Maya ruins to visit, #8: Uxmal, Yucatán, Mexico
When you’re interested in the Maya past, you have to…. no, … you MUST visit Uxmal. A unique place, one of te mayor cities in the Puuc region of Yucatán.
If we only consider the bigger & most famous Maya places, Uxmal belongs in the same league as Tikal, Palenque, Copán, Calakmul, Chichén Itzá & others. And for that, it’s one of the mayor tourist attractions in the Mundo Maya. Chapter Mexico!
For me personally, this doesn’t mean other, smaller places are less important or less beautiful. No way! However, to really learn about what the former Maya civilization looked like, you can’t miss the bigger places.
Uxmal is an impressive site. A stately Maya site, where you can easily rediscover the royal character of its past.
Besides that, Uxmal – within the Maya World – is built in a unique style. The so-called Puuc Style (see below).
A little history of Uxmal
Uxmal – or Oxmal – was probably the city’s original name. Meaning “three times built”, which partially explains the fact that underneath the actual buildings older constructions were found.
- It is not that strange to find older foundations under the visible temples & palaces in the Maya World. There’s a chance though that the mayor buildings of Uxmal were built over a couple of times, confirming the name.
Uxmal bloomed during the Late Classic (800-100 AD). Just when many other Classical cities were in fast decline, like Tikal, Copán & Palenque. It’s not unthinkable that people who left these former Maya centers ended up in Uxmal or surrounding places on the Yucatán peninsula.
Uxmal is located in the Puuc region. Puuc is the Maya word for “Hill”. Something you notice soon enough when visiting the area…. the hilly area!
Besides a geographical distinction “Puuc” stands for a certain style of building. A Maya style copied all around Uxmal, but sporadically also outside this region, like in Chichén Itzá.
The Puuc style is recognizable as a highly decorative style of mosaics. A patron that repeats itself over a whole facade, a building or sometimes several buildings. An eye-catching style really.
- With the decline of the old Classical cities, the beautiful inscriptions on the temples and other mayor buildings & monuments got lost. Overall the style became more sober. In the Puuc area though it seems like the mosaics replaced the former inscriptions.
Short time capital
For a small period Uxmal functioned as a sort of capital on the Yucatán peninsula (approximately between 850-950 AD). Although most Maya-cities knew a certain autonomy, it seems like Uxmal for a century ruled a larger region and was connected to other places nearby by roads or sacbés. A famous one is the (partially) still visible sacbé to nearby Kabah (18km/11 miles).
Uxmal served as a capital until the Maya city of Chichén Itzá took over on Yucatán. Fortunately, Uxmal wasn’t abandoned en masse. Most inhabitants stayed and it looks like Uxmal – after its defeat – even kept playing an prominent role in the Mundo Maya. At least for several centuries more.
The most famous and nowadays most outstanding buildings were all built in Uxmal’s heyday, like the Governor’s Palace, the Nunnery Quadrangle & Pyramid of the Magician.
Rediscovery of Uxmal
Uxmal was rediscovered for the outside world by the somewhat mysterious Count Jean-Frédéric Waldeck in 1838. His first reports though were rather fanciful.
The first foreigners that studied the site seriously were the North-American John Lloyd Stephens & his English companion Frederick Catherwood. They visited Uxmal soon after Waldeck – twice even, in 1841 and 1843.
They reported on their visits to Uxmal in two beautiful travel books. Written by Stephens and completed with the detailed drawings of Catherwood of Maya ruins & landscapes they encountered through the Maya World.
That is how the outside world got to know about the unique city of Uxmal.
By the way, the books are still for sale today & and are also still worthwhile to read & admire (both books published in two volumes).
Click on covers, if interested:
Tips for your visit to Uxmal
- Because of the tropical weather bring water & some snacks if you like.
- There’s a small museum at the site, but it’s smaller than the shop. Too bad, because there’s a beautiful story to tell. Not only about Uxmal’s past, but also about its rediscovery.
