Traversing the distance between the city of Campeche and the hotels surrounding Calakmul takes about four hours, with little in the way of either gas stations or open archaeological sites in between. Over three hours and 150 miles after leaving our hotel we reached our first stop: the partially excavated site of Balamkú. Situated about 30 miles north of Calakmul in the southernmost part of the Maya lowlands, Balamkú was (re)discovered in 1990 and excavations began in 1994. Today, only the central and southern groups have been exposed. A stroll around the grounds reveals a series of attractive but relatively simple ruins picturesquely overgrown with slim, hardy trees and neatly kept by the groundskeeper.
To find Balamkú’s most impressive feature, however, visitors must search a little deeper. We wandered cluelessly for a while before the groundskeeper came up and indicated we should follow him. He led us up a narrow metal staircase alongside one of the site’s larger buildings (Structure 1 of the Central Group), unlocked the door, and ushered us inside. We found ourselves within a long, narrow chamber lit purely by the natural light filtering through a series of small, square holes in the ceiling. To out left stood one of the longest and oldest known painted stucco friezes of the Mayan world.
Stretching 55 ft across, the frieze once included four columns topped by rulers, separated by jaguars or jaguar-like creatures. According to the signage (or at least my questionable translation of the signage), the kingly uppermost figures—of which only one and a half of the original four remain—do not possess any uniquely identifying features and thus likely represented the concept of rulership rather than specific individuals. Each emerges from the jaws of an amphibian—again, according to the INAH sign—representing the fertile aspect of the world. The king’s birth from a creature that can move between water and earth suggests his ability to likewise move between worlds. Each “amphibian” sits upon a mask of the Earth Monster similarly representing the richness of the world while also evoking the four directions.
Jaguars—symbols of sacrifice, war, and death, as well as the risen and subterranean sun—and Jaguar hybrids fill the panels between the masks and provided the inspiration for the site’s current name (balam=jaguar, kú=temple, Balamkú=Temple of the the Jaguar). Taken as a whole, the frieze celebrates and glorifies Balamkú’s rulers and their intimate connection with a healthy and bountiful world.
The INAH website offers a slightly different iconographic summary, suggesting that composition equates the dynastic cycle with the solar cycle. In this view, the image of the ruler emerging from the jaws of the Earth Monster symbolizes his ascension to the throne just as the sun comes out of the earth at dawn, and the ruler’s death is shown at sunset, when he falls back into the Earth’s mouth.
Campeche’s city center is circumscribed by the remains of a hexagonal wall built by the Spanish between 1686-1704 to defend the colonial seaport from pirate attack (UNESCO). Remarkably, much of the early fortification, including its eight bastions (baluartes), still exists. These bulwarks are now historical attractions in their own right, protected as part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a few have been turned into small museums to showcase other highlights of the region. Baluarte de Santiago, for instance, is now home to the Xmuch’haltun botanical garden of subtropical plants, while Baluarte de la Soledad houses the Museum of Maya Architecture with a small but impactful collection of Maya ceramics and useful information on nearby sites, including Calakmul, Hochob, and Hormiguero.
Edzná’s ruins lay about 50 km to the southeast of Campeche, with the way clearly marked by official traffic signs along (mostly) good roads. And yet, even with this relative ease of access from the region’s capital, we shared the impressive city with only a few other tourists.
Most of the existing architecture here dates to 750-950 CE and is Puuc in style, making Edzná the southernmost city of the Puuc culture. However, the area was populated long before the Puuc’s arrival. According to Coe, the first inhabitants settled the valley around 400 BCE, when the Maya of the Petén region migrated north (343). Unlike the arid climate found elsewhere on the peninsula, the valley containing Edzná provided good soil and relatively easy access to water, although lack of drainage and the persistence of a long dry season initially limited its productivity. To counter this cycle of drowned and dried crops, the inhabitants eventually “built the most extensive canal and irrigation network in the Maya region” to drain excess water and save it for the dry months (343). This in turn allowed the small agricultural and trading town to grow into an important and heavily populated center.
There are several groups of buildings within the extensive site, but our visit focused primarily on three highlights. The first of these was the collection of stelae located in a modern, thatched structure between the parking and main archaeological areas. Although they vary in size and condition, a number of the stelae here still display a high degree of detail and are accompanied by good explanatory text in Spanish.
