Why Uxmal is Yucatán’s Underrated Gem

Walking into El Palomar via an ancient Sacbé inspires a feeling of awe. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The grandeur of its architecture, beautiful landscapes, and the magnificence of its plazas attest to the status of Uxmal as the ultimate seat of power of the Puuc region — which also includes other remarkable ancient cities like Kabah, Labná, and Sayil.

But aside from its size, Uxmal stands out for its refinement, which makes it feel much more like a site of worship and learning than the center of an expansionist city-state — though they, indeed, were no pacifists. Think of Uxmal as the Athens to Chichén Itzá’s Sparta, though this is a useful yet great oversimplification.

Another important difference between Uxmal and Chichen Itzá is that although the former gets its fair share of tourists (especially on Sundays), you will not find any vendors within the latter site blowing conch shells or jaguar whistles that inevitably scare away the site’s wildlife and annoy people. 

Speaking of wildlife, Uxmal is an excellent place for birding, especially during the winter when migratory and local species can be found mingling in the rich vegetation of the Puuc hills. Keep your eyes open for Mot Mots, known in the Yucatán as Pájaro Toh, which are easily recognizable for their colorful plumage and long racket-like tip tails.

The Palomar Quadrangle

Even if you have visited Uxmal before, recent excavations have opened up entire sections of the site, including the splendid Palomar Quadrangle, which features an impressive palace complex complete with intricate crestwork and large corbel arches, also known as Maya arches. This main palace is flanked by residences reserved for the city’s elite, as well as some rather unusual structures like a relatively small construction near the plaza’s entrance with a perfectly circular base. 

El Palomar is also notable for its antiquity, with experts like José Huchim Herrera (Uxmal’s director) who argues that its construction dates to the Preclassic (sometime between the 5th Century BCE and 3rd Century CE). This is especially interesting as this means that El Palomar is among the most ancient areas of Uxmal, as other comparable areas like the Nunnery and Governor’s Palace date to the late Classic and early post-Classic periods, well over a millennia later. 

Surrounding the quadrangle are several other structures, some of which have been restored up to a point, and others still awaiting their turn to shine. From atop El Palomar, visitors are treated to a wonderful view of La Gran Piramide, Uxmal’s tallest structure which itself sits atop a large artificial platform.  

Uxmal’s Pyramid of the Magician, according to legend, was built overnight by a sorcerer hatched from an egg laid by a witch. Photo: Stocksy

Without a doubt, the most famous structure at Uxmal is its famous Pyramid of the Magician, which according to legend was built overnight by a sorcerer hatched from an egg laid by a Mayan witch. As the story goes (in one of its most common versions) the birth and rise of this powerful sorcerer had been foreseen, to not incur his wrath the royal family of Uxmal adopted him and established a dynasty known as the Tutul Xiu, whose descents still live in surrounding communities including Muna and Maní.   egardless of the veracity of the legend, the pyramid itself is among the most beautiful in the Maya world. It features a rounded base and a main stairway adorned with rain god masks that faces a relatively small ceremonial center with a facade adorned with stone parrot reliefs and quintessential Puuc architectural features like repeating geometrical patterns and cylindrical adornments.

As Uxmal lay in a region with no natural water sources, it should be no surprise to learn that imagery revealing the rain god Chaac dominates the site in the form of countless rain god masks, easily recognizable by their hooked noses. Also referring to Chaac are stone details on the facades of structures like the Temple of Turtles, adjacent to the Governor’s Palace. Uxmal also has several fascinating jungle paths to explore, most of which are home to yet more amazing structures such as La Vieja and the Cemetery Group, which open and close sporadically.  

The Governor’s Palace with the Temple of the Magician in the distance. Photo Courtesy William Frej

The Governor’s Palace is notable for its immense size and over-the-top facade, but also for its surrounding plaza dominated by a platform topped with a bicephalous (two-headed) jaguar throne. At the base of this platform ran a Sacbé (an ancient Maya road) which connected Uxmal with one of its most important vassal kingdoms Kabah — and then onwards to other Puuc cities like Labná and Sayil. 

Uxmal was eventually abandoned by the Maya sometime in the 11th century for reasons that are not entirely clear. Archaeologists have speculated that several years without significant rainfall likely had something to do with it, yet others assert that Uxmal simply stretched itself and its domains too thin and fell due to internal strife — though in reality the reasons were probably a combination of factors. 

But after a history spanning over a millennium and a half, Uxmal had a good run of it and left behind some magnificent treasures to explore. 

If you go

Getting to Uxmal is a breeze, especially when compared to Chichén Itzá as it lies just 50 miles south of Mérida on a well-maintained highway. After visiting the site you will find several options to eat including the Hacienda Uxmal, and several savory restaurants in the nearby town of Santa Elena, just 13 miles away and six miles from Kabah.

Plan to arrive at Uxmal by 8 a.m. when the site opens. This is a great way to avoid large groups of tourists, escape the worst of the heat, and maybe even get in some good bird watching. General admission is 606 pesos.

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.
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