Uxmal ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Going up the stairs to the top of the ancient pyramid is not easy. The steps are high and shallow – and it’s more like climbing than stepping.
I don’t know how the Mayans used to be able to do it – they were not tall people so it must have been twice as hard for them.
But maybe that was the point.
The pyramids and temples in cities like Uxmal were important religious structures and it was from the top of them that the high priests would perform ceremonies to protect the residents. Making it difficult to get to the top added to the eminence.
For visitors like me, climbing to the top is not about asking for protection. Instead, it offers a more appropriate gift – an incredible view out across the Uxmal ruins.
Here, from the summit of the Great Pyramid, I look out over the ancient city of Uxmal and the Mayan ruins that remain here.
You can see many of the individual buildings from the top of the pyramid but this is also one of the best vantage points to get a sense of the layout of Uxmal.
Unlike many other Mayan cities that were designed using geometry, Uxmal was designed using astronomy. And this was one of the most important parts of being a priest.
The Ancient Maya are thought to be the only civilisation that, before the invention of the telescope, was able to track astronomical cycles like the movement of Venus. The priests were excellent astronomers and they used this to their advantage – sometimes rather cynically.
For instance, if they were going to have a big religious ceremony to ask the gods for something, they would try to time it with an event they knew was going to happen. An eclipse, for instance.
Can you imagine what it would be like for a priest to offer their own blood or sacrifice someone to the gods and then, almost straight away, the sun started to disappear?! There is no way the average uneducated citizen would doubt the power of their priests!
And so that’s what many of the grand buildings at places like the Uxmal Mayan ruins are for.
They don’t necessarily have a practical function. They are about inspiring awe from the common people to keep the ruling class in power. Although, presumably, the priests and kings do believe most of what they preach.
The Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal
The most impressive structure here – and certainly the best thing to see at Uxmal – is the Pyramid of the Magician.
It got its name because it is at the centre of a famous Mayan legend. The story is that it was foretold that a new king would rule the city when a magical instrument was played in the jungle. One day, the sound of the instrument was heard and then a magic dwarf appeared.
The king issued this magician a series of challenges that he had to pass before he would hand over control. One of them, that he assumed would never be possible, was to build a grand pyramid overnight.
When everyone woke up in the morning, this pyramid was standing! It’s why the Pyramid of the Magician is also sometimes called the Pyramid of the Dwarf.
Archaeologists aren’t huge fans of legends, though. If you ask one of them, they’ll tell you that the 35-metre-high structure that you see today was actually built in up to five stages between the 6th and 10th centuries.
Regardless, it’s one of the most spectacular Mayan buildings you’ll see in Mexico and is rather special because of its smooth curved design (compared to most, which are square or rectangular).
Chichen Itza or Uxmal
I have previously written about the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and how they are so popular. As I said at the time, it’s not surprising seeing as it’s so easy to get to Chichen Itza from Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Visiting the ruins of Uxmal is also easy – but it’s a little bit further away. It’s at least an extra two hours drive from Chichen Itza.
However, it is convenient to get to Uxmal from Merida, which is only one hours drive, and I would recommend staying there for a couple of nights and doing a day trip if you have time.
But if you had to make a choice between Uxmal or Chichen Itza, I think it’s an easy decision. The Uxmal ruins are so much better in so many ways and, as I said, I think they are the best Mayan site in Yucatan.
Part of the reason it’s so enjoyable to visit Uxmal is because there are far fewer people here.
I have come as an optional extra on my G Adventures Mayan Discovery Tour and our guide very sensibly suggested we arrive early. There is almost nobody else here for the first hour and I am completely alone in some parts of the site that I explore.
But the other reason that I think Uxmal ruins is a better site is because of the artwork that you’re able to see here.
The Governor’s Palace, Uxmal
As I travel through the world of the Ancient Maya, I will come to realise that the different kingdoms had very different styles of art. Much of it has been lost to us because it was not strong enough to survive the centuries of neglect.
But here at the Uxmal ruins, we can see some of the finest and best-preserved of the Mayan art anywhere in the world. The best example at the site is at the Governor’s Palace.
This long building is set on a raised platform near the Great Pyramid and all along its facade is a beautiful stone decoration.
There are more than 20,000 individual stones that are each specially shaped to create flowing mosaics when they are put together.
When you look closely at the mosaics, you can see things like snakes, astronomical symbols, and representations of gods (particularly the rain god Chac).
Astronomy plays a large part in the design. The building is aligned in such a way that Venus would set at a particular spot every eight years. There are then patterns in the art that represent the number eight, that are connected to symbols of rain… that would normally begin after Venus set at that spot.
All through Uxmal, you can find these incredible elements. Art connected to astronomy. Astronomy connected to architecture. Architecture connected to the gods. And the gods connected to the weather.
It’s no wonder the Mayan high priests were such important figures. They were the human links between all of those things.
With all this knowledge, they probably didn’t even need the height of the pyramids to elevate them in the eyes of the population. But I’m sure they appreciated the views as well.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.