Uxmal will take your breath away. Stunning palaces and temples decorated with dazzling frescos greet you everywhere you look. Hidden chambers and dark rooms await exploration. Low forested hills surround the sight on all sides, giving it a tranquil feel. Above it all towers the elegant, unique Pyramid of the Magicians: a beautiful, imposing building that dominates the site.
This city is without doubt one of the most important Mayan sites in Mexico, yet it receives significantly less tourists than some of the ruins on the Mayan Riveria. Uxmal has also not been marred by tacky souvenir stands like Chichen Itza, so you get a more authentic, relaxing experience. The site is just over an hour from Merida (the charming capital of Yucatan state), meaning you can easily visit the site from there.
HISTORY OF UXMAL
Uxmal was settled around 1500 years ago in the early Classic Period. The name means thrice built, presumably indicating the city has been partly rebuilt three times. The city first started to flourish in the 7th century, and reached it’s peak from around 850AD-925AD, when over 25,000 people lived there. It was during this period that the city became capital of the Puuc region, exerting control over the smaller cities of the area. For a time the city was the most powerful in the western Yucatan, and controlled most of the northern peninsula in alliance with Chichen Itza. Many of the large buildings you see today at Uxmal were built during this period of dominance. Like several other northern cities such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal survived the classical Mayan Collapse that occurred around 900AD, and continued to thrive for the next century.
After the 11th century the city lost power as other cities rose, and all monument building had stopped by sometime during the 13th century. This was probably caused by a shift in power in the Yucatan, as Chichen Itza fell and Mayapan rose to prominence in the Yucatan. By the time the Spanish conquered the region in the 1550s the city was a shadow of it’s former self, inhabited by a small population living in the faded grandeur built by their ancestors.
In modern times the site was first surveyed in 1838 by Jean Frederic Waldeck, the same man who previously surveyed Palenque. A few years later it was studied by John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, as part of their famous trip around Mexico and Central America. There were numerous excavations at Uxmal throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The ruins became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Pyramid of the Magicians
As you walk into the site along the main path, you will see the elegant form of the Pyramid of the Magicians rising ahead of you. This pyramid is the most iconic site at Uxmal, and not just due to it’s 38 metre tall height; it’s a unique building, there is no other pyramid quite like it in Meso-America, or indeed the world. The pyramid has rounded sides, steep slopes and a smooth elliptical limestone base, a design very different to the pyramids at sites like Calakmul or the closer Chichen Itza. The pyramid has also been immaculately preserved. Looking at it from across the plaza I couldn’t help but be deeply impressed by it’s beauty.
A feature of the pyramid that many people don’t know about, is the fact it’s actually a combination of 5 temples built on top of each other. The first temple was built in the 6th century, and over the following 400 hundred years the next 4 were built on top of it. You can still see part of temple 1 on the west side of the building. The last temple to be built is known as the House of the Magician, this is the building at the top of the pyramid. The doorway into the temple was designed to align with the setting of the sun on April 12th and August 21, auspices days in the Mayan calendar.
Unfortunately the pyramid is closed to the public, so you are no longer able to climb up and enjoy the views.
Near to the Pyramid is an elegant building known as the Nunnery Quadrangle. As the name suggests, this is a group of four buildings surrounding a massive courtyard. The building has 74 rooms in total, most of which you are able to go inside of. You won’t find much inside most of them, apart from the occasional dozing bat. The Spanish thought these little rooms were like Nuns cells, hence the name.
I was surprised at how large this courtyard was when I walked inside, and was impressed by the amount of mosaic friezes on display. There are some beautiful examples of Mayan geometrical art here, and plenty of images of the rain God Chaac. The lack of crowds and souvenir stands made it a very meditative place to wonder around, and I could see why some people consider Uxmal to be the most beautiful ancient Mayan city.
After the Pyramid of the Magicians the most impressive building is without doubt the Governors Palace. This large palace looks similar to some Egyptian temples, and has some of the finest friezes of any Mayan site. The Palace provides a striking image, due to being perched on top of a high platform on a hill overlooking the rest of the site. The palace is 70 metres long and 30 metres wide, and has a 100 metre long ornate mosaic facade that is one of the finest examples of Mayan geometric art. The palace walls are also decorated with 103 beautiful stone masks of the rain God Chacc. Chaac was the main deity worshiped at Uxmal due to the scarcity of water here, the area is very dry and unlike other sites there was no cenote at the city.
This building was one of the most interesting Mayan buildings I explored in Mexico, and I was deeply impressed by how well it’s been preserved and restored. I was also able to go inside all the rooms and chambers here, which allowed me to imagine what it must have been like in the past. The views from the top are beautiful too, especially towards the Pyramid of the Magician. I can see why this amazing building is considered by many to be the finest example of Pre-Colombian architecture in the Americas. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to truly appreciate it.
After the Governors Palace the next main building you’ll come across at the site is the imposing Great Pyramid. Although not as tall as the other pyramid, you can actually still climb this one. The steps are quite steep but are in good condition unlike many other sites in Mexico, so it’s a quick, very easy climb to the top. From the 30 metre summit you get a great view of Uxmal spread out before you. From up here it’s easy to see just how beautiful and well preserved the city is. The surrounding landscape is mostly low hills covered in jungle, with just the odd soaring eagle piercing the blue sky.
The sight contains many other interesting buildings, including a large ball court close to the Nunnery Quandrangle. This isn’t as impressive as the one in Chichen Itza, but is in good condition and provides a nice place to wonder around.
One of the most interesting smaller buildings is the amusingly named house of the Pigeons. This intricate, unusual structure takes it’s name from it’s resemblance a dovecote. It’s a fascinating building, and is still partly covered in jungle which gives it a wilder appearance than most of the buildings here.
Uxmal is one of my favourite Mayan sites in Mexico, as you can see from my list of the 6 best Mayan ruins in Mexico. The site has some of the most beautiful, well preserved architecture of any Mayan site, combined with no tacky souvenir stands and peaceful surroundings. The site also isn’t flooded with visitors like more popular ruins, so I was able to appreciate the beauty of the site without crowds of people getting in the way. After 4.30pm the sight was almost empty during my visit, allowing me to appreciate the unique architecture even more.
If you are travelling in the Yucatan you simply have to make time to see Uxmal, it will be one of the highlights of your trip.
Opening times and Admission: 8am-5pm, there is a sound and light show on at 7pm most nights. Admission is 190 pesos for normal entrance.
Getting there: Uxmal is 62km south of Merida in the Puuc hills. The site is quite remote as there are no towns nearby, but it’s easy to get a bus there from Merida. Some second class buses destined for Campeche make stops at Uxmal, with several leaving in the morning from the second class terminal in Merida. It takes less than 1.5 hours to get there. The last bus back is supposed to pass at around 5.30. I was waiting until well after 6pm though, and thought I was going to have to hitch-hike back.