Two, Stelae 8 and 9, are particularly unusual in the way they present the human form. Whereas figures on stelae typically appear in profile and face inward, their actions illustrating an important historical moment (see Stela 2, above), those on Stelae 8 and 9 simply stand back-to-back. Their bodies fill the front of the stone, pushing their profiles to the corners so that their faces wrap around to the sides’ edges (see Stela 9, below). Despite the lack of obvious action, the inclusion of a date in the band of glyphs near the top of the stone suggests that these figures also represent a specific historical moment.
From the stelae pavilion, we entered the archaeological area and made a beeline south through the Main Plaza, past the Great Acropolis, to the small but exciting Temple of the Masks.
Another thatched roof covers and protects the pair of well-preserved painted stucco faces that grace the temple’s base, while a thin rope fence discourages visitors from getting within touching or climbing distance of the building. The wide-eyed masks, one on each side of the central staircase, are probably personifications of the rising and setting aspects of the sun, represented by a youth to the east (left) and an elderly male to the west (right). Both aspects possess large earspools and what appear to be jutting, upper teeth. Crossed eyes, a sign of beauty, are especially noticeable on the young, eastern face.
Doubling-back, we returned to the Main Plaza and climbed the steps up the massive stone-and-earth platform that supports Edzná’s Great Acropolis.
Upon reaching the summit, we were immediately struck by both the enormity of this entirely man-made square and the almost pristine geometry of its structures. However, our attention soon turned to a single focal point. Across the courtyard, directly opposite the staircase, loomed the Building of the Five Stories, a great pyramidal monument standing twice as high as its most substantial neighbors.
Although similar in size and shape to the grand pyramids of other sites, in function the Building of the Five Stories has more in common with the palaces of the central Puuc region. Whereas Maya pyramids are largely solid structures built to support temples on their uppermost stories and/or contain sealed, hidden burial chambers, the façade of the Building of the Five Stories is punctured at every level with open doorways leading to vaulted rooms. On May 1 and August 13, the setting sun fills these chambers with light (Coe 347). The structure thus probably served as both a residential building for the elite and as a ritual focal point for the city as a whole.
Visitors can no longer climb up the Building of the Five Stories, but they can still get quite close to its lower steps. Upon inspection, these stairs revealed rows of stones decorated with large glyphs. Known as the Hieroglyphic Staircase, the wide, deep steps leading from the ground to the first story possess some of clearest writing and low-relief sculpture we encountered in situ over the course of our trip and were, for us, Edzná’s final highlight.
Driving another three km east from Xlapak took us to Labná, the last of the ancient cities along the Ruta Puuc included within Uxmal’sWorld Heritage site. Labná is a bit smaller than Kabah and Sayil, and is one of the oldest cities of the region. The primary buildings, including the palace, gateway, and mirador (observatory), are notable not only for their unusually well-preserved state, but for being particularly emblematic of the Puuc style in both architecture and decoration, with myriad long-snouted masks, attached columns, step-and-fret designs, and even figural reliefs gracing their exteriors.
According to the entranceway plaque, Labná’s origins likely date “from around the beginning of our era,” although the remaining structures are the result of multiple building phases from 750 to 1000 CE. Like the other cities in this arid area, Labná depended on its ability to catch and store rainwater, which it did using nearly 70 chultuns (narrow, domestic cisterns) and a natural aguada (sealed depression in the land, similar to a cenote).
The palace is the first major building visitors encounter within the archaeological area. Set on a platform and facing the sacbe that still connects it to the residential and mirador groups located directly to the south, this structure is the largest of several buildings that make up the “palace group.” Although shorter and less imposing than Sayil’s three-story version, Labná’s palace has the relative advantage of being more accessible and better preserved. And its many nooks and crannies do benefit by close inspection.
From the palace, visitors can take a path east to the “Edificio de las Columnas,” an L-shaped residential structure built in the Puuc Junquillo style, or walk south to Labná’s most distinctive feature: its gate.
As an imposing structure that simultaneously limited and permitted movement between two plazas, the gate would have both connected and demarcated the spaces of the residential group to the west of the sacbe and what was likely a ceremonial center to the east [ref. map]. Iconographically speaking, the western face is the more exciting façade, with its miniature huts flanking either side of the archway. Each hut’s niche once contained a brightly painted stucco sculpture of a seated warrior, remnants of which are still extant today. The blue-green headdress and red walls are especially visible in the niche to the right (south) of the central doorway.
For us, the gate is also memorable as the place where, while trying to 123D Catch the exterior, Josh smacked his head, skinned his shin, and bruised his foot falling down a pile of rubble. The experience was a good reminder to stick to the better-worn paths or, at the very least, to avoid unsure footing while wearing sandals.
