This article is from the February 1997 The Mexico File
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The Maya Ruins of the Yucatán Peninsula : An Archaeologist's Top Ten List
by Jennifer Mathews
Jennifer Mathews is a Maya archaeologist who has been working in the Yucatán Peninsula for the last four years. She is currently studying the recently discovered site of Naranjal in Quintana Roo and lives in the surrounding Maya village of 80 people. She is writing her dissertation on ancient monumental architecture of the Maya and will be receiving her doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Riverside, in the next year. She is a fourth generation Californian whose family has always has always had a fascination with México and its people.
The Yucatán Peninsula is a wonderful mixture of Caribbean beaches, archaeological ruins, tropical jungles, and traditional Maya culture. However, many tourists travel to the Yucatán and never venture from their all-inclusive resort in Cancun to see the unique beauty of the peninsula. Cancun is comforting for some American visitors because the hotel zone gives the impression that you never crossed the border. This resort strip can provide you with all the American fast food you can eat, discotecs booming with American techno music, and bottomless tequila shots fed to you by bartenders cheering in English. However, if this is not the Mexico you are looking for, break the barrier of the hotel zone and travel to the other splendors of the Yucatán Peninsula.
The beaches of the Yucatán are breathtaking with their white coral sand beaches and water the color of Windex. If you prefer a more remote location than the beaches of Cancun, read your guidebooks (I recommend Fodor's book on Cancun, Cozumel, and the Yucatán Peninsula and Chicki Millan's The Yucatán Handbook, Moon Publications) and head south to Punta Bete and Akumal. Both locations offer spectacular beaches and Akumal has world famous snorkeling and diving. It is tempting to spend all of your time lounging in these fantastic vacation spots. However, do not forget to balance out your Yucatán experience with visits to the fabulous ruins of the ancient Maya.
The ruins of the Yucatán Peninsula are some of the most striking and fascinating in the world. The Maya left an indelible mark on the peninsula with their multitude of towering pyramids and temples in the steamy jungles and along the high cliffs above the Caribbean. The best known are of course Tulum, with its magnificent ocean view, and Chichén Itzá, with it's famous Castillo and Cenote of Sacrifice. Although these sites are "must sees," they should not be the focus of your expeditions to archaeological sites. Numerous lesser-known sites can be just as spectacular and a lot less tourist inundated. But before I make my recommendations of the more obscure sites worth seeing, I would like to give some general advice about visiting the archaeological ruins.
First, always get to the sites as early as possible (most sites open at 8:00 am) because the tour buses come in around 11:00 am. The best way to assure an early arrival is to stay the night before in a town close to the site rather than having to drive across the Yucatán from Cancun. There are often comfortable and clean hotels of all price ranges located very close to the ruins.
Second, when you have arrived at the site, be sure to visit the most popular areas first and take your pictures before the structures are covered with Cancun t-shirt clad visitors. Once the crowds do arrive it is easy to feel that you are being herded from pyramid to pyramid. This is the time to visit the fringes of the site that most tourists are not concerned with seeing.
Third, if you are interested in getting an accurate history of the ruins, bring a guidebook of the sites (an excellent book is Joyce Kelly's An Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, University of Oklahoma Press) rather than going with a tour guide. Although the tour guides can provide you with extremely interesting facts, they have little to do with the actual history of the ancient Maya. In some cases, specifically when visiting cave sites, you will be required to use a guide. In this instance I would recommend reading up on the ruins beforehand and then asking the guide informed questions. Usually they will recognize that you are an enlightened visitor who is more interested in seeing the ruins than hearing about the space aliens that built them.
Fourth, bring a panoramic camera in addition to your regular camera. There are disposable cameras as well as very inexpensive reusable cameras (I purchased a reusable camera for $10.00 at a camera shop at the local mall and came back with some excellent shots) that take panoramic photos. These photos give you a better sense of the expansive landscape of the archaeological sites and are great for framing.
