Mayan sites in Mexico

The WorldTravelerWhether Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itzá, Tulum or Yaxchilán – a visit to these old kingdoms and city-states tells the story of a vanished high culture.

Palenque, Yucatán

In the middle of the jungle lie the mysterious ruins of Palenque, which was rediscovered at the end of the 18th century, decorated with stucco and sculptures. But it is not only these archaeological finds that make the Mayan site a particularly remarkable place: Those who climb up the steps of the temples will have a fantastic view over the tree tops of the rain forest down to the lowlands. The Maya already settled here in 100 B.C. But the city only experienced its heyday in the classical period from the sixth to the eighth century AD. Only 200 years later, however, it was decaying more and more.

The well preserved temples were built on pyramid-shaped bases. Their roof decorations are exceptional and are rarely found in temples elsewhere. In the Temple of the Inscriptions – the most important sanctuary of the place – researchers discovered the tomb of the ruler of Palenque. The pyramid under the temple is considered unique in Mexico’s pre-Columbian architecture because it also served as a tomb. Deep inside the pyramid is the burial chamber; in the tomb itself, archaeologists discovered a burial treasure consisting of jade jewelry and a beautiful jade mask.

The labyrinthine palace complex – the work of several kings – built on a ten-metre-high platform is composed of various buildings, corridors and courtyards. A 15-metre high tower in the centre of the complex served as an observation tower. Here the priests sat in narrow rooms and predicted the future from the stars. In the courtyard, the reliefs with prisoners, which demonstrate the power of the rulers, are particularly striking. Other interesting buildings in this World Heritage Site are the Temple of the Jaguar, which has not yet been fully exposed, the Temple of the Cross of Leaves with a relief showing a cruciform corn plant, and the Temple of the Sun built on a four-step pyramid.

Uxmal, Yucatán

This late-classical Mayan ruined city is located in the hilly karst landscape of the Puuc region („Puuc“ in the Mayan language of Yucatán: „hilly country“). The most important Mayan site in the area experienced its heyday in the ninth and early tenth centuries AD, but was abandoned by its inhabitants one or two centuries later. Unlike other Mayan sites in Yucatán, no „cenotes“ (deep limestone holes filled with fresh water – residence of the rain god Chac, to whom people were also sacrificed) are found in Uxmal. The inhabitants of Uxmal suffered from water shortage and collected water in artificial cisterns.

Uxmal („built three times“) with its beautifully restored buildings is one of the most visited Mayan ruin sites. Many buildings are imaginatively decorated and show a uniform architectural style. All buildings are dominated by the 35 meter high Adivino pyramid („fortune teller“ pyramid) with its rounded corners, which has been repeatedly rebuilt and extended over four centuries – in the course of time, five temples were built one above the other. However, if you want to enjoy the great view from the top, you first have to climb the steep steps to the temple on the top platform. The ascent is quite exhausting, as the stairs have a gradient of approximately 45 degrees.

The governor’s palace from the ninth or tenth century is considered as the highlight of the Puuc style. It includes three buildings that are connected by Mayan arches. The trunk noses of the rain god Chac stand out from the mosaic frieze of the façade. In the Nuns‘ Square, whose 74 small chambers reminded the Spaniards of the cells of a nunnery (hence the name), one can admire facades decorated with Chac masks, snake motifs and grid patterns. The outer walls of the House of the Turtle are decorated with a frieze of small turtles.

Chichen Itzá, Yucatán

Chichen Itzá („mouth of the wells of the Itzá“) is not only one of the best preserved Mayan sites in Yucatán. It is also one of the most important and most visited ruined cities in Mexico. Every day thousands of tourists, especially from the resorts of Cancún and Playa Del Carmen, are drawn to this World Heritage Site to admire the superbly restored Mayan ruins. And meanwhile Chichen Itzá is even on the list of the „Seven New Wonders of the World“.

Originating in the late classical Maya culture, the site played an important role in Maya society between the eighth and eleventh centuries. However, even today, archaeologists have not been able to solve all the mysteries of its origin and development. What is certain is that Chichen Itzá, with over 35,000 inhabitants, was an economic, political and religious centre of power until the 13th century.

As far as the construction of the buildings is concerned, the connecting elements of Mayan and Toltec architecture are especially noticeable. According to a legend, the people from Tula had submitted themselves to the Maya in Chichen Itzá. Even today, many structural similarities between the ruins of Tollan / Tula and Chichen Itzá are striking.