To the east of the gate stands el Mirador, a 20 meter, pyramidal heap of stones topped by a small temple with a giant roof comb.
The many support stones on the south side of the comb are evidence of elaborate stucco work that once covered the front of the building and, like the archway, was probably brightly painted. Although we know from early descriptions that most, if not all, of this decoration consisted of human figures, very little of the original ornamentation has survived [ref. image]. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that this area—which is still impressive in its denuded state—would have been spectacular in its original condition.
We eventually returned to the welcome center via a more shaded (and rather beautiful) path on the western side of the site before once again hopping into our car and heading to Loltun cave, our final archaeological stop in the region and of the day.
Departing from Sayil, we continued east for 5.5km until we reached another gravel drive branching off to the south, this time leading to Xlapak.
Unlike the other stops along the Puuc Route, little Xlapak is not officially inscribed by UNESCO within the Uxmal World Heritage Site. This is probably because the visitable area includes only one well-preserved building (Structure 1, aka, the “palace”), while the rest of the former city still lies in near-complete ruin. And yet, the singularity of this building, which seems to stand alone within an encroaching jungle, lends it a jewel-like quality unmatched by the larger and more elaborate structures elsewhere.
From the parking area, we followed a stone-lined footpath under a canopy of slender but densely growing trees. After the open and expansive locations of Sayil, Kabah, and Uxmal, the trail through Xlapak felt unusually intimate—almost eerily so.
After about 200 meters, we arrived at the north façade of the palace. This is the best preserved part of the building, with its step-and-fret frieze bordered by three sets of long-nosed masks stacked in triplicate at the corners and above the central doorway.
The frieze wraps all the way around the building (or did at one time, when the exterior walls were still fully intact), and it’s probable that the east and west sides were once identical. Likewise, the design of the south wall is similar to that of the north, in that both originally possessed three doors and a frieze divided into two equal sections.
However, the southern façade boasts two large masks above its central doorway, just to the right of the pile of rubble that was once the structure’s southwest corner, that are unlike anything else on the building. With their long, hooked noses and modular construction, these faces bear some resemblance to other Puuc depictions of Chaac or Witz. And yet they also display unusually wide mouths, the upper jaws of which are filled with regular, serrated teeth. The noses, too, are turned in the opposite direction of most Chaac masks, curving upwards rather than down. It is unclear whether these differences are iconographically significant or simply a matter of style, but it is possible, as Andrew Coe has suggested, that the faces represent Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed rain god of central Mexico, rather than the Maya counterpart of Chaac (370).
Continuing down the path leads to Group 2, but there is little to see here for the casual visitor. So little, in fact, that we have no photographs from this part of the site and I can no longer remember what it looked like. In another context, that might have been disappointing. At the time, however, we still had two more sites to visit that day before we needed to drive to Campeche and leave the Puuc behind. As a result, we were actually grateful to find the rest of the site undemanding and kept our time there brief.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10 [Although there is less to see here than at the other stops along the Puuc Route, Xlapak’s compact but scenic grounds offer a pleasant break from its more overwhelming neighbors. Also, it’s free to visit.]
On day two of our Puuc Route adventure, we followed Highway 261 south for just under five km past Kabah, then turned left onto a narrow, unnamed road. After another five km of doubt, we came upon Sayil, our first destination of the day. Turning right (south) off the unnamed road, we drove beneath a canopy of bright orange and green foliage up to the parking lot.
After paying the modest entrance fee, visitors walk about 100 meters south to a clearing and the site’s most impressive structure, the Great Palace.
According to the accompanying plaque, this monumental, three-story structure was built in several stages during the Late Classic period, mostly from 800–1000 AD. By the time of completion, it contained over 90 bedrooms and eight chultuns, and could have housed as many as 350 people. Its primary function was probably to serve as living quarters for the city’s governing elite, but some rooms were likely used for storage or administrative purposes.
In addition to its palace and unusual trove of artifacts related to non-elite life, the sprawling grounds of Sayil are particularly valued for their avian diversity, attracting bird watchers and archaeology buffs alike. As we followed the sacbe through the rest of the visitable area, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of fauna we encountered. The only place we saw a more diverse range of wildlife was at Calakmul, the massive, isolated site and nature preserve located over 300 km to the south near the border of Guatemala.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2015, unless otherwise indicated.
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).
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.]
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:
And so on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Descending from the Palace, we approached the House of the Turtles, located at the northeast corner of the hill-platform.
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.
