The Mayan city of Uxmal is a relatively unknown place among foreign travellers when compared to the more famous Chichen Itza, for example. Hidden deep in the jungle of the Yucatan, one requires a bit more planning to get there, either by car or bus from Merida, 62 km away. Prior to our visit we had seen pictures of Uxmal online but could not imagine what it would be like in real life. Man, were we blown away!
We had booked a place to stay overnight close to the Uxmal ruins. There are only a few lodges in the area, and once again we were upgraded to Lodge Uxmal right at the entrance of the archeological site. As we checked in, we heard about a light show at the ruins so we hurried to get there on time. Even in the dark we were surprised by the size of the place and what we could see under the colourful lights. For about 45minutes the ancient ruins are illuminated in different colours and tell a local legend from the great Mayan time (but only in Spanish). It is still worth the experience even if you don’t understand because the show gives a glimpse of the majesty that this place represented. Still under the impressions of the show, but exhausted from the long drive, we settled for a dinner at the lodge and had some very Mayan dishes, the traditional chicken pibil and a lime soup. Yum.
In the morning we woke up early, hungry as always, and keen to go explore! We didn’t know the time had changed in the Yucatan state, so it was 6:30 instead of 7:30 ( take note of this, especially when driving from Quintana Roo state ). Time didn’t go to waste as we managed to find our tour guide Jorge and at 8:00 am sharp we made our way through the gates ( private tour 700 pesos plus entrance fee 213 each ). Jorge was great! He enthusiastically guided us around for about two hours, always looking for a chance to take a picture of me with the ruins, lol. He gave us a deep insight into Mayan culture, language, origin and the sights and symbology of Uxmal.
Jorge said that it is commonly believed that Mayan people are of Asian origin. According to that theory, people came, over a long period of time, through the Bering Strait down the Americas and settled in the Yucatan peninsula ( and parts of South America ). Guatemala is considered as the cradle of Mayan civilisation. There are many similarities between Mayan and Asian genetics including the O blood type and being lactose intolerant. However, there are other theories emerging about Mayan origins which shouldn’t be excluded.
Together with Tikal in Guatemala, Uxmal tops the impressive scale. It was established around 500AD, reaching its peak between 850-925AD and its suburbs were a home to about 25 000 people. Its demise started with the Toltec invasion but it is believed it was still inhabited when the first Spanish arrived and finally completely abandoned around the mid 15th century. The name Uxmal means ”built three times”. This represents a common practice in ancient Mayan architecture, where in every cycle or every change of power they built additions to the city on top of an existing structure, closing off the one beneath. Because styles and building practices changed over time, that is why the top part can be very different in style than that at the base. This is most apparent on the Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal is built in Puuc Maya style, where ”puuc” means hill, referring to the landscape which contrasts the otherwise extremely flat Yucatan. It is also interesting to note there are no surface rivers and lakes in the peninsula. Water runs only underground forming the pools and caves known as cenotes.
We were very surprised to learn there was no underground water in Uxmal area AT ALL. The only water source is rain. So why would an advanced civilisation build such a complex city here? Perhaps the answer lies in the topography of the area and the guidance of their astrological beliefs. Mayans were extremely good at astronomy and numerology hence the layout of Uxmal copies patterns in the sky. Pyramid of the Magician ( like the Pyramid of Chicken Itza ) is designed in a way that its staircase catches the specific light during the solstice. As for the topic of water, numerous cisterns were built to collect and store the rain water. Hence, the importance placed upon Chaac, the God of water.
In Uxmal, everything revolved around the rainy season from June to December because agriculture depended on it, namely the production of corn, beans, squash… In connection to that, the Mayas here worshiped water animals, particularly the snake. Snakes were connected to earth, death and rebirth – as it sheds its skin. The depiction on some of the buildings shows a rattle snake with a human head in its mouth. The elite would flatten their noses and shape their heads with wooden blocks to resemble the powerful snake. Also, the biggest treasure to Mayas ( and to other similar civilisations at that time) were colourful bird feathers – because snakes could eat everything but could not digest feathers. It was more valued than gold. Jorge told us a story that when the Spanish arrived, Montezuma the Aztec emperor gave them the most beautiful feather head decoration. He was surprised with their disappointment, saying something along the line: ‘look at these fools, taking only gold and leaving the mighty feathers!’
That day we considered ourselves extremely lucky being able to take in this incredible site almost by ourselves. The whole morning there were hardly more than 10 people around. In this age of mass tourism, that is a rarity and a luxury. We could see the decorations and the details on he buildings in our own time – the representations of gods, animals, the symbolic behind it and the numerology – and take as many pictures we wanted. We took our time to climb the impressive Governor’s Palace which provides a view over the whole sight and the infinite jungle surrounding it – Pyramid of the Magician ( sometimes called the Pyramid of the Dwarf), The Nunnery Quadrangle which was like a government palace, the ball court where Mayas played a ball game pok a tok, the House of Turtles decorated with turtles to symbolise water and many more.
Uxmal is still being excavated as the thick jungle covered the area for a few centuries. It was initially rediscovered in 1841 by American and English explorers. A lot has been done since to reconstruct and preserve the place. We got an impression that the local authorities put a high emphasis on the conservation of the flora and fauna and the historical sites. After all, it brings huge revenues from tourism and gives an income to whole communities. We left Uxmal starstruck! Still to this day, it remains our favourite spot from the whole holiday in Mexico.
Best time to visit: September and October as there are almost no tourists in the area 🙂
Interesting fact: Queen Elizabeth II visited Uxmal in 1975 for the opening of the site’s sound & light show. Towards the end of the show, when the sound system delivered the goosebump-inflicting prayer to the rain God Chaac, the heavens opened up and the rain started to pour down. Coincidence?