Yucatán Road Trip: Hochob

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Hochob’s Structure 1. A metate (grinding stone) is visible on the right side of the image, near the base of the building.

From Edzná we began our trek to Hochob, the first Chenes-style site of our trip.

In contrast to the well-trod, well-maintained routes that had led us to every archaeological area up to this point, the way to Hochob was largely unmarked and required the use of narrow, rough, and unnamed roads. It would have been nearly impossible to find without a GPS, and was challenging even with one. So challenging, in fact, that we ended up using two different apps simultaneously (one on each phone), comparing and contrasting the maps they showed us as we inched our way towards our destination.

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Ceremonial center of Hochob. According to the INAH website, the site was inhabited from 300 CE “until long after the Spanish conquest,” reaching its peak around 850-1000 CE. However, the extant buildings mostly precede the city’s height and date to 600-900 CE.

As should be expected given its small size, remote location, and frequent absence from guidebooks, Hochob is not the bustling tourist beacon of places like Chichén Iztá or even Dzibilchaltún. The handful of other visitors we encountered during our stay consisted entirely of a Mennonite family and a father with his young son, all of whom explored the site with the casualness of locals on family outings. They were pleasant co-adventurers, and their presence amongst the ruins, vultures, and stark, twisting vegetation lent an almost cozy feel to the otherwise spooky beauty of the site itself.

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Unlike Edzná, whose residents had to create a massive platform to lift their ceremonial center above the surrounding valley, Hochob was built at the peak of a natural hill. Its population then expanded downward, creating terraced housing along the hillside (INAH). To reach the site now, visitors ascend a modern stairway composed of large, rounded steps that snake up the steep slope like a vertical conveyor belt.

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As we neared the top, we were greeted by an enormous, gaping face rising out of the cleared space of the courtyard. Although not the only building in the ceremonial center, this structure, known as the Palace, is by far the best preserved and most dramatic of the entire site.

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According to the plaque for the Palace (also referred to, less grandly, as Structure 1), the elaborate façade of the three-roomed building is a depiction of Itzamná, the Maya creator deity. Itzamná appears crouching and open-mouthed, with hook-like stones around the entrance forming the teeth of the god’s upper jaw and back molars. Narrow slabs protruding from the platform beneath the entrance represent the front teeth of its lower jaw.

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Remnants of both the stucco and red and black paint that once covered all of the center’s buildings still cling to the Palace’s exterior. Patches of red paint are especially visible in the crevices of Itzamná’s spiral eyes.

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Use of an open-mouthed visage surrounding a central doorway and bordered by stacked, long-nosed masks is typical of Chenes architecture, a style that flourished from 600-800 CE in the region around Campeche and reached as far north as Uxmal, where another, similar face forms the focal point of the Pyramid of the Magician. At least two of the major buildings around Hochob’s small courtyard once possessed these masked façades, although the top half of the second structure is now missing.

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Structure 1 (left) and a second, less preserved masked building (right, background).

After exploring the Palace and surrounding buildings, we followed a path extending from the side of the courtyard opposite the stairs. This trail was dotted with the chultuns that once stored water for Hochob’s inhabitants and made their life on the hill possible.

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The simple, almost perfectly round holes had their own kind of stark (if slightly precarious) elegance, and we appreciated the opportunity to see them up close even as we tried to avoid accidentally stumbling into them.

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It was not yet mid-afternoon by the time we completed our nature walk/chultun stroll and made our way back down the generous staircase to the parking lot. Given the early hour, we briefly considered trying to add Santa Rosa Xtampak, the former capital of the Chenes region, to the day’s itinerary. Unfortunately, although less than 60 miles separate the two sites, there is no route between them that would take less than two hours. Going would have put us in high risk of trying to find our way back to Campeche in the dark, a prospect neither Josh nor I considered with relish. And so, happy with what we had seen but now also disappointed with what we were not able to do, we began the long, slow return journey to our hotel and a relaxed evening back in Campeche.

Highly subjective personal rating: 8/10 [worth the trek]

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Yucatán Road Trip: Uxmal

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View of the “Magician’s Pyramid,” Uxmal. The curving edges of the pyramid are unique in Maya architecture, and may be the result of flawed restoration.

Of the many exceptional Maya ruins we visited in the Yucatán Peninsula, both Josh and I agree that Uxmal was our favorite. My notes from the half-day we spent at the site simply read, “Uxmal=Amazing,” and that still pretty well sums up our impression of the ancient city.

Like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal is an UNESCO World Heritage site located within day-trip distance of Mérida. However, its more southwesterly position off a less trafficked route means that it is not as convenient a destination for cruise travelers or those staying in Tulum, and thus receives fewer visitors than its slightly more famous cousin. This is good news for those who do put in the small amount of extra effort necessary to get there, as it not only means you will be sharing the grounds with fewer people, but also that those other people usually care about what they’re seeing (a characteristic we didn’t fully appreciate until later, when we found it lacking among too many of the tourists populating the Maya Riviera).

