A guide to Uxmal Mayan Pyramids in Yucatan, Mexico
Uxmal is about 1 hour south of Mérida, Yucatan. In the region called the Ruta Puuc meaning little hill area. As you drive up the first of these it is clear how flat the Yucatan is. At the top of the incline there is a beautiful view out over these little hills. There aren’t many but these hill are what made for rich pockets of agricultural soil and some protection from rival mayan groups. The small ranges form a near triangle where the rich soil is continually washed down into the valleys.
Uxmal was a peaceful city, but at it’s height it was estimated that 20,000 people lived in the area outside the historic ruins that still stand today. The ruins that we know were build over centuries, and as leaders and ruling dynasties changed so did the buildings and other architectural structures.
It is speculated that the ruling class safely guarded their secrets and that they would not share their knowledge and advances with a large group. There for, at death or due to being overthrown by a rival group knowledge sometimes failed to be transmitted. Many Mayan sites were built and rebuilt as new technology was learned or unfortunatly forgotten. Many new rules would simple fill up the old pyramid with rocks and start the new build around the old using it as a solid foundation.
There for, the Sorcerer’s Temple the first pyramyd you see when you enter Uxmal has been built over at least 5 times. The Uxmal we know today was heavily influenced by the invading Xiu clan who ruled Uxmal from 1000-1200AD. They emphasised the snake god Kukulcan who’s image can be found all throughout the archaeological site.
The Sorcerer’s Temple is 138 feet tall and in the Yucatan is smaller only to that of the temple in Coba. As is normal with the tallest pyramids it is a homage to the heavenly bodies and gods. It is decorated by masks of various deities but that of Chaac, the rain god is the most prolific.
It is important to remember Uxmal was abonded by the Maya in 1200 AD well before the European conquerors came and lost in the jungle for centuries. Most of the information given here was reconstructed from knowledge and carvings at the site, but all the names of the temples were given by the Spaniards. Also it’s important to remember even during the age of the Maya, these temples were religious centers and no one ever lived in them. They could be equated to churches, used for worship but not a home.
Around the based of the Sorcerer’s temple are various smaller quadrants one of which is notable for the various bird carvings. Birds are often associated with the gods, and in this case many of the carvings are of macaws which is known to also symbolize the sun. They speculate that this part of the structure was likely used for agricultural rituals or prayer.
Attached to the Sorcerer’s temple but on it’s own platform, is the larger Nun’s Quadrangle, named this way only for the various small rooms around around the perimeter of the quad. However again, this name was given by the late spaniards and not the Maya themselves.
However, the number of carvings found throughout the space make t clearly a highly ritualized area. The main carving is of a chief of Uxmal and he is flanked by soldiers suggesting some sort of military or government scene. It is likely these four buildings acted like a sort of city hall or town square where many important people could conduct their business.
Each of the four buildings in the quadrant stand at a different height and the acoustics of the courtyard is easily heard as you tour through and hear other groups testing out the clap echos.
As you leave (or enter) the Nun’s Quadrangle you will pass through one of the many impressive Maya archways. Their quintessential peaks are seen throughout this and many other archeological sites. Some say the Mayan’s didn’t quite may the perfect arch because they were missing the key stone seen in the Roman arches.
I however believe the mayan arch to be a technology all it’s own. In the lack of a key stone the mayans learned how to shape he rocks in elongated forms that look something like a bloated eggplant. These were then counter balanced with a number of smaller stones and stacked into their triangle like arches. I think this design is brilliant because even if ½ of the arch fails and falls down, the other half can still stand strong.
Throughout the ruins of Uxmal you can see ½ buildings still standing due to their ingenious archway techniques. So while they didn’t have the perfect keystone they still had a very useful technology.
In the middle of the Uxmal archeological site is the ball court. The Maya ballgame was played with a thick, heavy, solid rubber ball. The structure of Uxmal’s ball court is much smaller than those of other sites. The goal of the game was to pass the rubber ball through one of the stone hoops using only your elbows, knees and hips.
The most impressive building of Uxmal is the Governor’s Palace. From the top of this pyramid you look out over the Nuns Quadrangle and the Sorcerer’s Temple as well as the nearly endless tree line in every direction. This impressive structure was apparently designed to track the east west movement of the sun and has been associated with astronomical observations such as Venus reaching it’s southernmost point.
The impressive arches on this building were originally open allowing the light, air and people to move from one side of the building to another. However later they were filled in, possibly to prevent collapsing or in preparation for more building.
When seen from afar the arrangement of 103 Chaac masks give the impression of an undulating snake. Each corner of this building is also adorned with 5 Chaac masks. Water was highly important in this agricultural zone, but there is an absence of cenotes. This site worshiped Chaac the god of rain because they lived and died by the cycle of the rains. Most all Maya sites are built around water, but in Uxmal they learned instead how to store the water.
An impressive number of water catches were found throughout the zone. The Maya of this zone learned how to build wells and cover them from the inside with stucle to be able to save the rainwater during the rainy season. They would then use this water throughout the dry season.
A smaller less ornate structure stands at the base of the Governor’s Palace and is called the house the turtles, aptly for the number of life like turtle carvings around the building. It is speculated this was used specifically for water tasks as the turtle is a symbol of the water and rain.
Next is the Great Pyramid which stands only a few feet shorter than the Sorcerer’s Temple. These building has only been restored on one side giving us all the unique opportunity to compare what the temples were to how they were overtaken by the jungle. Nothing can compare to how these sites were when the Maya people actually used them as most of the carvings did not survived the centuries.
Next to this pyramid quadrant that has been called the Dovecote. In 2010 when I first visited Uxmal this area was no yet constructed, in the last few months that I have visited the structures are becoming more and more built up as they restore parts of the Dovecote and other Southern group Pyramids. This area is still mostly
The most impressive in this quadrant is currently the House of Pigeons, It is still only a facade with most of the original pyramid in rubble behind it but they have started to reconstruct more of the rooms that make this windowed structure so beautiful. However the archway that use to lead into the forest and some of the other rubble of other Southern ruins has been closed.
For me the memory of walking into the forest of Uxmal and coming up to this pyramid from behind was one of the most adventurous things I had done in my life up until that point. It’s sad to know other will not feel that excitement of seeing the ruins rise up out of the jungle that I did, but I hope this means they will build up the backside of the House of Pigeons, as it is my favorite building in Uxmal I would love to know what it looked it.
Recent work has been done to the cemetery group too and the path leading to it is much easier to follow one of the 4 structures still stands but the other’s that flank this small quad are mounds of rubble. There is hope that someday all 4 pyramids in the Cemetery group will also be restored. The path to the Stelae has also been improved and this platform you can see the remains of 16 Stelae (mayan records of the rules) and 25 alters however mostly there are butterflies and mosquitoes as most of this group still lies in ruin.
WThere are also still numerous pyramids in the jungle, the two in the Northern group can be seen if you look closely but currently the paths to them are blocked. Also the Old Woman’s house has been roped off. Hopefully this means they are being restored and will someday soon open to the public with a better example of the architecture.
How to arrive by bus – ADO TAME has a bus every day at 9 am
Return buses are at 12:20 pm, 3:20 pm and 5:20 pm
the TAME station is at Calle 69 number 55 between calles 68 y 70
You can also arrive by car and there is parking available.