Mexico Bound - Winter 2007 travel blog

Uxmal "campground"

entering Uxmal


Pyramid of the Magician

Nunnery complex

entrance to Nunnery Quadrangle

ball court

close up details

another close up

delicate carving

serpent head

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Nunnery complex

As the sun rose over our campground parking lot, it revealed the ruins above us that we were about to tour. Uxmal, pronounced "oosh-mahl," was a significant Mayan city in the Yucatan with about 25,000 occcupants. The weather can be quite arid here and the area has no lakes or rivers and also lacks the cenotes (underground sink holes filled with fresh water) that the Mayan took advantage of in other parts of the peninsula. Therefore, it is understandable that the people who lived here were obsessed with rain and did everything they could do catch and hang on to every drop that fell. The complex of buildings unearthed at Uxmal were devoted to the worship of the rain god Chaac.

The word Uxmal means "built three times" and refers to the Pyramid of the Magician, which was the first imposing building we came to. This translation is still being questioned, because it appears that this temple was rebuilt five times. Every 52 years the priests of Uxmal rebuilt and/or added on to the buildings on the site. The Pyramid of the Magician name as well as most of the others, are based on half forgotten legends or lore, or in the case of the Nunnery Quadrangle, imposed by the Spanish colonizers who recognized similarities between this complex of buildings and the ones they had left at home. However, our guide shared some information that seemed based on scientific data. One of the wooden posts which formed the lintel for one of the temple doors, was original and had been carbon dated around 500 A.D. Recently scholars have begun to decode the Mayan hieroglyphics and are beginning to put the fragments together to tell the story left behind. Whether the stories carved on the stone were factual or myths is yet to be determined.

As was the case with previous ruins we've seen, the temples were used by the priests and upper class. The common folk were allowed to come in to bring sacrifices and offerings and to witness important ceremonies. The "basketball" court at Uxmal is quite small and it is believed that this was the practice area. If an athlete showed promise, he was sent to the big leagues at Chichen Itza, which we will visit in a few days. The Palace of the Governor, which was used primarily the by king and his family, was not as high as some of the others, but especially ornately decorated. There were a few deep crevasses in the carvings where we could still see the pigmentation, that must have made this edifices a colorful sight. Next to the Palace of the Governor and on the same raised platform was the House of the Turtles, so called because of a frieze of turtles carved around the cornice. It was believed that turtles suffered with man at times of drought and would also pray to Chaac for rain. Today we saw no turtles, but iguana were sunning themselves, quickly zipping into their hiding places whenever we came near.

These ruins were in especially good shape even before they were restored, because they were so well built. Most of the stones fit together snugly without the need for mortar. John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made two extended visits to Uxmal in the early 1840s, with architect/draftsman Catherwood reportedly making so many plans and drawings that they could be used to construct a duplicate of the ancient city. This made the work of those who had to decide which rock went back to which place much easier, but unfortunately these drawings have disappeared.

We visited Uxmal about twenty years ago. I did not specifically remember what I saw here, but I remember that this site was impressive. The old me would certainly agree with the younger me. The buildings here were huge and beautifiully restored; our guide said 40% still remains to be done. The detailed carvings on the huge buildings kept my telephoto lens zooming in and out again. This is another World Heritage site which should be a must on every Mexican traveler's list.

We love eating strange food and we've been doing a lot of that lately. Generally at a restaurant some sort of translation is provided, but you can never be quite sure what you're going to get. It's also gotten quite hot; our thermometer said 94º yesterday. All of a sudden we needed an American fix. We saw a TGIF Friday's restuarnat down the road and made it the dinner stop. The A/C was working great and all the menu items were dishes we recognized with Spanish translations. Suddently, we were back to being the ones that knew what was going on. After our American fix, we felt ready to eat mystery food and being somewhat clueless once again.

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