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Stacked Chaac masks decorating the roofline of the “Nunnery’s” north building. Although made up of modular stone units, each face is distinct. The “Venus Temple,” visible here in the lower register of the image, is named for the repeated “W,” or trident-shaped, designs on the façade that represent the planet Venus.

When traveling within the peninsula, moving south generally means moving back in time. Whereas the buildings at Chichén Itzá mostly date to the Post-Classic era (c. 11th-13th centuries CE), Uxmal is a Late Classic site, built primarily between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. It is the largest and most complex of the cities designed in the Puuc style, and one of the few Yucatan centers not near a cenote. Instead, the residents dug chultuns (deep, narrow cisterns) to capture rain water. The many masks that typify the stone latticework in Puuc architecture have long been thought to represent Chaac (Chac, Chaahk), god of rain, in part because rain would have been both relatively scarce and extremely important to the city’s survival.

[Note: According to a display at the Canton Palace Museum, some recent studies have suggested that these masks might be depictions of Witz, the sacred mountain, rather than the rain deity. However, another plaque located a few feet away in the same exhibition clearly takes the more traditional view that these are the faces of Chaac. Since the question is still contested, I am using the traditional identification of the masks as Chaac because it is both the more widespread view and the one most repeated at the site itself.]

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Broken Chaac masks look out from the Nunnery towards the Magician’s Pyramid. The great, open-mouthed face at the top of the pyramid’s stairs is similar to the serpent mask doorways common in the Chenes-style architecture of the southern Yucatán.

Although more difficult to capture in photographs, the layout of Uxmal is almost as striking as its highly decorated architecture. After visiting Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún, where the major buildings are spread out and emphasized through man-made horizon lines, the relationships between buildings in Uxmal can feel layered and compact despite the substantial size of the site. This is particularly true of the area around the Magician’s Pyramid. Even though the structure is one of the largest and most conspicuous monuments in the ancient city, the courtyard (known as the “Quadrangle of the Birds”) separating it from the buildings of the “Nunnery” is quite small—so small, in fact, that it is impossible to capture the entire front of the pyramid in a single photograph. This means that there are few opportunities to view the face of the pyramid as a whole. And yet, the building’s upper portion is one of the most visible and eye-catching sights in the city, with a giant, open-mouthed mask looking out towards the Nunnery and marking the entrance of the temple located at the top of the central staircase. Instead of opening the space around the pyramid so it could be easily understood as a whole, the city’s builders created multiple opportunities for visually framing, and thus drawing specific attention to, this mask.

Case in point:

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No other single feature stands out so dramatically at the site, especially when seen from a distance, suggesting that it was this part of the pyramid, rather than the totality of the structure, that held the most significance for the city’s residents. The doorway is also unusual for Puuc architecture, and appears to be a blend of local Puuc and southern Chenes decorative styles. For instance, the use of stacked Chaac masks (seen here at the edges of the central face) is a typically Puuc (and Chenes) feature, while Chenes architects frequently incorporated open-mouthed serpent masks around the doorways of important buildings. In fact, the closest known parallel may be at Hormiguero, one of the most far-flung of the Chenes-style sites, located nearly 300 km away in the south of the Peninsula.

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Chenes-style structure at Hormiguero in southern Campeche. The masked doorway is similar to that on the Magician’s Pyramid in both style (including the border of stacked Chaac masks) and central placement at the top of a high staircase.

Unfortunately, no one now knows exactly what Uxmal’s structures, including the Magician’s Pyramid, were used for. The city had long been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived and christened the buildings with names based on their own initial impressions of the site. However, modern scholars have noted that Uxmal’s layout appears to follow astrological features, particularly the movements of the sun and Venus. The cycles of both stars played definitive roles in Maya conceptions of time, but how that translated into the uses of these buildings is still largely a matter of speculation.

The unfortunately named Nunnery, located near the site’s entrance beside the Magician’s Pyramid, is a slightly asymmetrical complex with long, heavily ornamented buildings framing a large courtyard. The light show, held in the evenings just after dusk, takes place here, with the audience sitting in folding chairs near the top of the northern building.

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Northern building of Uxmal’s Nunnery with the Temple of Venus on the left.
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Western building of the Nunnery.
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The Nunnery’s eastern building.
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View from the Nunnery’s north building, looking out over the south building at the Governor’s Palace, House of the Turtles, and Great Pyramid.

Most scholars believe that both the layout and decorative façades of the Nunnery possess dense symbolism. The buildings themselves may have formed a mandala of the Maya universe, with the tall, north building embodying the Upper World; the short, southern building representing the Underworld; and the east and west buildings standing for the rising and setting aspects of the Middle World (Coe 360). If correct, the complex—built toward the end of Uxmal’s peak—was a physical declaration of the city’s place at the center of the universe.

In addition to the ubiquitous Chaac masks, the courtyard-facing imagery includes repeated depictions of double-headed or feathered serpents, Maya huts, jaguars, and even masks of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed water deity associated with central Mexican cultures. The cross-hatching designs, common throughout Uxmal, depict mats, emblems of power.

