Architecture / Mexico / Travel

Uxmal: The Coolest, Closest Ancient City Out There

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. 

Source: The Maya (Ninth Edition), by Michael Coe & Stephen Houston

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.

If you’ve ever wondered what Mother Nature can do to a man-made structure in 11 centuries, have a look. This is one of the un-excavated, non-restored sides of the Great Pyramid. Archaeologists = Eternal Optimists.

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.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

54 thoughts on “Uxmal: The Coolest, Closest Ancient City Out There

  1. Wonderful photos and narrative.
    I was here in 1972 when I was a kid.
    No one else was there. You had free run of the region and ruins.
    I remember vividly crawling through the observatory.
    Which looked like our modern day ones.
    They studied the stars.

    • Thanks Cindy. Obviously things have changed as far as crowds, but there are still a few places off the tourist track, but it takes a bit of effort to visit them. I’ve done a bit of reading about the Maya’s emphasis on astronomy, but have only scratched the surface. But it’s amazing they could achieve what they did at the time. Of course, they did many things that were amazing, which is why I find the culture so fascinating. ~James

    • Yvonne, Mexico is one our easy-go-to places exactly for that reason. We love the Spanish colonial architecture in the towns and villages, and of course all the ancient ruins. ~James

  2. It is amazing to see the ruins rising out of the jungle. But there must have been a huge agricultural community to support it, and I wonder what it looked like when all the land around it was cleared and farmed.

    • Apparently, the Maya got 70% of their nutrition from corn, which as you say, takes a huge effort, but also lots of land and water. Exactly how they pulled this off has been one of the mysteries of the Maya. But with new technologies, like LIDAR, the outlines of ancient fields have been seen in the jungle which show terraces that might be part of the answer. ~James

  3. Wow!! What a find. And to be able to explore without battling crowds. This place tells so much about the culture. Great photos as always!!

    • Thanks Darlene. Uxmal is so large and spread out that there were many times when it felt like we were the only people on the planet. I’m still not sure why it was so deserted, but whatever the reason, it made the experience so special. ~James

  4. Wow! I think I’ve told you before that of all Maya ruins, Uxmal is the one I want to see the most — rightfully so, judging from your photos. I don’t know whether it is the fact that I grew up in Asia, where highly-ornate ancient temples abound, that now I have a penchant for centuries-old structures, carvings, and other decorative elements. Thanks for all those magnificent photos! I really wish I get the chance to visit Mexico sooner than later.

    • Bama, Asians set the bar high for ornate decorations on temples that’s for sure. The Buddhists do a great job, but the Hindus are the kings of complex themes and colors. The thing I find interesting about Maya art is how stylized it is. The people are always in profile and have a human look, but all the other elements are so stylized they’re hard to recognize, and it usually helps to have some help to understand. Best of luck in getting to Mexico soon. ~James

  5. Particularly fantastic photos today, James! Living in Houston now, we have such easy access to Mexico (in fact, I will do a quickie trip to the capital in a few weeks), and you are prompting me to consider a return to the Yucatan, especially a place like this that is a bit less overrun than Cancun or the closer ruins.

    • Thanks Lexie. As you know, Merida really is an easy hop from Houston, if you want to avoid MEX. And Uxmal is an easy trip from Merida as well. Also, we took a flight to MEX from Palenque which is also a cool ruin. There’s not much in Palenque town but the ruins, but the ruins are way cool. And BTW, make sure your hotel room in MEX is on a lower floor. 😉 ~James

    • Judy, before we started our research into the Yucatan, we hadn’t even heard of Uxmal, but we’re so glad that we discovered it. It’s a special place for sure. ~James

  6. The architecture is amazing ,would love to see the ruins but I get out of breath just looking at those steps and I really rolled my eyes at the (mushroom) picture I guess that”s the Aunt part of me. Love to Terri.

    • Joyce, you’ll be glad to know that those steps had everyone, old and young alike, huffin’ an’ puffin’. But boy oh boy, the view from the top is fabulous. As for the “mushroom” photos, they just prove one thing: people never change, particularly men. 😉 Love to Dascal. ~JH

  7. Nice to find a gem that seems to be little known. Perfect, my kind of place. I am not into the touristy stuff. If we ever make it down there we will check it out.