In some locations it is nearly impossible to get good photos. For example, at the top of the passageway inside the Castillo at Chichén Itzá there is an amazing red jaguar throne with jade spots and a well-preserved chac mool or reclining figure. Unfortunately, these are both behind a mesh gate and no flash photography is allowed. You can try your luck at getting this shot but I would recommend buying the professional photos sold on cards in the gift shops as insurance. The photos can be easily removed from the card backings and are nice additions to your photo collection.
Fifth, bring a raincoat and make offerings to Chac, the Maya rain god, because nothing clears the crowds out like a tropical storm. Often tourists are uninformed that the rainy season runs from about June through November and are unprepared for the weather. Take advantage of their naivete and enjoy a wet but uncrowded visit to the sites. Remember to wear shoes that can endure rain, mud, slippery rocks, gravel, steep stairs and hours of walking.
Even if you are traveling in the rainy season, expect it to be very hot and humid. Bring lots of bottled water, salty snacks to replace sodium lost from sweating, cool cotton clothing, sunscreen, bandanas and a hat. There are restaurants or snack shops available at most of the sites, but often the food items are extremely over-priced and not very appetizing.
Sixth, although many of the sites are accessible by bus or with pre-arranged tours, my recommendation is to rent or bring your own car. Frequently the buses do not travel all the way to the sites and their schedules are unreliable. The tours can make travel easy but you are often forced to fit into their itinerary and are limited to seeing the most popular sites. Traveling in your own car allows for the freedom of coming and going as you want and the ability to visit the more remote sites. Be sure to get the Joyce Kelly guide mentioned above because she includes travel advice and good directions to all of the accessible sites of the Yucatán.
An Archaeologist's Recommendation of the Best Sites to See
Sites such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum are extraordinary in their own right. However, many visitors are disappointed because they are so crowded and touristy. While you should not miss the "big" sites in your tour of the Yucatán, I have prepared a list of ten sites (listed in geographic order from east to west) that I believe have a lot to offer the traveler willing to take the less beaten path.
The site of Cobá is one of the largest and most important sites of the Yucatán, though many visitors opt out not to see it because they would rather visit Chichén Itzá or Tulum. Nevertheless, Coba is a spectacular spot to visit for several reasons. First, this site has a very different feeling from more developed sites because it is still surrounded by jungle and many of the buildings are still in their ruined state. There are beautiful walking paths throughout and visitors often report feeling like an early explorer coming upon the ruins. Second, if you are up for climbing the incredibly tall pyramids such as the 100 foot Nohoch Mul (Mayan for the "Great Mound") you will be treated to magnificent views of the surrounding jungle and rare lakes. If you look closely at the horizon you will notice several mounds that are still unexcavated. Finally, Cobá still has several of the monuments or stelae in place at the site. Many visitors of archaeological sites are disappointed when they find out that most monuments are removed and placed in museums or laboratories to be studied. Although the monuments are still spectacular when seen out of context, they are much more dramatic in their natural setting.
Other areas of interest include the remains of murals in the Templo de las Pinturas, as well as the largest number of sacbeob (Mayan for "white roads") and stelae (45 of each) of any site in the northern Yucatán Peninsula. One of these sacbeob has been traced to the site of Yaxuná 62 miles away, making it the longest known ancient road in the Maya area.
Due to the size of the overall site and the height of the pyramids, this can be an extremely exhausting visit. You may want to travel from the ruins of Tulum to the town of Cobá the night before your visit and stay in a hotel (there is even a Club Med archaeological villa). Get an early start because it can be particularly warm and humid along the jungle paths.
Although not an archaeological site, the D'zitnup Cenote is not to be missed. This cenote, a circular sinkhole formed by the collapse of underground caves, is located just outside of the colonial town of Valladolid. Valladolid, the second largest city in the Yucatán, is a good stopping point on your tour of the ruins because it is only about 40 minutes away (via the toll road) from Chichén Itzá and offers several hotels and restaurants.
Head to the cenote early (they begin selling tickets around 8:00 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.) because it can become fairly crowded later in the day. Do not confuse it with the small cenote in town; ask a local for directions and follow the signs to the turnoff. Once you arrive you will be greeted by numerous vendors selling food, jewelry, and pictures of the cenote (these will probably be some of the better photos you'll find) as well as children offering to watch your car. Buy your entrance ticket at the window to your left (the entrance fee is less than a dollar) and carefully make your way down the stairs into the cavern.
