Jaguar altar, with sacrifice, at the Governor’s Palace, Uxmal.
South of Mérida, about two hours by bus, is the “Puuc” (low hills) region with magnificent Uxmal (pronounced “OOsh-mal”), which means “rebuilt three times” in Mayan. Although the site isn’t as large as Chichén Itzá, it’s farther from Cancun, so isn’t overrun with tourists. Before it was abandoned in the 10th century AD it was a city of about 25,000. There were apparently no cenotes there, so the inhabitants had to depend on rainwater collected above the surface, which was potentially open to contamination. That may be why Uxmal was abandoned roughly at the time when Chichén Itzá, which did have cenotes, came to prominence.
Today Uxmal is considered the jewel in the crown of the Puuc archeological region, with unusually elegant buildings considered to be “pure Mayan” in style without the later Toltec influences found elsewhere. That is, they usually have plain walls surmounted by intricately-carved upper facades, which include countless images of the rain-god Chac. Four of the structures stand out for their beauty and originality.
The Magician is the only curved Mayan structure.
The first is the pyramid dedicated to “The Magician” (also called The Sorcerer or The Dwarf), unique in that its walls are elliptical rather than angular. It was actually built, then rebuilt four times, each temple incorporating the earlier ones inside it. Only the entrance to the fourth temple near the summit is still visible. At over 100 feet (32 m) it may be the tallest of all Mayan buildings, and its stairs aren’t easy to climb. The view from the top is spectacular though, which sometimes causes people to forget where they are. The guide told us that a tourist taking pictures had stepped back too far the day before, and had gone over the edge.
Nearby is the quadrangle which the Spaniards called the “Nunnery”, because its upper facades feature lattice-work carvings similar to those used in Spanish nunneries to keep the women hidden from view. Speculation has it that the four buildings may have housed a school or a military academy.
The third structure of great importance is known as the Governor’s Palace, which appears to have been the administrative centre. It is about 300 feet (over 90 meters) long, and its facade is covered with geometric designs and stylized Chac faces.
The Pigeon House, an unusual wind warning system.
Finally, there’s a weird-looking building called the Pigeon House. On top of it are hollow sculptures of various shapes and sizes. The guide told us that the Maya farmers used the “slash and burn” technique to clear the scrubby brush and fertilize their fields. When doing so, it was essential not to be caught by flames if the wind changed direction or strength. According to him, the strange hollow sculptures acted as horns, giving out loud and continuous sounds which would change according to the direction and strength of the wind. Those working in the fields would hear this and know when it was time to high-tail it out of there. I guess that’s as good an explanation as any.
That Uxmal was the administrative centre of the entire area is shown by the system of hand-built crushed limestone roads (sacbes) which radiated out and connected to all the other towns. We could make out the remains of one when we visited the smaller Kabah, about 10 miles (18 km) away. There, an enormous monumental Mayan arch stands at the terminus of a sacbe which goes straight through the woods to Uxmal, where there is a smaller arch. It’s hard to imagine all these “paved highways” being built by hand through brush, woods and jungles centuries ago – but they were!
Kabah presents an enormous restoration challenge.
Kabah is just starting to be restored. Nevertheless it does have a fabulous Palace of Masks, with its faÃ§ade covered by hundreds of masks of the rain god Chac. We saw the part that was restored, and the remains of other masks on the ground, waiting to be put together in the correct way and place. There are several other buildings also awaiting excavation: work will eventually proceed on a few that prove to be of interest. It’s a labour of love that will take decades!
There are several other small settlements in the Puuc, but their restoration is just beginning, so we didn’t visit them. Before going back to Mérida we enjoyed another delicious Yucatecan buffet. As our bus headed back, we noticed one restaurant – called “U Puuc” in Mayan – which I’m sure is going to change its name one of these days.
We had an unusual experience on the flight back from Cancun. Powerful head-winds had delayed our charter flight by over two hours, but of course they became tail-winds and worked to our advantage when we headed north. It took only 2½ hours from Cancun to Ottawa, about the same as it had taken by bus from Mérida to Chichén Itzá. As we touched down the pilot announced that we had been flying at just under the speed of sound, and had set a new record for that run. All in all, it was a great way to finish a memorable trip!
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.