The Crown Jewel

Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today

When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.

Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood

On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:

The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician

On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.

 

Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal in Yucatán

I may have to delay my trip to Mexico until I know what’s happening with the pain in my knee. To refresh your memory, there is some sort of muscular pain in the crook of my left knee, initially diagnosed to be a Baker’s Cyst or some sort of tendonitis. With luck, I will be able to go at some point in January, unless the condition requires surgery.

In all, I have been to Uxmal twice, in 1975 and 1992. Both times, I have been impressed that it is the most beautiful of Maya ruins. It is built in the classical Puuc (named after the range of hills where it is located), with smooth rectangular limestone blocks interspersed with images of various Maya deities. It looks even better today, after archeologists have cleared away much of the foliage. Below is an image of the same structure around 1840 when Frederick Catherwood drew it:

Frederick Catherwood’s Illustration of the Pyramid

The city of Uxmal was occupied only up to some point in the 9th century AD, when it is speculated that drought made the ruins in the Puuc Hills uninhabitable. There are no above ground rivers in the limestone peninsula that is Yucatán, and the underground rivers would have required digging through hundreds of feet of rock. Instead, rain water was collected in chultunes, underground storage chambers that circled the ruins.

I was sold on Uxmal from the very start. The van that took me there stopped close by the Pyramid of the Magician. The driver bowed his head and did the sign of the cross upon setting eyes on the pyramid. It is still considered a sacred site by the Maya, even though they have not inhabited it for over a thousand years.