Architecture / Mexico / Travel

Uxmal: A Window Into The Maya

To the delight of modern tourists, Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mal) is an outstanding example.

These mysterious ruins contain an exceptional collection of buildings with a variety of architectural types. And thanks to their good state of preservation, our visit there answered one of our biggie questions:

What did a Maya capital actually look like in ancient times?

With its carefully-restored Pyramid of the Magician, Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor’s Palace, Great Pyramid, and Ball Court, the city’s design, layout, and ornamentation make it a one-stop introduction to Maya art and architecture. Truthfully, if you can see only one site, this is the one to see.

At its peak, Uxmal was one of the largest cities in the Yucatán. It flourished around 850-920 CE, which was also when most of its main temples and buildings were constructed. The richly detailed ceremonial structures scattered around the ancient city are the tourist magnet, but when it comes to the mysterious collapse of the culture, scholars suggest that the rulers’ obsession with building was on the laundry list of factors that led to the fall. Given the resources needed for construction, and being faced with drought, overpopulation, starvation, and warfare, we have to wonder what the kings were thinking.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond cuts them zero slack:

“There attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.“

But despite these grim lessons from history, Uxmal is a marvelous, must-see city for every traveler to the area. It’s the most complete Maya cityscape that we saw, and it gave us a better understanding of all other other ruins we visited.

If this overview piqued your interest, walk around the ancient city with us in our next post.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

40 thoughts on “Uxmal: A Window Into The Maya

  1. What an incredible structures !!!

    It’s hard to believe that they were constructed some 3000 years back and still stands tall… hat’s off to the incredible engineering of the age old civilization.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful post 🙂

    Have a beautiful day, James & Terri 🙂

    • Thanks very much. Long before Europeans knew of or even dreamed of coming to the Americas, the Maya had complex cultures and large sophisitcated cities. And you’re right, at the heart of all these beautiful buildings was homegrown engineering skills. ~James

    • I think most of these buildings were meant to simulate mountains and caves to better enable the Maya to communicate with their gods. What an intimidating wonder they must have been for the peasants that were around them each day. ~James

  2. Fascinating structures…I hope that I will be able to visit Uxmal during my time in Mexico in July. I am thinking of basing myself in Playa del Carmen, would you think a day trip there is doable? Or would you suggest a different base to stay?

    • Gilda, we based ourselves in Merida, which made it easy to visit Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Because of the number of beach visitors there are lots of day tours from the coast to CI, but you probably won’t find tours to Uxmal from Playa del Carmen because of the distance and the time it takes to get there and back. Merida is actually a pretty neat destination itself, and it’s a transport hub, so it makes it easier than moving around from the coast. But, we visited both CI and Uxmal, and if you have a serious interest in Maya culture and architecture, I can say don’t miss Uxmal. You won’t be sorry. ~James

  3. The photos of ancient Mayan structures that most beguile me are the ones that show the temples and other ruins rising out of the snarly green jungle. Your next-to-last one is a great example of that – it sets my imagination on fire!

    • I like these types of shots as well Lexie. The layout of the city is perfect for panorama photos, and a number of Uxmal’s buildings are on natural or manmade hills, so you can climb (puff-puff) a few of the tall ones. This gets you in a great vista-photo position. Also, the photo you mentioned is one of my favorities, not only because of the perspective, but because I had to climb the great pyramid to get it. 🙂 ~James

  4. Your phrase, “if you see only one site, this is the one to see” gets a two-thumbs up as we both felt Uxmal was at or near the top of Mexico’s Mayan wonders. Adding to our experience was a visitor who played his flute under one of the arches and the haunting notes that followed us as we walked around. The sheer size of Chichen Itza and its iconic pyramid gets the most press but, Uxmal’s ruins, impressive architecture and art-in-stone were magnificent. It’s hard to compare the Mayan ruins (apples vs. oranges) but the closest ruin to Uxmal that wowed us with sheer delight as we followed the Mayan Ruta was Copan in western Honduras. P.S. We love Jared Diamond’s books and your closing quote has some thought-provoking parallels to our current civilization. Anita

    • Anita, we hired a car and driver so we could get to Uxmal just after opening time, and it was marvelously deserted. But I will say, that even at its busiest, because the city is so big, the crowds weren’t bad. And I agree about your assessement of Chichen Itza. Of the two, far and away, Uxmal was our favorite. Of course, Palenque was also on our favorite list but for different reasons. The detailed mosaics at Uxmal were wonderful and being able to wander without lots of other people made the experience so pleasant and totally different from CI. Don’t get me wrong, we’re glad that we went to CI, but I would be sad to have missed Uxmal. And also, I’m a big Jared Diamond fan as well. I assume you’ve read his “Guns, Germs, and Steel” – huge fav of mine. ~James

  5. James – I like your blend of relishing the experience but knowing some historical background. Too often, I’ll let the facts go and just relish the experience, but with something that has history you can’t necessarily see, I’d be missing out on a lot. Thanks for the visit – Susan

