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.
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.
After a full morning at Uxmal (and much needed siesta at the Pickled Onion), we drove south-east to our next stop on the Ruta Puuc: Kabah.
As one of Uxmal’s closest and largest neighbors, Kabah was once connected to the larger city by means of a 30 km sacbe. Today, Highway 261 unites the sites. Visitors park on the west side of the modern road, then cross to pay the entrance fee and explore the remains of two palace-style structures.
From the guard’s office, we passed over the open field and climbed the raised platform on which the city’s temples and elite residences once stood. Towards the front of this low plateau sits Kabah’s best preserved and most ornate building, the Codz Poop [“rolled matting”], also known as the “Palace of Masks.”
As its nickname suggests, the Codz Poop is best known for the 250+ interconnected Chaac masks covering the west-facing façade. Although the lower portion of this wall remains remarkably intact, relatively few embellishments still grace the upper register. Instead, unassigned fragments of the modular faces—mostly upper and lower eyelids—sit in stacked pairs on the ground at the foot of the structure.
Despite the façade’s partially ruined state, it’s easy to imagine that at its peak, when the wall of faces was not only intact but brightly painted and possibly decorated with hundreds of lights perched on the Chaacs’ long, angular noses, the effect would have been overwhelming, intimidating, and, ultimately, sublime.
Viewing the same building from its east side, however, gives a very different impression. In contrast to the uniformity of the front, the rear decoration is clearly divided into lower and upper registers. The sections between the doorways are covered in the cross-hatching patterns of abstracted mats—from which the building gets its name—while the scant remains of the section along the roofline host two figures in the round. Although one of these warriors is now missing his head, both wore elaborate feathered headdresses, the depictions of which are clearly visible in low-relief on the stone wall behind the statues.
The militaristic theme continues on the late-9th century doorjambs located on either side of the east façade’s main doorway. Aside from their value as rare examples of highly legible, in-situ Puuc reliefs, the doorjambs are especially fascinating for the clues they provide (and questions they raise) about the history of the region. In addition to the inclusion of glyph dates between the upper and lower scenes of each jamb, the carvings also depict warriors possessing attributes associated with central Mexican cultures, including atlatls (spear throwers). Their presence is evidence of contact between the Toltec and Maya, and may suggest an early Toltec invasion of the Yucatan.
After taking in the second “palace” and carefully crossing back over the road, we followed the trail from the parking lot to a free-standing Maya arch that marked the beginning of the sacbe that connected Kabah to Nohpat and Uxmal. Aside from this one large but unadorned structure, most of the ruins on the west side of the highway, including Kabah’s great temple, remain overgrown and unreconstructed. Without a wealth of ruins to hold our attention, our focus shifted to other aspects of the landscape, including the hard-working dung beetles who shared our path.
Highly subjective personal rating: 7.5/10 [The Codz Poop is outstanding, but after Uxmal, the smaller site is bound to feel a little underwhelming by comparison.]
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 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.
The Post-Classic Maya city of Chichén Itzá [“beside the well of the Itza”] is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also, since 2007, one of the “new” seven wonders of the world. It is also a fairly easy day trip from either Cancún or Mérida, and is thus one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, if not the world.
Although popular descriptions often refer to the city as a Maya-Toltec settlement, the history of Chichén Itzá and its associated architecture is still contested. The more traditional view, and the one presented on the associated UNESCO webpage, is that the original Classic period settlement was conquered by the Toltecs, and that most of the major buildings now associated with the city represent a fusion of the two cultures. This narrative dovetails nicely with a Maya legend of the arrival of a king from Central Mexico, identified as Kukulkan (Feathered Serpent), and goes some way in explaining the predominance of plumed snakes in Chichén Itzá’s architecture, as well as the inclusion of other features more associated with central Mexican cultures, including images of death and sacrifice.
There are, however, problems with this theory. The most significant issue is a matter of timing—namely, archaeologists now believe that the buildings once thought to represent Toltec features actually pre-date the civilization which supposedly influenced them [Drew 1999, 371]. If true, this might point to a reversal of influence, in which the Toltecs incorporated imagery from the Maya, not the other way around. Indeed, many of the supposedly “Toltec” aspects of Chichén Itzá are in fact present in other, earlier Maya settlements. The feathered serpent, for instance, was already a common motif in Maya culture centuries before the establishment of the great centers of the Yucatán, and can be traced to even earlier origins within the Olmec civilization. Likewise, clear evidence of the importance of war and the practice of human sacrifice at Classic period settlements, such as the murals of Bonampak, have long since forced archaeologists to set aside more romantic notions of the Maya as an idilic civilization of peaceful scholars corrupted by blood-thirsty outside conquerers.
Regardless of who was responsible, the great architecture of Chichén Itzá is both physically imposing and iconographically impressive. Since the site’s inclusion as one of the wonders of the world, however, access has become increasingly restricted. Visitors can no longer climb the stairs of El Castillo or enter its interior chambers, nor can they walk among the many columns of the Temple of the Warriors.
Back in 1999, I had the opportunity to climb the pyramid and chose not to. This time, I promised myself I would brave the heat and precarious steps in order to take a peek at the inner chamber. To this end, we arrived early and made a beeline from the entrance directly to El Castillo. After months of anticipation, it took me a while and multiple laps around the foot of the pyramid to accept the eventual realization that I had forever missed my chance to see the temple interior. Putting aside my personal disappointment, however, these new measures are clearly important precautions for preserving the heavily visited ruins, and ones the government has been wise to undertake.
That being said, missing this opportunity definitely increased the pressure to do everything we could at the subsequent, less regulated, sites we visited.
Another consequence of being a popular tourist destination is the inclusion of many artisans and souvenir sellers scattered amongst the shaded areas of the grounds. This feature is somewhat unique to Chichén Itzá, as other sites either require such stalls be outside of the grounds—as at Tulum—or simply don’t draw enough people to have more than one or two merchants present, if there are any at all.
The wares on offer vary greatly, from mass-produced or poorly made souvenirs to unique objects crafted by skilled artists. If you are interested in making a purchase, it’s probably best not to get the first thing that catches your eye, as many vendors will have similar—and possibly better-constructed—items for sale. But if, after looking around, you do find something you like, buy it. We ended up purchasing a mask by Efrain Cetz there, and although it took at least a half hour and the last of our energy to find him again, I’m glad we did. For while we later saw other, vaguely similar, masks elsewhere, they never appealed as much as the one we already had. In addition, buying directly from the artist allowed us to speak with him about his ideas and practice, which in turn gave us a better appreciation of not only what we were taking home, but of how traditional Maya stories and concepts are being reinterpreted by contemporary people.
Finally, as a heavily visited, imminently photogenic location, Chichén Itzá is also one of the most photographed places on the planet. There is almost no angle of the extensive grounds that has not already been captured multiple times, and no shortage of images available in publications and on the web. Not that the futility of trying to take an original picture stopped us from spending hours snapping hundreds of our own photos. But because images of the major buildings are so common, we mostly focused on framing our own impressions, using our telephoto lenses to better see the details we couldn’t approach, and documenting the many iguanas chilling at the site like giant, scaly squirrels.
For more on the site’s layout, history, and visiting information, see the INAH website, which has text in both English and Spanish.
Highly subjective personal rating: 9/10 [Bucket-list worthy]