Mexico Road Trip and the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula
After the strong Spanish feel of Campeche, our Mexico road trip headed for the Mayan ruins at Uxmal. The Yucatan peninsula is home to many Mayan ruins, and this one truly rivals Chichen Itza, but with far smaller crowds.
Our hotel, the Uxmal Resort Maya Conference Center was the biggest one on our road trip. What did we like about it? Spacious room on the third floor where we could see the Uxmal ruins in the distance from the balcony, big swimming pool, restaurant open all day with a reasonable menu and Mayan spa treatments. WIFI was a challenge in the room, but worked well in the lobby, which had comfortable couches and chairs, so we were happy.
So Much We Still Don’t Know About Mayans
On previous trips to the Yucatan peninsula, we had visited Chichén Itzá, Coba and Tulum. Mayan history has always fascinated us and Uxmal would give us the chance to explore some of the finest Mayan ruins and the best-preserved examples of temples, ball courts and buildings.
Despite the fact that within the last 50 years, scholars have deciphered many of the surviving Mayan hieroglyphics, we still know very little about daily life in their towns and cities.
This is because most Mayans were illiterate and only a small group of elite rulers and priests could read and write.
They saw writing as a way of interacting with gods, which meant that much of it was religious in nature. The daily life of commoners was simply too boring to write about.
Even the restored buildings at Uxmal can be deceiving if you’re trying to figure out Mayan life.
Today, they have names such as the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Governor’s Palace and the Dovecote. The problem is that they were named by either the Spanish who arrived hundreds of years after Uxmal was abandoned, or by the American anthropologists who came through the Yucatan peninsula in the 1800’s.
So, did the Magician’s Pyramid have anything to do with a magician? Doubtful. The Nunnery Quadrangle? Named by Spaniards because the 74 small rooms reminded them of a nunnery. What was its real purpose? No one knows. The Dovecote? Reminded someone of the nesting holes of a pigeon coop.
Stunning Mayan ruins, but not really helpful names.
Uxmal is an Outstanding Example of Mayan Architecture
While Chichén Itzá is the most famous of the Mayan ruins, Uxmal may be the most beautiful. It has been cited in numerous architectural journals for the design and symmetry of the buildings, especially the Governor’s Palace and the Nunnery Quadrangle.
Uxmal shows off some of the best examples of hook-nosed Chac masks decorating the temples. Chac (sometimes spelled Chaac) is the Mayan rain god who the Mayans still worship in their rainmaking ceremonies. There are also limestone carvings of snakes and turtles and a rare jaguar throne.
Although you can’t climb the Magician’s Pyramid, you can make your way up to the top of the Great Pyramid. This is not for the timid. It’s a long way up with no handrails or safety measures – just a broad expanse of stone steps to the top for a magnificent view over the site.
The Nearby Mayan Ruins of Kabah, Sayil, Xlapac and Labna
You can look at Uxmal as the “big city” of a group of smaller satellite Mayan ruins that are just a few kilometers away. Defined as the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route), a two-lane highway connects these sites, winding through forests and scrubby fields, taking us to some of the most charming Mayan cities we’d ever seen.
Part of the attraction is that there were so few people. Every once in a while, another car pulled up or a tour bus came in, but over two baking-hot days, we often had entire sites to ourselves.
Each one offered spectacular architecture. The use for some of the buildings seemed obvious, such as residences for rulers and priests, but even Mayan scholars aren’t sure about many of them.
We wondered yet again how they could have built these palaces with rudimentary tools. They had no metal cutting tools, no horses and no wheels or pulleys. We couldn’t get over, “no wheels”. They had a sophisticated ball game, and would see a ball roll. Cut a slice out of a ball and you’d have a disk, aka, a wheel. But apparently not.
The Mayan ruins of Kabah held a few interesting surprises. We climbed up the stairs of the El Palacio de los Mascarones (Palace of the Masks), and walked through hundreds of stones all covered in glyphs, and wondered whether they were waiting to be reattached to the Palace. The face of the palace was already wall-to-wall Chac masks, so I’m not sure where these belonged.
Around the back of the palace, another revelation – two larger-than-life figures of rulers or priests. This was highly unusual as there are very few 3D renditions of humans on Mayan buildings. One ruler is headless and the other wears a jaguar mask on his head. Who were they? Why were they there? Questions, questions…
A Mayan Arc That Says, “Welcome to my Great City”
Across the highway from the main site of Kabah, was a walkway. This was the remnants of an old sacbe, a Mayan roadway that would have been raised and paved with stone chips. This sacbe connected Kabah to Uxmal.
After a few hundred feet, we came across a giant free-standing arch way. Mayan historians think it’s one of a kind, perhaps erected by a Kabah ruler to impress visitors coming from the larger Uxmal to his city. Again, it’s just a scholarly guess.
Right by the road, through the trees, another building was being restored. It was roped off, but since there were no workers present, I snapped a few shots. Across the path, was a big pointed hill, obviously a pyramid that has not yet been unearthed.
There is still so much uncovering of buildings and restoration possible, but it all depends on funding. Along with the Mexican government and universities, many American and international universities have funded archeological work on Mayan ruins, but usually funding is only for a few years, and then the work stops until more money can be found.
Mayan Ruins Were Painted in Bright Colors
It’s hard to imagine Mayan life 1,000 years ago, when these pale ochre buildings would all have been bright red, blue and white.
Think about the sacrificial rituals, blood-letting ceremonies, the worshipping of the heavens and the underworld.
And then, after centuries of building, the winding down, the desertion of the cities, the quiet whispers of breezes through trees, until the plants and animals of the jungles took them back.
A Quick Mayan Timeline
- Carbon dating places the start of Mayan civilization around 2010 BC
- By 1100 AD, virtually all major sites had been abandoned.
