Leaving the flat plains, the mid-day Mérida to Campeche bus takes a winding road as it reaches the Puuc (“hill”) region of Yucatán. It struggles to go up among the never-ending forests. Towards the hills, a high stone structure appears above the trees: it is the pyramid of the magician of the Maya town of Uxmal.
Getting to its foot, this imposing stepped pyramid impresses. It is quite different from the Maya buildings of Tulum or Chichén Itza, as its base is not rectangular but elliptic, conferring elegance to the structure. A big dark vulture perched on its top looks like it is guarding this ceremonial landmark.
Laid out according to the astronomy of Venus in 700, Uxmal takes advantage of its hilly topology: the extent of the site is not obvious at first. Past the Pigeon House behind the pyramid stands the Quadrangle of the Nuns. Nicknamed by the Spaniards, its top provides a great platform to get a view on the city: in the foreground, the long buildings with finely carved façades of the quadrangle, behind the ball court, then the low and long Governor’s Palace atop a platform it shares with the House of Turtles, and the Great Pyramid above treetops in the background. The magic of the place also has to do with the fact that the ruins of Uxmal are off-the-beaten-path and visitors are scarce.
On our way to ascend the Great Pyramid to get a bird’s eye view, we explore the Nunnery Quadrangle further: its façades are split into two horizontal elements, a plain low one and a richly decorated upper one with representations of the head of Chaac, the rain-god. This style is characteristic of the Puuc architecture, of which Uxmal may be the best representative.
Going through the ball court, we eventually reach the foot of the Great Pyramid. Crossing path with an iguana that is jumping down from step to step, we make our way up this steep building. Once on its top, the view on the Pyramid of the Magician and the Quadrangle of the Nuns is fantastic. Given the heat and the lack of water, it is easy to understand why there are so many representations of Chaac, the rain-god. Looking more closely at the Great Pyramid, finely carved eagles can be found on its façade: the Mayas were strongly connected to their environment.
The fine carvings and the elegance of its architecture shows that Uxmal was a political, administrative and trade Centre of major importance. With up to 25,000 inhabitants, for about 300 years Uxmal was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and in alliance with Chichén Itza, dominated all of the northern Maya area.
Even today while the city has been abandoned for centuries, its majesty still radiates. Indeed, Uxmal is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize, and Tikal in Guatemala.
Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau (text & photographs)
- Uxmal is easy to reach by regular bus from Mérida or Campeche.
- Being is a forested area, it is a good idea to pack some mosquito repellant.
- Opening hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a light show at night, but if you are not sleeping onsite, it can be tough to make your way back to Campeche or Mérida.
- In preparation of your trip to one of the stunning Maya sites you might want to read this practical and interesting guide written by Christian Schoen.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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