Legend has it that the cenote was found when a pig fell through a large hole in the ground (which turned out to be the ceiling of the cenote) and the owners went to look for it. Locals created a stairway down to the water and have been enjoying it ever since. This cenote could actually be labeled a cavern since there is a limestone ceiling with stalactites still in existence. The water is very refreshing so remember to bring your swimsuit, and for the more adventurous types there are large stalactites hanging from the ceiling and rock walls you can climb for diving into the deep pool. Around midday, the sunlight comes through the hole in the ceiling and illuminates the turquoise colored water. This is the best time to view the cavern and get photographs; however, it may be more crowded at this time.
This cave is only about three miles from the site of Chichén Itzá but very few visitors know of it, much less visit. Although the cave was known for hundreds of years, a portion of it remained sealed from the time of the Conquest until its discovery in 1959. Today, visitors proceed through a long passage to a rounded cavern with a huge stalagmite symbolic of the "tree of life" in Maya ideology. Around the base of the stalagmite, visitors can still see the original artifacts, including ceramic vessels with the face of Tlaloc, the Mexican rain god.
Tours leave hourly and you are required to go with a tour guide. If you have to wait for the next tour group to leave, you can pass time at the botanical garden as well as the open-air museum. Once you enter the cave, a prerecorded tape in English, Maya, and Spanish explains the history of the cave. It is fairly well lit inside and includes modern stairways and banisters, although the stairs can be slippery. Most of the passages are wide enough to stand fully upright, but there are a few overhangs you have to duck under.
One of the highlights of the site of Aké is that it is surrounded by a modern Maya community not tainted by tourism. All too often the only contact that travelers experience with the Maya are with the jaded roadside vendors. Despite the ruins and the handful of tourists who come to visit them, daily life continues on in the community. On one visit to the site my friends and I were lucky enough to enjoy cold drinks and a local softball game being played on the field next to one of the pyramids.
Other points of interest at this site are the hacienda ruins and hennequen factory which reflect some of the local history. At one point, the Yucatán Peninsula was the largest producer and exporter of hennequen (used primarily to make rope). Hacienda owners enslaved thousands of Maya people through debt-servitude. With the advent of nylon the bottom fell out of the hennequen market, but you can still see cultivated henequen plants growing throughout the Yucatan.
Most of the ruins exhibit a unique architectural style known as "megalithic," so named because of the use of incredibly large stones (some as long as 6 feet). The best known building is a spectacular Acropolis supporting 36 stone columns and a 150 foot-wide stairway. This structure faces a plaza with other large constructions, as well as intra-site sacbe (an ancient raised road) and stelae or monuments. An inter-site sacbe almost 20 miles long connects Aké to the site of Izamal in the east. Be sure to visit the church built during the hacienda period and notice that it is built upon an ancient terraced platform.
Located about 15 minutes north of the capital city of Mérida is the delightful but little-known site of Dzibilchaltún. Although it is easy to travel to, most visitors miss seeing this treasure due to a lack of publicity. What I find most striking about this site is the uniqueness and variety of the architecture. From the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a square vaulted building that looks like no other, to the open chapel built with pre-colonial stones by the Spaniards in the 1590's, the constructions at this site are amazing. In addition, there is a beautiful cenote, which is used by the local people as a swimming hole. This cenote includes a cavity that runs over 130 feet deep. Archaeologists have found a large quantity of well-preserved ceramic, stone artifacts, as well as bone and wood that were probably given as offerings.
The site is generally uncrowded (except on Sundays when entrance to the site is free and the locals come to swim) and is a spectacular location for photography. The site museum includes a wide array of artifacts from the site as well as a general collection from the Maya region, displays of indigenous clothing, crafts and even a replica of a traditional house, as well as exhibits on Colonial history. The building is furnished with beautiful hardwood floors, glass walls that look out into the surrounding forest, attractive displays...and makes up one of the nicest Mexican museums I have visited.
