Uxmal – Mayan History & Heritage
Uxmal is about a 45 minute drive from the City of Merida so when you have taken in some of the attractions in the city, you can grab a tour or hire a car to visit Uxmal.
Driving to Uxmal (“oosh-mahl”, which is Mayan for “thrice-built”) you pass through many small Yucatecan towns and villages and you will see the terrain slowly changing. The villages are full of small Mayan style houses, many with modern additions. Uxmal is slightly south of Merida and tends to be greener, and as you get closer to the Uxmal site itself you will see hills coming into view.
This is known as the Puuc trail (Mayan for “hilly country”). The term Puuc is also used for a certain style of decoration on the ruins that lie through this trail. Puuc decoration is recognizable by the elaborate horizontal stonework on the upper levels of the pyramids and buildings.
As you enter into the grounds of the Maya site of Uxmal and climb the stairs into the complex the silence is the first thing you notice, it is almost a reverent silence, no vendors no huge crowds of tourists, just the birds and sound of the breezes in the trees, it is immensely peaceful. Entering the site you pass through a small square of shops and souvenir purveyors. Pay your entry fee and the taxes at two separate kiosks.
There are guides available that speak English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Dutch they have some great insights to the site and really interesting tales to impart. As you pass through the entry gates you will see a small slope of a hill with both stairs and a wheelchair ramp, coming to the top of the stairs you immediately notice the water cisterns, no cenotes here, this site was dependent on the collection of rainwater. Directly ahead and looking up nearly 115 feet, is the Pyramid of the Magician, immense and awe inspiring, symbolic of an incredible civilization. Drawn into this beautiful Puuc site you can wander quite peacefully by yourself or with a guide to view some of the most complex and beautiful examples of Puuc architecture dating back to before 10BC.
Uxmal was founded about 500 by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu, although the exact date of occupation is unknown. Most of the architecture visible today was built between about 700 and 1100. Unlike most Yucatan sites, Uxmal derived its water supply from man-made cisterns that collected rainwater, one of which can be seen near the entrance.
At 35 m (115 ft), the massive Magician’s Pyramid (Pirámide del Adivino) is the tallest structure at Uxmal. The pyramid is also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf; both names derive from a legend about a magical dwarf who was hatched from an egg, grew to adulthood in a single day, and built the pyramid in one night.
The Nunnery Quadrangle was given its name by a Spanish historian as it reminded him of a Spanish convent. It may have been a military academy or a training school for Mayan princes, who would have lived in its 74 rooms, which are now occupied by the swallows that return every year to this site.
In its size and intricate stonework, the Governor’s Palace rivals the Magician’s Pyramid as the masterpiece of Uxmal. It is an imposing three-level edifice with a 97m (320-ft.) long mosaic facade, built in the 9th and 10th centuries.
If you stand back from the Palace on the east side, the 103 stone masks of Chac seem to slither across the facade like a serpent. They end at the corners, where there are columns of masks. In the open plaza in front of the Palace is the Jaguar Throne, carved like a two-headed jaguar, which the Mayas associated with chiefs and kings.
For years, scholars pondered why this building was constructed slightly turned from adjacent buildings. Recently scholars of archaeoastronomy (a relatively new science that studies the placement of archaeological sites in relation to the stars) discovered that the central doorway, which is larger than the others, is in perfect alignment with Venus.
Behind the Governor’s Place is a lower-level plaza with the Great Pyramid, 260 feet (79 m) on each side. The top of the pyramid has the Temple of the Macaws, three other ruined temples, and amazing views across the hills.
Uxmal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, there are 34 sites in that list including 6 natural wonders which means that Mexico is 7th in the list of World Heritage sites. If you are interested in seeing more of Mexico’s World Heritage Sites you will find a great list and lots of information on Gary’s Everything Everywhere website and his piece on Mexico’s World Heritage Sites.
Uxmal came highly recommended as a place we must see in the Yucatan, far more so than Chichen Itza which is apparently an incredible place but it is absolutely overwhelmed with vendors and locals wanting a piece of the tourist trade. At Uxmal, you really get a sense of the Mayan Empire and the incredible civilization that dominated in this part of the Yucatan. This site encourages you to explore more of the culture and enjoy what you learn of the Mayan heritage. There are many Mayan sites spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. One in particular is called Dzibilchaltun which is just outside Merida and even has a cenote that you can swim in, you can read more about it here.
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