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Stack of Chaac masks in Uxmal’s Nunnery, topped by the goggle-eyed image of Tlaloc.
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Relief of a Maya hut on the south building.
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God N, the elderly lord of the Underworld, appears above the central entrance of the west building of Uxmal’s Nunnery. He is depicted with the face of an old man and body of a turtle beneath a feather canopy.

From the Nunnery, we walked through the small ballcourt, past the stepped hill supporting the Governor’s Palace, over the Dovecote, and up the Great Pyramid.

Unlike the Magician’s Pyramid, the Great Pyramid’s 100 feet of steps are still open to those visitors who are willing to climb them. Which we did.

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Josh chasing his hat down the Great Pyramid (taken from below the halfway point), Uxmal.

In addition to offering a view of the city’s central buildings, the platform at the top of the pyramid supports a small temple decorated with macaws—perhaps representing an aspect of the sun god—and more long-snouted masks, some of which hold human heads in their mouths. Only one side of the pyramid has been reconstructed, and it is not possible to enter the temple proper.

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The northeast corner of the Great Pyramid abuts the man-made hill that forms the platform for the Governor’s Palace (or House of the Governor) and House of the Turtles. Walking around the narrow south end of the Palace leads to an open plaza that faces the front (east) side of the building.

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Approaching the Governor’s Palace from the southeast.

Near the center of the plaza, directly before the Palace’s staircase, stands an altar supporting Uxmal’s two-headed jaguar throne. Excavations revealed a large cache of over 900 objects, including pots, jade jewelry, and obsidian knives, buried beneath this altar (Coe 360). Although we were unaware of it at the time, Coe also notes that an invisible line corresponding “to an important point in the Venus-cycle” runs from the central doorway of the House of the Governor, through the throne, to the largest structure at the nearby site of Nohpat (361). This relationship between the two cities is further emphasized by the fact that they were once also directly connected by a sacbe (white road).

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From the plaza, it becomes clear that the Palace is in fact three separate buildings connected by spear-point arches and unifying visual features, including one of the most intricate friezes of the region. Altogether, the buildings run for over 100 meters, making the three-part unit one of the longest palace-style structures of any Maya city. Visitors can walk up yet another platform to approach and look into these buildings, but are not supposed to enter them. The rooms currently hold unassigned architectural fragments and serve as a cool-ish resting places for iguanas.

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The northern corners of the Palace have been dug out to reveal more Chaac masks sunk below the walkway. Their strange placement may indicate that the patio area around the structure represents a later building stage than the rest of the House of the Governor.

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Excavated corners of the Governor’s Palace, revealing Chaac masks.
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View from the north side of the Governor’s Palace, looking down at (from left to right) the House of the Turtles, ballcourt, Nunnery, and Magician’s Pyramid.

Descending from the Palace, we approached the House of the Turtles, located at the northeast corner of the hill-platform.

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Some scholars have proposed that the House of the Turtles, named for the row of 40-plus stone turtles encircling the upper portion of its roof, may have been dedicated to a rain “cult,” since turtles are associated with rain. If that is the case, however, it raises the questions of why no images of Chaac adorn the building, especially given the proliferation of the god elsewhere at the site (there are over 100 such masks on the Governor’s Palace alone), and why one of the only other depictions of turtles in the city is clearly attached to the god of the underworld (see image of God N relief at the Nunnery, above).

The relative austerity and small size of the building complements the ornate enormity of its neighbor. Its exterior is punctuated by 10 doors: three each on the east, west, and south walls and just one in the north. Another sight-line leads from the central doorway on the south wall, through the northern opening, across the ball court, to the central entrance of the Nunnery’s south building.

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Sight-line from the House of the Turtles to the Nunnery.
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View of the ballcourt, House of the Turtles, and Governor’s Palace.

For our last stop, we walked west to the “Cemetery Complex,” which, in keeping with the misnomers that abound at the site, is not an actual cemetery. Named for the numerous images of skulls and cross-bones carved on the low platforms dotting its main square, the Complex includes a heavily overgrown pyramid and temple platform. Much of the western area has yet to be reconstructed and is thus far less spectacular than the eastern side of the site. Even so, this quiet group offers the rare opportunity for close inspection of in situ, fairly well preserved reliefs that make it another not-to-be missed section of an already remarkable place.

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Highly subjective personal rating: 10/10 

 

Bonus pics:

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Back of the Magician’s Pyramid as seen from the path connecting the visitor center to the ruins. A bit of the Nunnery’s north building is visible on the right.
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One of the palace-style buildings in the Quadrangle of the Birds. The square gets its name from the bird reliefs decorating the stone roof of this structure.
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Turquoise-browed motmot.
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The narrow, colonnaded structure located to the southwest of the Magician’s Pyramid is neither on our maps nor mentioned in either guidebook. I have no idea what it is.
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One of Uxmal’s many photogenic iguanas.