One of the main sights is undoubtedly the 30 meter high pyramid Kukulcán (Spanish: „El Castillo“ / Castle), which shows many elements of the Maya calendar. It was built on a square ground plan with a side length of 55 meters at the base. Stairs lead to the platform on each side of the pyramid. All four stairs with 91 steps each represent the four cardinal points. Adding to these steps (364 in total) the step to the platform, results in exactly 365 stairs, each representing one day of the year. At the solstice in spring and autumn you can observe an optical illusion when a shadow falls on the northern side of the pyramid: You think a snake is crawling down the steps.

Further sightseeings are the snail tower, which probably was an observatory, the ball playground with a length of 168 meters the biggest Mesoamerica’s, the temple of the thousand columns, the warrior temple built on a pyramid as well as the nunnery, but nuns never lived there.

Tulum, Yucatán

Bathing in the turquoise blue sea in front of centuries-old Mayan ruins – this is only possible in Tulum. Although architecturally it is not one of the most important Mayan sites, its picturesque location on a cliff above the Caribbean coast is unique and a popular destination for tourists from Cancún. To enjoy its flair in peace and quiet, it is best to visit it in the early morning or late afternoon.

Tulum (in the Maya language: „wall“, „fortress“) was from 1200 AD until the Spanish conquest not only a flourishing commercial centre, specializing mainly in honey exports, but also a religious centre. Here, seafaring Mayan merchants from different regions docked, which is noticeable in the different architectural styles. Even today the castle („El Castillo“) with its 13 meter high tower serves as a landmark on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Even the Spaniard Juan Díaz was deeply impressed by the size of the building when he came to Tulum in 1518. Still today, the stucco figures of „El Castillo“ can be admired.

Also in the fresco temple („Templo de las Pinturas“), from which the course of the sun was observed from the viewpoint, there are still some wall paintings visible like fishes, snakes, sea animals that frame the respective deity. The building was very important for the post-classical Tulum in religious and social terms.

The „Temple of the Wind“ („Templo del Dios del Viento“), situated on a hill near the sea, was built on a semicircular platform and is rather untypical of the Maya in its construction. From here the wind was probably worshipped.

Yaxchilán, Chiapas

If you want to get to know this remote but enchanting Mayan site in the border area between Mexico and Guatemala, you will have to go through some hardships. Located in the middle of the rainforest, on the river Usumacinta, it can only be reached by bus, boat and small airplane. Here live the Lacandón Indians, the last descendants of the ancient Maya, who are rooted in the traditional way of life and religion. Yaxchilán still plays an important role for them, because here they can worship their ancestor gods and make sacrifices to them.

The once powerful principality was founded around 350 B.C., but did not reach its heyday until the eighth century under King „Shield Jaguar“ and his son „Bird Jaguar“. Yaxchilán, rediscovered in the 19th century, is famous above all for its stone sculptures with depictions of people and hieroglyphic texts, steles, stucco ornaments and beautiful doorsills covered in relief. Temple 33 is particularly well preserved with the sculpture of Bird Jaguar.

Other famous buildings include the ball playground and the large, small and southern acropolis. In Yaxchilán it is particularly noticeable that „Shield Jaguar’s“ wife Xoc often appears in pictures in the temples. She came from the Mayan upper class; the connection with her brought the ruler many advantages. For example, in temple 23, you can see on two door lintels how Xoc makes a blood sacrifice – and a ribbon is pulled through his pierced tongue.

Calakmul, Campeche

Calakmul, an important city of the classical period, is one of the largest Mayan sites ever discovered, along with El Mirador and Tikal. After the area had been inhabited since the Pre-Classic period, the city rose to become the leading political and military power in the area in the sixth century. After victorious battles against Tikal, Calakmul (historical name: „Chan“ – snake) gained supremacy over several vassal states.

Especially under king „Yuknoom Ch’een II.“ („the Great“), the town gained power and fame in the middle of the seventh century. From the end of the seventh century, when the son of Yuknoom the Great was defeated in a decisive battle and Calakmul was probably occupied by Tikal, the decline of the city began. It finally disappeared into political insignificance when Tikal defeated all its vassals.

On an area of about 30 square kilometres, Calakmul had more than 100 colossal buildings – a total of over 5,000 buildings, whereby many structures still rest underground. Structures I and II dominate the cityscape; one of the most remarkable buildings is Mexico’s highest pyramid at 50 meters. Its approximately 100 stelae are particularly impressive, and the jade masks from the tombs are exhibited in the „Museo Arqueológico“ of Campeche.

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