    • Amy, we got an early start to avoid the crowds, but the amazing thing about this place is that there were never any huge bus groups rolling in. The only bus tours were saw were mini-buses, which only carry a few people. I think that one of the things that saves Uxmal is the distance from Cancun and the east coast beaches. ~James

  8. That was my favorite in the Yucatan region for sure. And it looks like it hasn’t changed much from when I was there although I don’t remember seeing the phalli/”mushroom”! 😉

    • Jenny there were a couple of areas roped off for research, but I think that most of the restoration work has been done here. At least it looks like it. As for the phalli display, if you took the path downhill directly behind the Governor’s Palace, and to the left of the Great Pyramid, the road goes right by them on its way to the front gate. You know, just in case you go back and want to get the complete tour. 😉 ~James

    • Leslie, when the Spanish arrived, the Maya had extensive writings about their beliefs, customs, science, etc called codexes. But thanks to an overzealous priest who thought it all needed to be destroyed, it’s all lost in the mists of time. One of the books I read called it the “worst case of cultural vandalism of all time.” ~James

  9. Thanks for these marvelous photos and information! Wouldn’t it be great to see for one day the reality of the people living, working, and building? The geometric ornamentation is similar to that of Mitla, which you may have visited. New discoveries, such as the fields you mention that are now overgrown by the jungle, answer some questions, but present more mysteries for us to ponder!

    • Marilyn, we didn’t make it to Mitla, but the geometric patterns in the photos online look similar. While each Maya city was independent, I think there was lots of cultural exchange, particularly among artists and architects. And I think that the LIDAR technology will continue to make great strides in our understanding of these cultures. ~James

    • Terry, as I said to someone else, there were lots of times at these ruins where we felt like the only people on the planet. This is rare at any tourist site, and particularly at a ruin this large and cool. If you get down that way, don’t miss it. ~James

    • Thanks Juliann. As I’ve said to others, I’m very surprised that Uxmal doesn’t get more attention. Chichen Itza is on every list, but I suspect that’s because of proximity to Cancun and the number of visitors. Of the two, far and away, we preferred Uxmal. ~James

  10. We also preferred Uxmal, hands down, to its more famous rival, Chichen Itza, and enjoyed the feeling of having many areas all to ourselves during our 2013 visit. Perhaps much of our delight was because the site was not hyped and we went there with fewer expectations. Whatever the reason, we found the sheer beauty and grandeur of Uxmal to be one of the highlights of our time exploring La Ruta Maya. A word about the pyramids – I climbed any and all that we came across during our time in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and always found the descent much more difficult than the climb up. There were several times I cashed in my dignity and bumped down the steep and uneven stairs on my butt because my knees were shaking! Anita

    • Anita, I just saw Chichen Itza on some “new wonders of the world” list. I’m not sure who votes on this stuff, but for sure they hadn’t been to Uxmal. I may get some comments about this but I thought that CI was fine, but nothing in comparison to Uxmal; the level of detail, the state of the buildings, the feel of the place, and of course the crowds. No, I’m glad we visited CI, but I would have hated to miss Uxmal. As for pyramids, I got a good chuckle from your phrase “cash in my dignity.” Like you, I was determined to get my Maya badge of courage, and while the ascent had the quads burning, the descent had the head reeling. To shaky knees, I will add that my size 12 shoes didn’t fit on those size 9 steps. So I had to do a sort of side step all the way down. I didn’t resort to butt-bumping, but I took it very slowly and just kept repeating to myself: “You do NOT want to fall out here in the middle of nowhere.” Thanks for a great visual image and a good chuckle. ~James

  11. Pingback: Uxmal: The Coolest, Closest Ancient City Out There — GALLIVANCE - Turista Mexico

  12. Beautiful post, James, the text and the photos. You are really making me look at Uxmal through new – enlightened – eyes. I appreciate the different perspectives of the photos (they show the magnitude of some of the temples really well), and the information of all the most important features of this site. I do remember all the ball courts of Uxmal, and other Mayan ruins we visited in Mexico and Guatemala. They left a big impression! 🙂