- It is possible that Tulum was still active when the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500’s, but likely occupied by local commoners. The Mayan hierarchy of priests and god-like rulers no longer existed.
- That means that Mayan civilization stretched over 3,100 years (do the math on our own civilization – how are we doing?).
- However, many of the major sites and temples were built between the years 600 BC and 900 AD, a span of 1,500 years. Many buildings were constructed in sections and layers over hundreds of years.
- So, while the Spaniards ruled over, and often enslaved the Mayans, they did not conquer these cities. In fact, the Spanish built many of their churches on the sites of old Mayan palaces and temples, using the bricks and stones for construction.
- Interesting fact – for years the Spaniards couldn’t fathom that the local Mayan peasant farmers were descendants of those who had built the great cities. They speculated that an ancient tribe of Egyptians, now extinct, must have lived there.
The Biggest Mayan Mystery – What Happened?
There are many theories about the decline of Mayan civilization and the abandonment of the cities in the Yucatan peninsula.
It’s key to remember that this winding down took place over a few hundred years. So, it would have felt more like a gradual change, rather than an instant collapse.
Consider that in our time, North American cities such as Cleveland and Buffalo lost more than half of their populations in just a few decades due to societal changes. Other modern cities, Aleppo in Syria for example, have lost massive populations in a few years due to war.
Most people studying the Mayans believe the decline of their civilization was a combination of:
- Poor soil conditions that couldn’t support growing populations. The Yucatan peninsula is where the big meteor hit the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. The ground is rocky and crusty with very little topsoil. The land could only be used for crops two years in a row. As populations grew, the land could no longer support the cities.
- Environmental degradation. Mayans cut down and burned trees for the ash to make the cement for their palaces and pyramids. This further eroded the soil layer.
- Droughts in combination with climate change. This is the subject of long arguments, since scientific investigation of water tables doesn’t seem to support it. Also, Mayans knew how to conserve water in reservoirs. However, other experts do find evidence of prolonged droughts.
- Mayans didn’t have domestic animals. There were no horses, cows or sheep, so, no animal poop to fertilize the fields.
- Lack of technology. Given their mathematical and scientific expertise, it’s hard to believe that the Mayans hadn’t invented the wheel and didn’t have metal tools. No wheels (or horses or oxen), meant no carts, carriages, pulleys or gears. This created a very inefficient society that may have reached its maximum capacity and output.
- War or insurrections. Mayans didn’t typically wage all-out war, but cities did go into battle against one another when a ruler wanted to gain power and influence. A few Mayan sites have walls around them, which seem defensive in nature. Lifespans were short (about 40), so wiping out a city’s generation of males could mean the city would be abandoned.
- The ruling class hoarded all the resources. Rulers and priests were godlike in Mayan culture. The more glory, in the form of ornate palaces, gold, jade masks, exotic bird feathers, the better. Mayans traded from afar for these goods. Maybe too much gold, not enough food for the general population?
- The ruling class mistreated the commoners. Mayan life was very labor intensive. No horses meant that walking was the speed of life. Everything was done manually, including cutting and transporting stone for the construction of the massive temples to glorify the rulers. Historians theorize that commoners may have simply tired of their rulers and abandoned the cities to start their own farms for an easier life.
- Commoners lost faith in their rulers and priests. Rulers were believed to have the power to provide good crops and general prosperity. If there were years of hardship, they would be to blame, and the populace might have decided to move on.
Pick any one or combination of the above and you’ll be up to speed with the latest thinking on the Mayan decline.
More Mayan Ruins Might Mean Another Mexico Road Trip
The Yucatan peninsula has so many significant sites of Mayan ruins but we couldn’t fit more into our schedule. We were very close to Edzna and Calakmul, which are both outstanding examples of Mayan architecture. Next time…
Tips if You’re Planning to Visit Uxmal
We drove to Uxmal from Campeche, but it’s closer if you’re in Mérida. You can make a day trip of it. Try to get there early, before the buses. Gates open at 8, admission is 117 Pesos.
Uxmal has a very good bookshop with books in many languages focusing on Mayan and Mexican history.
If you also want to see the other sites, you may want to plan on two days. They’re easy to find with plenty of signs along the highway. Admission is 50 Pesos each, except Xlapak which is free.
For a break from Mayan sites, the Choco-Story Museum is just outside of the Uxmal site. Learn about the history and making of chocolate, sample a fresh chocolate drink, tour the extensive gardens of indigenous plants and see live musical and theatrical performances. And of course, visit the gift shop for a wide selection of chocolate bars and treats.
Our favourite restaurant near the Mayan ruins was the Pickled Onion. A bit more upscale than most in the area, it takes Mayan dishes to a new level, to say nothing of their wonderful cocktails. We ate there twice and both times it was busy. It’s right on the highway near Santa Elena. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mexico Road Trip Stories, Parts 1, 2 and a Special Post on Izamal
Here’s the first part of our Mexico road trip which took us from Puerto Morelos, to Izamal and Mérida.
In part two of our Mexico road trip, we head for the flamingos at the dusty town beach of Celestún and then south to the walled city of Campeche.
Here’s a special post just on Izamal. Why did they paint much of Izamal bright yellow? Find out. You’ll never guess.
Planning Your Mexico Road Trip
With all of the information on the Internet, we still like to have a guide book as reference. Our favorites are the Lonely Planet books. Have a look at the Lonely Planet Mexico books here. They’re available both hardcover and digital.
If you’re planning on staying Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of our special discount which gives you the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first visit.
If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, look here for up to date best prices for hotels in Merida.
Here is the best selection for hotels in Uxmal.
Looking for tours to Mayan sites? Click here for a selection of city tours, Mayan sites and nature reserves.
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