Uxmal y La Ruta Puuc
Approximately fifty miles southwest of Mérida is the major center of Uxmal. Along with this center, the surrounding Puuc sites of Kabáh, Labná, Sayil and Loltún Cave make up what is known as the Puuc Route or La Ruta Puuc. Puuc refers to the unique architectural style that includes elaborate mosaics on the upper wall, stone masks with hooked noses, and tall vaulted arches which create a beautiful effect for the viewer.
To see the Puuc sites travelers should take two days, perhaps staying at the hotels near Uxmal. I once tried to take a group to see all the sites in one day and by the fourth site we literally had to drive into the parking lot, take a picture of the main structure and leave for the next site. Spreading the tour over two days will allow for more time to enjoy each site and to take lunch and snack breaks in between. I would recommend seeing Uxmal and Kabáh on one day and the remaining sites, starting with Loltún Cave, on the other. All of the sites can be reached on the route of Highway 261 and the Puuc Highway. The sites are clearly marked, but be sure to have your guidebook with you for directions.
Although smaller than Chichén Itzá, many visitors prefer seeing Uxmal because it much less crowded and touristy. The main temple, El Adivino (also known as the Temple of the Wizard or Dwarf) is very impressive from every angle but is also extremely difficult to climb. I believe that this structure has some of the steepest stairs of any Maya building and the western stairway is even steeper than the eastern one. If you are afraid of heights I would avoid going up...but if you dare, the view from the top is magnificent.
Next to El Adivino is the Nunnery Quadrangle, a complex of buildings built around an open-air courtyard. The upper facades are extremely elaborate, well-preserved and great for close-up photos. There is also a nicely preserved arch that faces the small ball court. Be sure to visit the Governor's Palace (you'll need a wide-angle lens or panoramic camera to get it all in) and the House of the Turtles on the east side of the site. This eastern platform is the best spot to take pictures of El Adivino.
Kabáh, Sayil and Labná
These three sites are much smaller than Uxmal but are usually uncrowded and well worth visiting. It only takes a few hours to visit each one and the windy drive through the Puuc hills includes some beautiful scenery. Be sure to wander through the trails at Sayil to see El Mirador and the Temple of the Lintel. Labná is an especially photogenic site and is perfect for panoramic photos. Look for the sacbe which stands over four feet high and the Labná Arch, one of the most beautiful ancient structures found in the Maya lowlands.
Loltún Cave is one of the most dramatic spots you will see on your archaeological tour. It is the largest cave in the Yucatán with passages big enough to drive a Mack truck through. A guide is required to enter but you can usually get a private tour. An entrance fee is required for the tours leaving every hour and a half, but the guide will also expect a tip (a dollar to a dollar fifty per person is about right). Bilingual guides are available, although some speak much better English than others. If someone in your group speaks Spanish you may want to have them translate for the guide because some speak incomprehensible English fluently. Walking inside the cave can be exceedingly slippery and often involves climbing steep stairs, so wear appropriate shoes.
At the entrance to the cave is one of the earliest known bas-relief carvings in the Maya lowlands, possibly dating to 2,500 years ago. The carving is of a male figure, possibly a warrior, with a row of glyphs to the side of it. Once you enter the cave you are overwhelmed with the size of the chambers. There are various colored lights highlighting the smaller caverns, water sources, and paintings. Guides are often inclined to point out formations that supposedly look like animals or even the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are paintings throughout the cave including images of hands, faces, glyphs, and geometric designs. You are allowed to photograph them if you do not use a flash. The tour ends in a spectacular chamber with an opening in the ceiling where the sunlight shines through. Getting good photographs here and inside the rest of the cave can be extremely difficult; you may be able to buy the photo cards sold in the local gift shops.
Unless you are going to spend a significant amount of time in the Yucatán you probably will not be able to visit all of these sites and still get some beach time in. However, most of the above locations are near other areas you will want to explore and can fit easily into your itinerary. Research and plan your route according to your interests, but as with all travel in México, always leave some room for mishaps and spontaneous side trips.