A great pyramid rises above the jungle canopy, its outline shimmering, distorted by the waves of heat that radiate off the karstic knolls of the Puuc region. Behind it, more structures, equally ancient, Mayan temples, a Mayan city, Uxmal; once a thriving metropolis, home to 25,000 people, now empty, silent.
Uxmal (pronounced ooshmal) means thrice built. It was the way of the Mayans, to rebuild, to redesign, to make bigger, better, bolder. This great, squat, solid, round-edged pyramid was built in at least five stages, the first kicking off sometime in the 6th Century CE, the last finishing up sometime in the 10th.
Uxmal was the capital of a Late Classic Maya state. Together with their allies at Chichén Itzá they ruled northern Yucatán. Roads, called sacbes, connected the two cities. Mayan roads also led to Tikal (now in Guatemala), Caracol and Xunantunich (both in Belize).
The Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal
Legend has it that the Pyramid of the Magician – also called the Pyramid of the Dwarf – was built overnight by a wizard, or, perhaps, by a superhuman dwarf. There’s another legend saying it was superhuman dwarf wizard that did it. Hence the confusion over the name.
The Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal
Just behind the Pyramid of the Magician is the Nunnery Quadrangle. It isn’t a nunnery at all – it’s actually a government palace – but it reminded the conquistadors, who raided the site in the 16th Century, of a Spanish convent. The name stuck.
A plaster cast was made of the Nunnery Quadrangle in 1930, and a reproduction of the buildings exhibited in the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The replica was destroyed after the Fair. No trace of it remains.
The Nunnery Quadrangle is a classic example of Puuc architecture, where a structure is divided into two thick horizontal layers; the lower unadorned and broken up with doors, the upper ornately decorated with patterns, motifs, and sculptural elements.
The Rain God, Chaac
The face of the rain god, Chaac, gazes down at you from all angles at Uxmal, his features incorporated into sculpture and ornamental motifs across the site. Chaac makes a strong appearance at Chichén Itzá as well, and across the whole Mayan Empire for that matter. Spend an hour at Uxmal at the height of the day and you’ll know why.
Drought, centuries of it, brought the once mighty Mayan Empire to its knees. The Mayans prayed to Chaac for rain, they offered him human sacrifices, they carved his face into their buildings, doing all they could to appeal to him. Uxmal fared better than most. It remained a thriving city until the 10th Century. But it too succumbed, and was abandoned.
Want to escape the tourist crowd at Uxmal? Come in summer and tour the site at midday. You’ll have the site all to yourself.
WARNING: Only do this if you can handle the heat. On the day of my visit I saw several tourists lying on their backs, pink-faced, goggle-eyed, wet handkerchiefs on the foreheads, victims of heat exhaustion. And this was at 11am. It really heats up around 2pm. The heat is no joke. Take plenty of water with you, as there are no shops or stores once you enter the 60-hectare archaeological site.
The Ball Court at Uxmal
The Ball Court was dedicated in 901 CE to Lord Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw, who ruled Uxmal between 890 and 910 CE. He also presided over the construction of the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the Governor’s Palace.
The Cemetery Group, Uxmal
Off to the side, separated from the rest of the site by dense scrub, avoided by the majority of tourists and visitors, and still largely unexcavated, is the Cemetery Group of structures. Here you can observe a strange skull and crossbones motif that adorns the foundations of several long since collapsed buildings. The motif is so unusual, so quirky, so comical, that it seems more likely to have come from a children’s cartoon – possibly involving a bunch of bumbling, emaciated pirates – than a Mayan temple.
Ctenosaurs, also called Spiky-tailed Iguanas, have the run of the place. You’ll see them everywhere at Uxmal, scampering through the grass, climbing over pyramids, basking on temple platforms. They can grow up to a metre in length – like the granddaddy ctenosaur in the picture above – and also hold the world speed record for lizards, able to hit 35km/hr.
The Governor’s Palace, Uxmal
The Governor’s Palace looks grand, but it was basically just an admin building. It holds the title for having the longest façade in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, which sounds impressive, but it makes you wonder if it, like the government and municipal buildings of today, was viewed as a white elephant by the people of the time.
Beyond the Governor’s Palace is the Great Pyramid; enormous, ornately carved, and only half excavated. Beyond that: who knows? More temples certainly. More of the abandoned Mayan city of Uxmal. Perhaps the best is still back there, lurking beneath the jungle, waiting to be uncovered.
Practical information and how to reach Uxmal:
There is an infrequent bus service to Uxmal from Merida (only 3 buses a day). Otherwise you will need a taxi or private transportation. More transport info here.
Read more on the Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.