Uxmal is an archaeological site in Mexico which houses the ruins of a Maya town thought to have been inhabited as early as 800BC, although the majority of the buildings and structures seen at Uxmal today were constructed in between around 700AD to 1000AD. It is perceived to be one of the most beautiful Mayan sites, and was in remarkably good condition when it was excavated in the 19th century.
History of Uxmal
Literally meanins ‘thrice built’, Uxmal was actually constructed five times: it was first settled around 600AD and is yet more evidence of the advanced Maya engineering skills given how dry the area is. The architecture is evenly proportioned, and is notable for its intricate decorative patterns and the frequent use of imagery associated with the rain god, Chaac.
A thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance, at its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 people, and had dominance over nearby cities in the Puuc hills.
Uxmal was abandoned around 1200AD – possibly because drought, although this is unclear – and then inhabited by the Yiu, who would later join the Mayapan League with Chichen Itza. The city existed until the Spanish Conquest of the 1550s, at which point it is believed to have been abandoned.
Uxmal was ‘rediscovered’ in the 19th century, and it was first excavated in 1929: only a small part of the city is visible today, with much more still to be uncovered.
The layout of the town of Uxmal is one of its most interesting aspects, having been carefully aligned to fit with concepts of astronomy, offering an insight into the beliefs and culture of the Mayas who lived there. Uxmal was also quite advanced in its use of hydraulic systems to gather water up to the hill or “Puuc” on which it was set.
The site can be busy, so it’s worth going early or late if possible. Wear good shoes as there’s plenty of pyramid climbing to be done: the views from the top are great. There’s not a huge amount by way of refreshments on site so you’re best bringing your own food and drink unless you’re willing to fork out for what’s on offer on site. There’s also a small museum displaying some of the archaeological finds made at Uxmal.
1. Pyramide el Adivino
Literally translated as the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, this 100 foot high monument is often known as the ‘House of the Magician’. Dating back to the Late Classic Period. It is flanked by several temples, which were built over time, although legend has it that this pyramid took just one night to complete. Sadly, the pyramid cannot be climbed by tourists.
2. El Palacio del Gobernador
The Governor’s Palace is another impressive structure: completely symmetrical and ornately decorated with depictions of astronomy symbols as well as of the rain god, Chaac. A large number of medicinal plants were discovered on the east side of the palace, suggesting that these were grown and used in Maya culture to treat ailments. Nearby is the Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Tortoises) – a simple yet pretty building.
3. Cuadrangulo de las Monjas
The Nun’s Quadrangle spans over 74 rooms over four buildings: its precise purpose is unknown but people believe it could have been a palace complex, school or military academy. Like the Governor’s Palace, is resplendent with religious artwork: Kukulcán (the feathered serpent) and Chaac (the rain god) are particularly prolific. Built at a similar time to the Nunnery and like the one in the city of El Tajin, Uxmal has a ball court, where its citizens would have participated in games.
Getting to Uxmal
Uxmal is most easily accessed from Merida: public buses run semi-regularly, or you can join a day trip or hire a taxi. The journey takes an hour or so or each way. Many view Uxmal as a good starting place for the rest of the Puuc Trail, which is nearby.
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