Chichen Itza and Uxmal

Two of the most beautiful and best-preserved Maya ruins lie within a 120km radius of Mérida, which makes it the perfect home base to explore both. Chichen Itza is the larger of the two, perhaps the most famous archaeological site in the North America. Uxmal is older but remarkably intact – a quieter and more serene stop, but no less magical.

Chichen Itza

From Merida Bus Terminal, it was easy to catch a bus ourselves and avoid being overcharged for a day-trip. We arrived early, well before the tour groups from Cancun started to filter in. Right inside the gate were endless rows of souvenir vendors setting up for the day. Shouts for us to consider their wares were not the welcome we expected.

After a short walk down the main path, the jungle fell away and a huge clearing opened in front of us. In the center towered El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan.

Right behind the pyramid is the Temple of the Warriors and the Group of the Thousand Columns. Walking between them was like navigating a dense grove of trees.

By 11 a.m., the day was already warm and humid, and we were grateful that patches of actual trees and the shade they provided.

Every structure was covered in countless stone carvings and ornate symbols. Some of the patterns looked eerily familiar.

(Looks like X didn’t want to admit defeat.)

Before it was a city, Chichen Itza was already an important site to the Maya for the several sacred cenotes nearby.

Not every building was a monstrous temple. Some were no larger than a garage. It’s all just dirt now, but the network of roads that tied them together and connected to the outside world would have been impressive for the time.

Snakes are a recurring theme. The Osario pyramid has carvings on either side of the steep staircase of fearsome and intimidating serpents.

Down a path leading further to the right, we entered another large grassy expanse, this one fronted by El Caracol (The Snail). The unusual round tower could have been an early observatory.

The forested ruins hide a lot of wildlife as well: iguanas, birds, and these tenacious leaf cutter ants. They were in the process of disassembling a tree to farm domesticated fungus. Each individual was tiny, but added up their steps carved► an unnervingly large path through the underbrush.

It is hard to convey an accurate sense of the scale through photos. Only portions of buildings fit into a single frame. We followed another well-worn road back to where we started.

We passed through a now much busier central courtyard and followed the crowds to the Great Ball Court.

We skirted the edges, eavesdropping on paid tours to learn the significance of the carvings and imagining the difficulty of punting a heavy ball through a small hole 20 feet in the air… without hands or feet.

An innocuous-looking platform nearby turned out to be the Tzompantli. It wasn’t until we got close that we noticed the sides were covered in hundreds of stone skulls.

A small path splintered off from the main sites to the largest and most important cenote.

With steep white walls and lime-green water, it really did look like an entrance to the underworld. Anything could be lurking in those depths…

With a couple of hours to kill before the next bus to Merida and the crowds already thinning, we decided to do another lap to revisit our favorite views.

La Iglesa was too crowded to photograph on our first pass, but now could be appreciated from every angle.

This little guy let us know he had his eye on us as we passed between him and the lady of the house, nesting in the nearby temple wall.

We returned to the entrance, watching vendors along the way tear down their stalls for the night and load them into overfilled trucks and trailers. Our parting gift was a tiny rainbow looking up at the ruins as we said goodbye.

Uxmal

Less famous than Chichen Itza, the Maya ruins at Uxmal are just as impressive. The site is much closer to Merida, though the ride was almost as long. Our bus struggled to climb the steep hills that mark the edge of the Chicxulub crater basin.

The very first thing to greet us inside the door was not an army of vendors’ tables, but the towering Pyramid of the Magician. With smooth walls and rounded corners, it looked very different from those at Chichen Itza.

Dozens of smaller constructions dot the site. Without the masses of tour groups wandering around, Uxmal was much more pleasant.

Also unlike Chichen Itza, most of the buildings are still open for visitors to explore.

One of our favorite parts about the site was discovering how the view changed as we climbed pyramids or up platforms. From below, the Governor’s Palace is mostly hidden.

But climbing the steps reveals one of the longest facades created in the pre-Columbian Americas.

Its builders definitely knew how to take advantage of the varied elevation on the site to make their creations more impressive.

Parts of Uxmal (like all Maya sites) are still unrestored, meaning that even rock piles are interesting. This looks like the world’s largest and most temping jigsaw puzzle.

Archaeologists discovered a two-headed jaguar throne inside the Governor’s Palace, now on display. Anything else that was recovered has been toted off to museums.

Up close, the sheer scale of the construction becomes more apparent.

Despite all the ornate stonework, one of the most impressive architectural feats was the engineered echo. Standing in front of the main staircase, a hand clap reflects back as a mimicry of the quetzal bird, an animal sacred to the Maya.

Uxmal felt more unified than Chichen Itza, like it belonged together. It seemed like we could see the central complex from everywhere else.

Working our way around the Palace, we ended up at the only partially-restored Great Pyramid. A frightening set of stairs led up the front.

From the top of this pyramid it felt like we were looking off a cliff. The steps up were so steep and narrow that it was difficult to not get distracted by the potential for falls. The view was worth the bit of vertigo, though.

The Pigeon House, another unique facade, lay in the furthest corner of the main building group. A curious vulture watched us come and go.

We followed every path, taking in every sight we could. But we were also careful. Some places are just not meant to be disturbed.

Another hot day again made us grateful for any chance to escape the sun.

A canopied dirt trail led us ended up in another corner of the ruins, the Cemeterio Group. Here the principal structure is still partly overgrown, rising out of the foliage like a specter.

These skulls and bones are not decorating an actual cemetery, but a place where victims of sacrifice would have been displayed. We felt like they were ready to bite our ankles when we weren’t looking.

The Nunnery Group at the north end of the complex hemmed us in on all sides with grand edifices. The upper portions were completely covered in carvings and sculpture.

One of the more unusual buildings was this pillared enclave; no doors opened to it from any other side. It resembled a baseball dugout. Built right next to the ball court, it is a possibility…

Finally reaching the Pyramid of the Magician again, we saw a more cluttered view than presented from the “front.” This must have been the more important facade for the Maya, facing the Nunnery Quadrangle and with several smaller temples underfoot.

We hiked back to the main roadway to catch our ride home, the Pyramid of the Magician our departing view. We arrived home in Merida just in time for the fireworks.

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