    • Thanks so much Liesbet. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. One side benefit of blogging is that it motivates me to pay more attention when I travel. Our blog is primarily about travel, but as long as we can make a post interesting, anything is fair game. Of course, a subject like the Maya is rich with possibilities. Thanks again and thanks continuing to follow along. ~James

  13. Well, I didn’t know the word Phalli either, but now I do. What an interesting place Uxmal is! Thanks for including people in your pictures to give us a better idea of the grandiose buildings and structures. And yes, my Fitbit would have loved me while touring, especially if I had hiked up those stairs!!!! How do they build those things?

    • It’s pretty funny Rusha, I don’t worry too much about stair goals, but the day I visited Uxmal I did 18 flights of stairs; which is waaay above my normal. And my quads and calves were talking to me the next day. Given how amazing Uxmal is, I’m really surprised that you don’t hear more about it. But before we started researching the trip, we had never heard of it. As for building, that’s another mystery. Remember, these guys didn’t have draught animals or the wheel. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a Maya peasant. ~James

  14. Beautifully written post. I hope I can visit this site in July, but not sure if I will have enough time. It will be my first time in Mexico and already thinking I will have to return for a longer stay. Loved your photos 🙂

    • Thanks very much Gilda. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Mexico is a big country with a rich history, so there’s lots to see. And I can believe that you’ll fall in love. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, there are ruins near the coast that will whet your appetite. Have a great trip. ~James

  15. The temple of Phalli? Oh my who knew? Always a delight to see what unusual gems the two of you discover. This one may take the prize.
    Hoping you are both doing well. Thinking of you often.
    Sue

    • Sue, the cabana of phalli was definitely not an obvious part of the normal tourist area and took a bit of luck (or perseverance) to find. It was almost like they felt like they had to include it, but didn’t want it to be a prominent part of the site. We didn’t know it existed and just stumbled into it on our way back to the front gate. Either way, as I said to someone else, if nothing else, it proves that people never change – particularly men. It’s good to hear from you and I hope you both are doing well. ~James

      • Haha well let’s blame the men anyway. 🙂 I appreciate the dedication in finding that hidden ‘treasure’. Yes doing well after a very busy start to the year. We recently cancelled a road trip to catch our breath. Grand baby is now 2, i likely need to come up with something other than ‘baby’ to refer to her as. We are loving taking her on adventures. Astounding to see the world through her eyes. All the best to you and Terri. I still hope one day our paths will cross in person.

  16. When we did our Ruins Tour Uxmal was also our favorite. Your photos are wonderful, bringing back lots of happy memories for me. And James, I didn’t know about the Temple of the Phalli. I feel so much wiser now. 🙂

    • LuAnn, it must be some confirmation that lots of folks who have traveled extensively in the area say the same thing about Uxmal. And sorry you missed the phalli cabana. It warms the cockles of my heart when I can spread an important piece of information. 😉 ~James

  17. We certainly enjoyed Uxmal (it must get enough day trippers still, as I’m pretty sure there is a tourist focused chocolate factory across the road), one of the many lesser visited ruins across Mexico!

    Some of our own favourites (many only half or full day trips from major cities) included Tula (simply for the carved columns), Xochicalco, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Yagul (not every day you get to see a bath tub with 270 degree views carved into a mountain) and El Tajin.

    Every one of these incredible sites we either had solely to ourselves, or shared with less than half a dozen people!

    Glad you both appreciate them as well!

    • Chris, we really wanted to go to Bonampak but couldn’t get the timing worked out. I’ve seen pix and it looks amazing. Were you actually able to see the mosaics or have they restricted access? We had talked for years of making the trip to Yucatan and Chiapas, and we’re really glad that we were able to make it. I saw Chichen Itza on a “New 7 wonders of the world” list, and after seeing CI and Uxmal, I can’t believe that CI made the list over Uxmal. It was fine, but not even close to Uxmal in my opinion. ~James

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