Uxmal, the great seat of power of the Puuc

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we wrap up our tour of the Puuc valley with a real highlight, the magnificent Uxmal.

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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 Uxmal from the Governor’s Palace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Without a doubt, Uxmal is one of the most magnificent archaeological sites to be found anywhere in the world.

The grandeur of its architecture, its orientation within the landscape and the magnificence of its plazas attest to the status of Uxmal as the ultimate seat of power of the prosperous Puuc region — which included other great cities such as Kabah and Sayil.

Uxmal is about 90 kilometers south of downtown Mérida and takes an hour-and-a-half to reach by car. If you do not have a vehicle, it is easy to find tour operators in downtown Mérida who offer day trips to Uxmal, as well as many other archaeological sites. Uxmal is quite large and the main ceremonial center alone takes no less than two hours to explore, so make sure to bring along some water, good shoes, a hat and sunblock.

The name of Uxmal derives from two Mayan words: ux, which means three; and mal, to build. Therefore, we refer to Uxmal as the thrice-built city. In reality, there is clear evidence for at least five distinct building periods. Evidence of this can be seen on several structures where archaeologists have partially excavated sections of buildings to reveal previous elements of construction. Most of the temples in the ancient city are believed to have been erected between the fifth and tenth centuries CE.

Uxmal would not be a Puuc site without ubiquitous rain god masks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As the largest city and main seat of power in the region, Uxmal was home to the most powerful rulers of the Puuc and sent out governors and emissaries to vassal kingdoms and far-flung cities to ensure their grip on power. The last dynasty to rule Uxmal was known as the Tutul Xiu. Their descendants are still well known and highly regarded in Yucatán.

View of Uxmal from atop the Nunnery. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain visited Uxmal in the 1970s, the then Tutul Xiu patriarch was afforded the honor to address the monarch directly as the head of an ancient house. According to the protocol, all other dignitaries, including Mexico’s president, had to wait for the Queen to first present herself to them.

Arriving at Uxmal, you will immediately begin to climb a large ceremonial platform that elevates the city’s ceremonial center above the vegetation. As you are making your way up the stairs, try to imagine the raw amount of workforce required to build such a platform, to say nothing of the great temples which sit atop.

Grand Wizard’s Pyramid as seen when you enter Uxmal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Once you have finished climbing, you will be confronted with the Grand Wizard’s Pyramid. The structure takes its name from an ancient legend that states that the temple was built overnight by a powerful sorcerer to prove his power and right to rule. As you walk around to the pyramid’s front, you will notice that its base is not rectangular but rather oval. A stairway lined with rain god masks makes its way up to a grandiose entrance at the top.

Frontal view of the Grand Wizard’s Pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Behind the pyramid lay an open plaza flanked by several highly adorned structures. The complex is known as the Nunnery because explorers in the 16th century found the way it was laid out reminiscent of a convent.

The facades of the structures that make up the Nunnery are full of depictions of powerful lords, rain-god masks, geometric patterns, and a serpent’s image with a human head that depicts Kukulkán, the feathered serpent deity associated with creation, the sky and fertility.

Lord Kukulkán surveys his domain. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After taking in the Nunnery’s wonderful view of the ceremonial center, descend the stairs and exit the complex through a corbel arch. On the other side, you will see a large ballcourt and a path up to the structure known as the Governor’s Palace.

The ballcourt lay just behind the Nunnery. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Built atop a huge platform, the Governor’s Palace has one of the longest facades in Mesoamerica. Its ornamentation includes rain god masks and depictions of powerful lords and references to the planet Venus. Above the main entrance, you can see a design made up of eight two-headed serpents.

Exuberant design above entrance to the Governor’s Palace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The complex likely housed many of Uxmal’s elite but also served as a religious and administrative center. Across from the main entrance sits a platform that houses a stone throne in the image of a two-headed jaguar.

Two headed jaguar throne. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Behind the Governor’s Palace, there is a path to the grand pyramid. Being 40 meters tall, the grand pyramid is 5 meters taller than the grand wizard’s pyramid.

It is still possible to climb the Grand Pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike many other pyramids in Yucatán, visitors are allowed to climb the structure. Once on top, you will be greeted by a fantastic view of the city and some beautiful stone-carved parrots.

Stone parrots adorn the Grand Pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are a great many more noteworthy structures in Uxmal’s core ceremonial center, some of these include North Long Building, House of the Birds, House of the Turtles, House of the Doves and South Temple.

The charming House of the Turtles gets its name from the many stone turtles that adorn its facade. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you make your way down from the main ceremonial plaza, you will find even more pyramids and structures in various states of reconstruction, and they are certainly worth your time.

Many ruins in the jungle still await restoration. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The site reopened to the public in September 2020 after being closed for many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The site has excellent facilities, including clean bathrooms, a large parking lot, a restaurant and several shops.

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to introduce food or drink other than water. When inside the site, it is obligatory to wear a facemask and be mindful of social distancing. The entrance fee is 338 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán with ID.

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