    • Susan, my trips to ruins are usually three-phased. I do a bit of reading before visiting to have a better appreciation for what I will see on the visit. Then after the visit, I read to answer all the questions that I come up with while there. Thank goodness for wifi and ebooks. There’s nothing like instant gratification when it comes to answering questions and finding out more about antiquities and ancient sites – particularly while the memories are fresh in my mind. ~James

  6. Fascinating photos and history, and I look forward to the next installment! We have yet to visit Yucatán, but your descriptions encourage a visit sooner rather than later! I don’t know if you have been to Oaxaca, but if not, I hope you can come sometime and experience the history and ruins of the Zapotecs.
    Jared Diamond’s quote could be easily applied to today…

    • Marilyn, we have been to Oaxaca and really enjoyed it. In addition to the great colonial architecture, we were introduced to mole sauce there – yummy. It’s a charming town that every visitor to Mexico should see. I don’t know much about the Zapotecs, but I find it interesting that so many independent cultures existed in Mexico at such early dates. ~James

  7. Pingback: Uxmal: A Window Into The Maya — GALLIVANCE - Turista Mexico

  8. Your post has made me curious to visit Uxmal. The only ruin we visited in Mexico was Tulum which we enjoyed but this place looks amazing.I look forward to the next post.

  9. You confirmed what I have been thinking, that Uxmal is that one place I should not miss if I only have a very short time visiting Mexico. Since I became really interested in Maya civilization and the architectural wonders they built, Uxmal has caught my attention the most. The pyramid, the intricate details, the layout, the entire complex looks so grand.

    • Bama, from my experience, Uxmal would be a good option for a quick trip. I’ve visited 4 ruins and of these, it’s the biggest, best preserved, with the most detailed carving/mosaics. Palenque in Chiapas is also very cool as well, and it’s jungle location is wonderful. But the advantage of Uxmal is being close to Merida, which is a regional airport. If you fly into Mexico City make sure to visit the National Archaeology Museum. And BTW, our next post will have lots more details about Uxmal. ~James

  10. Just wow! It is so hard to fathom the work to build back then. I imagine the pheasants felt resentment, as well as awe. As someone else commented, love the ruins in the jungle and kudos to you for having the ump to climb for the picture!

    PS. When did BC and AD go out of “style”? I hadn’t heard of CE until recently.

    • Laura, thanks for noticing the elevated shots. As you an imagine, they all required extra legwork; pun intended. The jungle shots are at the Palenque ruins in Chiapas, which we will also post on. Palenque is smaller than Uxmal, but the jungle location and the ambience of the place was absolutely wonderful. As for BC, etc. I don’t know the whole story, but I suspect that lots of non-Christians got a little tired of referencing everything that happened in the world to the birth of Jesus. ~James

  11. We totally agree with your comment “if you see only one site, this is the one to see”. It was at the top of our list after finishing our ruins tour. Great photos!

    • Thanks LuAnn. As I said to someone else, for size, range of buildings, preservation, and quality of ornamentation, Uxmal was the best of anywhere we’ve been. But smaller, less ornate Palenque with its mountainside, jungle-wrapped location was also on the top of our list. Hope all is well for you and Terry. ~James

  12. Fantastic, James! Uxmal appears to be a temple complex that should be first on the list, in order to understand and appreciate the other ones in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. I think by the time Mark and I visited this amazing Yucatan site, we were “templed” and “ruined” out, hence my first remark. Wish it was our first. But, we can always go back one time, with a fresh and refreshed mind. 🙂 Your photos are stunning!

    • Liesbet, I think that being “templed” or “cathedraled” out is something that all frequent travelers have to learn to deal with. We learned the hard way that it’s all about quality over quantity. Our years of having a travel punchlist is way behind us. Of course we plan, and there are always sights that we absolutely want to see, but generally, our philosophy is that we see what we see, and it’s more important to appreciate what we do see rather than ticking off another sight. But, in our case, it took us quite a while to get to that point. As you say, there’s always next time. ~James

      • Perfect answer, James. And, it is certainly something we have figured out over time as well. Our priorities are different than during our Mexico/Central American RV “tour” 13 years ago, when I was more into “seeing as much as possible”, not to check things off the list, but to experience as much as possible. A slower pace of life (and travel) is more beneficial, and I now prefer quality over quantity as well! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment Emilio and for dropping by the blog. The Maya are an important culture, and I’m pleased to hear that your school is teaching classes on their history. Even though the exact reasons for the culture’s collapse is a mystery, their demise has lots to teach us, even in today’s world. ~James

  13. Your architecture reveals the stones and Mayan designs that I’ve always admired, but have never seen up close. May not ever get to this part of the world, so I’m traveling vicariously through your posts and pics. Thanks for sharing!

    • Rusha, if you like architectural details, keep an eye out for our next post in a couple of days, which describes Uxmal in considerably more detail. A number of the temples and buildings at Uxmal are covered in fabulous mosaics that are nicely preserved and restored. I can’t seem to get enough of the Maya, and I think that it’s only right that I pass it along. 🙂 ~James

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