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.
After leaving X’batún and Dzom-Bacal cenotes, Josh and I headed to the Pickled Onion, an eco-hotel that would serve as our base and surrogate home for the next two nights as we explored the Ruta Puuc.
Located between Uxmal (15 km) and Kabah (8 km) on the outskirts of the small town of Santa Elena, the Pickled Onion is run by Canadian ex-patriot, Valerie Pickles. Valerie’s passion for the Yucatan and her pride in cooking with fresh ingredients and purified water made the B&B one of the highlights of our trip and, thus, deserving of its own post. I also had the best mojito of my life here, a fact that gives the Pickled Onion a particularly special place in my heart.
Guest quarters consist of a series of small cabanas designed for minimal environmental impact and constructed in the style of contemporary Maya homes, with wood-and-concrete walls and thatched roofs. For those unaccustomed to eco-hotels (as we were), the structures may at first feel disconcertingly permeable, with insects and geckos passing easily through windows, within the woven ceiling, and beneath the roofline. Of these visitors, we most appreciated the geckos. Not only were they cute, but they served as natural bug-reducers. Their tiny feces, which dropped down from the ceiling onto furniture and suitcases, were less welcome but easy to clean up.
Our room contained both a western-style bed (with netting) and a hammock, the latter of which is the preferred bedding for many locals and the cooler option on warm nights. Unfortunately for us, we were not particularly adept at sleeping in hammocks, and our first night was tortuously uncomfortable due to the inescapable heat. In addition, we had to choose between using the mosquito netting over the bed—which helped to deter the small, black, biting insects that made their way into our sheets at night—or the overhead fan, because the manufactured breeze could not penetrate the lightweight canopy. Eventually, though, we accepted our bug-bitten fate, chose the fan, and finally fell asleep.
The temperature the next day—like most days—was in the 90s, and we ended up relaxing in the well-kept pool after an intense several hours of exploring ruins. Thankfully, the evening finally cooled off and our room became perfectly comfortable. We slept hard that night, and only reluctantly rolled out of bed (late) the next morning.
The only other unpleasant aspect of our time at the Pickled Onion, aside from our hot and buggy first night, was the appearance of moldy fruit in our breakfasts both mornings. This may sound nitpicky—and probably is, given that the rest of our food, even the rest of the fruit, was either good or excellent. At the time, though, we were already on our guard about all things food related, and had specifically been warned about eating the skins of uncooked fruits and vegetables. While never enticing, the repeated discovery of mold was especially off-putting in this context of food-paranoia, and made us nervous about everything else we consumed there. Fortunately, it turned out that such worries were needless, as we never got sick from anything we ate or drank at the B&B.
Now back to the good stuff. In addition to the hammock, our room contained a number of thoughtful details, including decorations of locally made crafts and a fridge (which, even when turned off, was useful for storing food without attracting bugs). My favorite touch, however, was the binder Valerie put together with descriptions of nearby sites, important information about the rooms (toilet paper goes in the trash; tipping is encouraged; to-go lunches need to be ordered the night before; etc.), and a short autobiography explaining how she came to own a bed and breakfast in Santa Elena.
All things considered, we would definitely stay at the Pickled Onion again, although preferably in the cooler months. The restaurant is open to non-guests in the evenings, so if you are in the area, even if you stay at another hotel, I strongly suggest getting your dinner (and a mojito) here.
We said goodbye to Mérida on the morning of our fourth day and headed towards the heart of the ancient Puuc region, where we would spend the next two nights. Before diving into our next archaeological adventure, however, we took a slight detour to the X’batún and Dzom-Bacal cenotes. These swimming holes, located about halfway between Mérida and Uxmal off Highway 261, are popular spots for locals, and we shared our time there with families and elderly couples alike.
Despite a general lack of signage, we eventually found our way to the check-in point in San Antonio Mulix, where we paid and used the small bathrooms to change. Unfortunately, it was also here that our poor knowledge of Spanish finally bit us in the bum. I had read in another traveler’s blog that we would have the option of leaving our car there and renting a bike to take the rest of the way. We thought this meant cars weren’t permitted past the check-in point, making walking or biking our only options. Since I don’t ride, we chose to walk, despite the fact that it was dangerously hot and the cenotes were well over a mile away. [Note: Google Maps claims it is only a 0.1 mile, two minute walk to X’batún; that is WRONG.] As we started out, every person we passed looked at us like we were crazy—which we probably were—but we just smiled in return and kept plodding towards our destinations. Eventually, a concerned man came down from one of the few structures along the way to ask why we were going by foot. After a little back and forth, we finally understood that cars are permitted by the cenotes, leading us to very gratefully turn around and get ours.
