Welcome to the magic of the Mayan Ruins of Mexico!
I have had an ongoing fascination with ancient cultures since my college days when I also had the romantic idea of being an adventurous and daring archaeologist discovering buried ruins of lost civilizations. With time my practical self took hold and I abandoned this dream. However, I have never lost the allure of the mysteries of lost peoples and their civilizations. I still have the curiosity of wanting to know who, why, what, and especially how of “disappeared peoples and their cultures.”
When my husband and I moved to Mexico eighteen years ago I found that not only did this enchanting country offer lovely Spanish colonial cities to explore, lovely beaches to enjoy, gorgeous scenery to appreciate, fascinating cultures to study, but the magic of pre-Columbian Mayan cultures to discover. I was in heaven! When I would announce that there was another ancient Mayan archaeological site to visit my husband would reply by asking “where is this place of the “old folks and their rocks”? But I like to think my husband has accepted my fascination with the “ancient ones.” The fact that the “old folks” built their cities in beautiful and often remote jungle settings is part of the magic and excitement of exploring these Mayan ruins and definitely a great plus!
This post will offer a small glimpse of three of my favorite Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico: PALENQUE, UXMAL, and TULUM. There are many, many other amazing sites of the ancient world in Mexico and also in Honduras and Guatemala. However, you will have to wait and look forward to visiting these other ruins in future postings. For now if you are ready with your sun protection, your comfy trekking shoes, your bug juice, your water, and your sense of wonder and curiosity, then let’s go!
Everything about Palenque fascinates me! The jungle setting, the intricate construction and the intimate scale are truly mesmerizing. Palenque became a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE in 1987 which UNESCO has described as follows: “A prime example of a Mayan sanctuary of the classical period, Palenque was at its height between AD 500 and 700, when its influence extended throughout the basin of the Usumacinta River. The archaeological site of Palenque in the state of Chiapas is one of the most outstanding Classic period sites of the Maya area, known for its exceptional and well conserved architectural and sculptural remains. The elegance and craftsmanship of the construction, as well as the lightness of the sculpted reliefs illustrating Mayan mythology, attest to the creative genius of this civilization.”
Its numerous inscribed stone slabs, intricate bas-relief sculptures, inlaid masks and other remarkable adornments give Palenque an air of enchantment and sanctity. The 75-foot-high Temple of the Inscriptions contains one of the only crypts found inside a pyramid in Mexico. On excavation, the Tomb of Pakal, a Mayan ruler of the 7th century, revealed an array of jewels, masks, jade ornaments, wall carvings and other exquisite artifacts. Many of these treasures are found on the on-site Palenque Museum which should definitely be on your visit list!
Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments. Historians now have a long sequence of the ruling dynasty of Palenque in the 5th century and extensive knowledge of the city-state's rivalry with other states such as Calakmul and Tonina. The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pacal the Great whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions.
During the 8th century, Palenque came under increasing stress in concert with most other Classic Mayan city-states and there was no new construction in the ceremonial center after approximately 800 AD. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations and then the site was abandoned and was slowly absorbed by the forest. The area was very sparsely populated when the Spanish first arrived in the 1520's.
The archaeological site of UXMAL (pronounced “oosh-MAHL) is located 62 kilometers (approximately 38 miles) south of Merida, the capital of Yucatan, in the center of the Puuc region which is located in the south-western part of this Mexican state. The name Puuc translates to hills in Yucatec Maya and the Uxmal ruins are situated on hilly terrain. A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE since 1996, Uxmal was one of the most important Maya settlements in Yucatán and flourished during the late-Classical period.
The main ruins of Uxmal cover about 150 acres, with residential districts spreading further beyond that. Uxmal occupies a grassy region surrounded by forest and its buildings were adapted to the varied elevations of the hilly landscape. A majestic layout, spectacular jungle setting and pink-hued limestone pyramids and temples make Uxmal one of the most picturesque ancient cities in the Puuc region.
I hope I have conveyed my great appreciation of special and awe-inspiring UXMAL with this mini introduction! From here we are going to visit our third Mayan site which is located on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and which could not be more different in style or ambiance than both Palenque and Uxmal. Ready? Here we go!
Tulum (Yucatec: Tulu'um) translates from Spanish as "wall" or "palisade" which alludes to the wall that surrounds the complex. Tulum was known by the Pre-Colombian name of Zama meaning ¨place of the dawning sun.” How it got this name is obvious as this ancient Mayan city is situated on a cliff which faces east towards the rising sun and the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean. This is without doubt one of the most scenically beautiful of all Mayan archaeological sites.
The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Maya. it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish appear to have been the cause of its demise.
Both coastal and land routes converged at Tulum which is apparent by the number of artifacts found in or near the site that show contacts with areas all over Central Mexico and Central America. Copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands have been found near the site, as have flint artifacts, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from all over the Yucatan. Salt and textiles were among some of the goods brought to Tulum by sea that would then have been dispersed inland. Typical exported goods included feathers and copper objects that came from inland sources.
Jade and obsidian appear to be some of the more prestigious materials found at the Tulum site. Obsidian would have had to come from distant Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala which was nearly 700 kilometers (430 miles) away from Tulum. This huge distance, along with the amount of obsidian found at the site, illustrates that Tulum was a major center for the trade of precious goods. It also tells us that the Maya of Tulum were a seafaring culture with extensive knowledge of the Caribbean waters.
There are three major structures of interest at the Tulum site: El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God. Among the more spectacular buildings is the Temple of the Frescoes which includes a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. Niched figurines of the Maya “diving and descending god” (aka the Venus deity) also decorate the facade of the temple.
Perched atop cliffs overlooking the blue Caribbean, Tulum is a favorite among visitors to Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Iguanas bask lazily on rocks in the sun and gentle waves caress the shore. The pristine beach is so beautiful it is almost surreal. Tulum with its compact size is perfect for exploring in a few hours with the nearby beach and sea perfect for enjoying. Tulum is truly magical and a definite “must” when on the Maya Trail in Mexico!
From my computer to your device, here are a few links which I found informative, interesting, and useful:
UNESCO: PALENQUE: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/411
UNESCO: UXMAL: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/791
UNESCO LIST BY COUNTRY: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/
SACRED DESTINATIONS: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/
I remember hearing many, many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I am a believer so following is the link to my WEB ALBUM which has additional photos for this posting. And if that is not enough, I have also included below the SLIDESHOW of the web album for your immediate enjoyment.
I always look forward to hearing from my visitors. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or questions. Until next time, saludos and gracias, Laura