- At night we visited the Light & Sound show at the temple ruins of Uxmal. To be honest that was somewhat of a deception. Although it was special to be at the temple ruins at night. If this show isn’t improved by now, I would skip it.
- Many tourists visit Uxmal on a day trip from Mérida (62km/ 39m). If you’re in a hurry, understandable. If not, stay nearby and if possible a few days longer.
- Search lodgings near Uxmal. Not only to be able to take your time at the ruins & relax a little afterward, but mainly because there are many other interesting Maya sites in the area. Maya cities that are generally smaller, but as impressive as Uxmal.
- We reserved a room at the nearby Hacienda de Uxmal. A unique place where in the past many celebrities stayed. Beforehand we considered this hotel too expensive, but noticed they had a offer for late reservations. A good price even, considering the historic place we were staying (and only a stone’s throw from the Maya site). Besides a luxurious room, we made use of the big swimming pool & the good restaurant.
Earlier visitors to Uxmal
- The Hacienda de Uxmal is visibly proud of the many famous people who visited its grounds. The entrance hall is filled with their portraits.
- Apparently a visit to Uxmal was very popular among royalty. Besides an early visit (in 1865) of the unhappy “Empress” of Mexico, Carlota (Charlotte of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold I), I will mention: Queen Elizabeth II of Britain & Philip, Juliana of Holland, Boudewijn of Belgium, Rainier & Grace of Monaco.
- Other famous visitors are (Semi-Royalty?): Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger & Frank Lloyd Wright.
- Another important group – more important actually – are the many “archeologists” that visited Uxmal. Besides the earlier mentioned Count Waldeck, Stephens & Catherwood, the hacienda welcomed Désiré Charnay, Teobert Maler, E. H. Thompson, Sylvanus G. Morley, Frans Blom, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Albert Ruz Lhullier & many many more. It’s possible that for most of you these names don’t ring a bell, but for those who are fascinated by the Maya Civilization they certainly do.
- A friendly receptionist of the hacienda helped me out with a list of earlier visitors & a short introduction to them all. This information is linked to the names the hacienda has given to every room. In other words, there’s a Waldeck room, a Stephens’ room, a Catherwood room, et cetera. Our room was the Seler Room (Eduard Georg Seler, 1849-1922).
- By the way, the actual hotel-hacienda isn’t the original one! The former hacienda is located a few kilometers away. The place where earlier visitors stayed, like Stephens & Catherwood, as well as the “Empress Carlota”. One late afternoon I, with my wife Wendy, hopped on a bike – provided by the hacienda – to visit the former Hacienda of Uxmal. A place largely dilapidated, but still impressive. Mainly because of the main gate that still stands today. It seemed like the hacienda was still functioning partially, but in a semi-ruined state.
- Stephens & Catherwood description of the older hacienda was favorable. However, because of the distance to the ruins, the second time around they occupied some rooms of the Governor’s Palace.
Other Maya sites to visit nearby
- The day after our visit to Uxmal, we visited Kabah & Labná. Located in the same hilly area. Unforgettable visits. Not only because of their mysterious beauty, but also because we were only the only ones there, which made these visits special. (As you can see, a visit to Kabah & Labná are even a little higher up my all-time favorite list: Top #12 Maya-sites).
- Besides Kabah & Labná there are several other Maya sites, like Sayil & Xlapak, worth a visit. (I didn’t this time, but got an extra reason to go back asap).
Reading about Uxmal
I never found a specific popular book on Uxmal, besides the already mentioned beautiful travel books of John Lloyd Stephens. That’s why I only recommend a famous general book title on the fascinating Mundo Maya:
- Sharer, Robert & Traxler, Loa P., The Ancient Maya, 2006 (originally 1946), Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 0 8047 4817 9.
Click on cover, if interested.
In conclusion: visit Uxmal
You will never forget a visit to Uxmal. An impressive site. Unique in style. Located in a beautiful region of Yucatan. Hilly instead of flat. A little cooler. Highly recommended, also for visits to several other impressive sites nearby.
Some last impressions:
For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites
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