Mayapán: The last great seat of power in ancient Yucatán

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture out to explore Mayapán, one of the most intriguing cities of the Mayan post-classic period.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
View of Mayapán’s main ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If someone were to describe a Maya archaeological site by saying that it has a Pyramid dedicated to Kukulkán, a beautiful circular astronomical observatory and was surrounded by cenotes, you would — of course — think of Chichén Itzá. But this description also applies to a smaller but very important ancient city known as Mayapán. 

Mayapán is 40 kilometers south of Mérida in the municipality of Tecoh and makes for an ideal day trip for archaeology aficionados. If you are feeling ambitious, hit up nearby Acanceh on the same day.

Archaeological evidence dates the foundation of Mayapán to the 1st century C.E. Sometime in the 12th century, the arrival of the Itzaes from Chichén Itzá brought the city to true prominence. 

View of Mayapán from atop the Pyramid of Kukulkán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Since that time, Mayapán became the seat of a confederation of city-states known as Luub Mayapán or the League of Mayapán. Other members of the confederation included cities as large and powerful as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. In a very real sense, this League of Mayapán was the last great hurrah of the Maya in Yucatán, before Uxmal and Chichen Itza were severely depopulated and eventually abandoned. The Itzaes are believed to have relocated to the Peten, in northern Guatemala, surrounding what is now known as Lake Peten Itza. For their part, the Xiu of Uxmal moved to Mani and their descendants still live in the region. 

Mayapán covers a surface area of 4.2 square kilometers and has over 4,000 structures. The city walls extended half a kilometer beyond its boundaries in all directions.

Mayapán’s Pyramid of Kukulkán may be smaller than its counterpart in Chichén Itzá, but is still a great sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Pyramid of Kukulkán, also known as El Castillo, is one of the most iconic structures on the site and is to the east of the Ch’en Mul cenote. A good deal of original stucco still survives on the east side of the structure.

Stucco depictions of decapitated warriors found on Mayapán’s Pyramid of Kukulkán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the circular astronomical observatory was clearly built in the same style as its counterpart in Chichén Itzá. Though a good deal smaller it is still extremely beautiful and located on a platform adorned with Chaac rain god masks.

Astronomical observatory in Mayapán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Carved stone figures depicting snakes or feathered serpents are a common motif in Maya architecture, especially in cities associated with the Itzaes. 

In Maya cosmology, snakes are closely associated with fertility and the sky. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city also has several examples of carvings depicting animals such as this stone relief of a bird. 

Avian-themed stone relief in Mayapán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Mayapán may be smaller than Chichén Itzá or Uxmal, but it’s by no means a small site. It is jam-packed with more than enough interesting features to keep you exploring for a good long while. Just make sure to bring along a hat and some water because it does not have the facilities of more famous and visited ancient Maya cities. 

View of Mayapán from atop the Pyramid of Kukulkán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. When inside the site, it is obligatory to wear a face mask and be mindful of social distancing. The entrance to the site is 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admission is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

As of mid-March 2021, Mayapán remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

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