on different levels around a courtyard.

Although not all buildings can be entered, we were able to go into a couple. The building at the top was likely the Mayan equivalent of municipal offices. The bottom photo shows up-close the construction of one of several corbel arches.
A Mayan handprint from inside one of the “offices”. There is evidence of both interior and exterior painting in red,blue, yellow and orange. Similar to the Egyptian tomb paintings, or the colourful original paintings on Roman temples and the Parthenon in Greece, Uxmal was likely not originally the colours of unadorned stone.

The buildings are typical of the Puuc style, with smooth low walls topped by ornate stone friezes depicting typical Maya huts. The columns represent the reeds used for the walls of the huts and trapezoidal shapes representing the thatched roofs.

Some perspective on the size of the quadrangle with tourists walking around.

Entwined and sometimes two-headed snakes are used for masks of the rain god, Chaac; with big noses representing the rays of the storms. There are also feathered serpents with open fangs, shown either swallowing or releasing humans.

Top: a portion of entwined snakes is visible on the far left of this photo. Centre: the second snake’s rattle-like tail plus corn plant is curled above the first snake’s head. Bottom: detail of the human head inside the snake’s mouth.
More masks of Chuuc on the corners of palaces. In the top photo, note the large hooked noses on the left and the ear whorls on the right. Each “face” is made up of 30 separate stones, creating quite a challenge for archeologists sorting through rubble. Fortunately, many buildings had their decoration still intact when the site was rediscovered in 1929.
This stone owl symbolizes the god of the underworld. We were told that the Maya believed that when an owl hooted, it was a portent of death.
One of the most picturesque views of the Magician’s Pyramid was from inside the quadrangle.

From the nunnery quadrangle we crossed through the ball court. Be still my beating heart! I was so excited about being at a REAL pok-ta-pok court that I completely embarrassed our young guide by gushing about the “my fuerte y muy sexy” (very strong and very sexy) players that do the demonstrations in Mérida. I guess old ladies aren’t supposed to get starry-eyed about young men.

The ball field would have had spectator stands on both sides where there are now stone platforms. Notice the “snake” along the side of the court underneath the goal ring.

Next we passed La Casa de las Tortugas (the house of the turtles) was most likely dedicated to an aquatic cult. All-important water, for crops and people, was a major focus of worship at Uxmal.

That’s what’s left of a stone tortoise carving bottom right.

Our final challenge was climbing up to the Governor’s Palace, a long low building atop a huge platform, which is actually on top of another temple. The Governor’s Palace boasts the longest façade of any building so far discovered in Pre-Columbian America. The palace itself covers an area of more than 1,200 m2 (12,917 sq ft). The stairs reaching the palace are fairly steep, have tall risers, and shallow surfaces that necessitate going up walking almost sideways, and following a serpentine route. At San Gervasio we were told that the shallow steps at the temples were built that way on purpose to ensure that neither a person’s front nor their back directly faced the entrance in a disrespectful manner. Our guide did not know if that was also the case here.

The Governor’s Palace.
The level of the Governor’s Palace afforded a spectacular view of the Magician’s Pyramid.
The stone Jaguar Throne in front of the Governor’s Palace.

I’d read that one of the things the Uxmal site is known for is its large number of iguanas. Ted’s pictures can certainly attest to that!

That completes the record of our private tour with Ralf Hollman through ToursByLocals. We’ve never been disappointed yet with experiences booked through them.

Ruins, haciendas, melipona bees, cemetery monuments, and an amazing lunch with an equally amazing Mayan family. We certainly packed a lot into our day.

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