X’batún is the better known of the two cenotes, perhaps because it is the easier one to photograph, with bright, blue-green water dotted with lily pads and filled with colorful fish. The swimming area is partially surrounded by cliffs—from which long tree roots and wasp nests picturesquely hang—and partially by an open, limestone landing where visitors can enter the water. This short descent is still a little treacherous, however, due to the slippery vegetation that covers the submerged steps and rocks closest to shore. During our visit, one of the older visitors took what looked and sounded like a nasty fall on these stones (although that did not deter him, after a dazed moment, from staying and playing with his friends).
In contrast, the swimming area in Dzom-Bacal is located almost entirely beneath a limestone outcropping and is barely visible to visitors as they walk down the long staircase into the cenote. The cave-like surroundings keep the water particularly cool and blue, with very little flora growing on or between the rocks. Floating in the giant, liquid sapphire, we watched the few tiny fish swim around us while swallows darted back and forth in the low space above our heads. It was an incredibly beautiful experience, and one of the most serene moments of our trip.
If you go—to these or any other cenotes—remember to not wear sunblock or other lotions, as these will wash off and harm the natural flora and fauna. Large hats and long sleeves are therefore imperative for protecting yourself when out of the water, and the time spent in well-lit swimming holes, like X’batún, should be limited.
On the morning of our first full day in Mérida, we hopped back in the car and headed north of the city to Dzibilchaltún.
Located on a hot, dry plain about 22 km south of the coast, Dzibilchaltún has the honor of possessing the least picturesque ruins of the 20-plus Maya sites we visited. However, what the destination lacks in architectural or decorative splendor it makes up for in historical importance and, thanks to its cenote, natural beauty. The on-site museum—which consists of both indoor and outdoor displays of artifacts, stelae, and anthropological installations—is also quite good and added significantly to our appreciation of the site.
First occupied around 800 BCE, Dzibilchaltún was one of the earliest major settlements on the peninsula. As a result, some of the oldest known ceramics of the region come from here. The local economy was based on salt trade, and the relative strangeness of the city’s location—which is both inhospitable and fairly far from the sea—can be understood as a compromise between finding land that was capable of supporting a minimal amount of agricultural cultivation while simultaneously as close to the salt-producing coastal lagoons as possible. Of course, the presence of a cenote, offering fresh water in an otherwise arid environment, would have been a key factor in the choice of locale as well.
At one end of the traversable ruins stands the site’s most iconic building, the Temple of the Dolls. Named for the seven, rough, ceramic figures once buried in front of its altar and now on display in the museum, the temple sits in near isolation at one end of a large, open plaza. Doors located at the center of each of the sanctuary’s four walls heighten the effect of the square building’s rather unusual radial symmetry, while skeletal remnants of Chaac masks sit above these entrances and at the roofline’s four corners. Like many surfaces at the site, the masks (and numerous nearby stelae) were once covered in sculptural, painted stucco. Archaeologists have discovered graffiti inside the temple as well, some of which may date to 1200–1520 CE, when Maya pilgrims reopened and restored the sanctuary. Unfortunately, the building itself is no longer accessible and must be appreciated from a distance.
Running east-west, a long, straight sacbe connects the Temple of the Dolls to Dzibilchaltún’s central square. Visitors can either follow this road to the rest of the site or walk along a parallel (and more shaded) path part of the way. Those who take the sacbe will also pass another, circular trail that leads to very little.
The central plaza consists of a few, spread-out structures, including a small pyramid, an open Franciscan chapel, stone bleachers, and a gateway. On the other side of the gateway lies the Xlacah Cenote, perhaps the site’s greatest highlight.
Swimming is allowed, albeit “at your own risk,” but there is no changing room or shower on the grounds.
As an oasis in an otherwise parched landscape, the water here is teeming with life. During our visit, the pool seemed especially hospitable to lily pads and various fish, the latter of which struck us as a little too eager to swarm a bit of flesh and check it for possible food. We spent the majority of our time at Dzibilchaltún admiring the cenote and its surrounding flora and fauna, but left the swimming for another day.
Although I don’t imagine myself returning to Dzibilchaltún, the cenote and museum alone made it worth a visit. If you go, arrive early to beat the tourist groups bused in from Mérida. There is no escaping the sun, so having a hat, sunblock, and plenty of water is especially important here.