Travelers are thrilled when world-class attractions are easy to visit and not overrun with tourists. We were certainly surprised by the ancient city of Uxmal because it’s just this type of rare gem.
Located slightly over an hour south of Merida, Mexico and just a bit too far from Cancun’s beaches for busloads of day-trippers, the fascinating ruins are an unusual combination; they’re easily accessible and amazingly uncrowded.
As we wandered the expansive grounds reveling in one textbook example of Maya architecture after another, we kept asking ourselves Why aren’t there more people here?
We didn’t find the answer to this question, but what we did find was room to roam, and that was wonderful. So join us for a tour of one of our favorite places.
1. Pyramid of the Magician. Just inside the entrance, the steep-sided Pyramid of the Magician (aka Soothsayer) kicks off your visit with a WOW moment. What this imposing pyramid lacks in ornamentation it makes up for with sheer size.
At 100 feet, it’s the tallest temple at Uxmal and its rounded corners give it an unusual shape. Like most Maya buildings, it’s oriented to align with celestial bodies; in this case the sun at the summer solstice.
2. The Nunnery. Immediately behind the Pyramid of the Magician is a quadrangle of ornate buildings called The Nunnery.
Having absolutely nothing to do with nuns, this group of buildings was named by homesick Spaniards who thought it reminded them of a nunnery back home.
The buildings and their elaborate mosaics make a photogenic spot to study the finest work of Maya masons and sculptors.
One easily-identified star of the show is Chaac, the long-nosed rain god. Archaeologists believe that drought may have been one of the primary factors contributing to the collapse of the culture, so it’s no surprise that he was an important deity.
3. The Ball Court. Leaving the Nunnery through the arch on the south side, the path crosses a dry meadow on its way to the prominent, hilltop Governor’s Palace. On the way, you’ll walk between a rather plain-looking pair of terraces with low walls. Don’t let the small size and simple design of this nondescript structure fool you; this is the all-important, losing-team-is-beheaded Ball Court.
Basically, the game involved two, seven-man teams trying to get a small rubber ball through a vertical loop, by using their hips, shoulders, head and knees – no hands or feet allowed. The rules seem simple, but for the Maya it was far more than just a game. To modern ears, the human sacrifices sound like just another barbaric ritual. But for the Maya, it was a highly religious act symbolizing the human struggle and the regeneration of life through death.
4. Governor’s Palace. On the hill overlooking the forest and old city below is what most visitors, and archaeologists as well, consider the finest and most impressive building at Uxmal: The Governor’s Palace. It’s an architectural standout because of its intricately detailed, 320-foot mosaic, which is one of the longest in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
Our old friend Chaac the rain god is a dominant element of the elaborate mosaic and stylized natural elements surrounded by geometric patterns give it a distinctly modern look.
5. The Great Pyramid. Just behind the Palace, the imposing Great Pyramid offers a chance to climb a set of those deceptively steep stairs that the Maya are famous for. If you make it to the top without falling or having a heart attack, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the ruins, countryside, and the “Dovecote” next door.
A few words of advice: going up is demanding, but the narrow steps are just as tricky to descend, so take extra care coming down.
And don’t forget to wear your activity tracker. You’ll crush your stair goal for the day.
6. Temple of the Phalli. And finally, in the interest of historic completeness, I have to include this photo of a surprise exhibit which wasn’t on my G-rated map for some reason. It was located on a little-used backroad returning to the main gate, and no, these are not mushrooms. In fact, as you may have guessed, it’s a cabana full of penis sculptures. (Big eye-roll from Terri. Will he never grow up?) And before I’m accused of going for a cheap laugh, know that these ancient works of art are from the (I’m not making this up.) Temple of the Phalli. Which, if nothing else, taught me a useful plural that I wasn’t aware of.
As we said, we came to the Yucatán with our own questions, and each of the ruins we visited taught us something about the Maya. Mostly, the impressive ruins of Uxmal gave us a feel for what a large, important city looked like in the pre-Columbian Americas, and it was the perfect introduction to the Maya culture and the skills of their architects, artists, and masons.
And other than the Native American cultures in the southwest US, for most North Americans, it has to be the coolest, closest ancient city out there. Don’t miss it.
James & Terri