Uxmal (pronounced “oosh-MAHL”) is a World Heritage site, one of the most visited, and said by some to be the most attractive of the archaeological sites. It is located about halfway between Campeche and Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and is visited by thousands annually. It is one of the best-restored and maintained archaeological parks and is home to magnificent examples of puuc architecture and construction.
The main ruins of Uxmal cover about 150 acres, with residential districts spreading further beyond that. Uxmal occupies a grassy savannah surrounded by forest and its buildings were adapted to the varied elevations of the hilly landscape.
Allow at least half a day for a first visit.
It is believed that Uxmal was the capital of a regional state that developed between 850 to 950 AD, although its inhabitants are thought to have lived in the area as far back as 800 BC. At its peak it had an estimated population of about 25,000 and was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan Peninsula. But after about 1000 AD all major construction ceased at Uxmal, and the site was abandoned around the time the Spanish arrived. No Spanish town was built here and Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.
The word “puuc” is derived from the Maya term for “hilly country” hence, the terms Puuc region or Puuc hills in the area around Uxmal. The term Puuc is also used to designate the architectural style of ancient Maya sites located within the Puuc hills. It is a mature style reaching its zenith during the Terminal Classic period.
In the Puuc architecture buildings were decorated with carefully cut veneer stones set into a concrete core. This is an improvement over the previous method of using stones piled on top of eachother and held together with plaster for the core. This advanced construction method allowed for slightly larger and more stable interior rooms and may account for the excellent condition of many of the thousand-year-old buildings at Uxmal. Puuc architecture has several predominant features, most notably constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. Carvings most commonly found include serpents, lattice work and masks of the god Chac.
Within a 10 mile radius of Uxmal are the four smaller ancient towns of Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna. Together with Uxmal, these places make up the Puuc Route. A large raised stone sacbe (roadway) links Uxmal with the site of Kabah, about 10 miles to the south.
Uxmal archeological park is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a sound and light show in the evening. There is an entrance fee of about $10 and an additional fee for the light show. Facilities include cafeterias, souvenir shops and toilet facilities. There are also local vendors, a small museum and auditorium. There are at least three hotels within walking distance of the park.
The Governor’s Palace is a long low building atop a huge platform. Built in the 9th and 10th centuries, its 320 foot long mosaic facade is one of the longest in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and features 103 stone masks of the rain god Chac. There is an open plaza in front of the Palace containing the Jaguar Throne, carved like a two-headed jaguar. The Governor’s Palace may have had astrological significance as well. It is slightly turned from the other buildings around it, so that its central doorway is in alignment with Venus.
The Pyramid of the Magician is the tallest building at Uxmal with a height of 115 feet and unusual round corners. It is so named because of a Mayan legend about a Magician or Dwarf who build this pyramid in one night. Actually, it was begun in the 6th century AD and regularly expanded through the 10th century. The pyramid is unique among Mayan structures because of its rounded sides, height, and steepness. There are actually five pyramids there, each larger and built over the one beneath as was customary among such Mayan pyramids.
The Nunnery Quadrangle was so named by the Spanish, but was actually a 74-room governmental palace. It is the finest of Uxmal’s quadrangles of long buildings with elaborately carved facades on both the inside and outside faces.
A large ballcourt for playing the MesoAmerican ballgame is inscribed with hieroglyphics informing us that it was dedicated in the year 901.
Several other temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and monuments, some of significant size, and in varying states of preservation, are also at Uxmal. The majority of hieroglyphics are on collections of stone Stella depicting the ancient rulers grouped together on single platforms.
How to Get There
The closest airport is in Merida, about an hour and a half away by car. The easiest way to see the ruins is to book a tour at Merida. They are available for Uxmal itself or as part of tours of the entire Puuc Route which include Uxmal and four other smaller sites.
Public transportation is not as readily available in this area, although there are buses from Merida to Uxmal, but the schedule does not permit one to see the light show in the evening. Some may wish to rent a car and drive the 70 miles from Merida to Uxmal following route 261 towards Campeche. The entrance is well marked.
Protect yourself from the elements by bringing a hat, sunscreen and water.