Wednesday, April 27, 2016


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!

                                    PALENQUE, CHIAPAS, MEXICO

The Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque is stunning!

PALENQUE (Yucatec Maya: Bàak' was a Maya-city-state that flourished in the 7th century in what is now the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. The Palenque ruins date back to 226 BC to approximately 799 AD. After its decline, it was absorbed into the surrounding dense jungle. Palenque is a medium-sized site, much smaller than the huge Mayan sites such as Tikal in Guatemala, Chichen Itza in Mexico, or Copan in Honduras, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and carvings that the Maya ever created.

                         And the carvings at Palenque are incredible!

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.”

        The Mayan really knew how to build a pyramid even in the jungle.

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!

                       Pretty scary looking gods!

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.

                     The Palace complex is where King Pacal called home. 

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.

          Palenque with its spectacular setting and fabulous ruins is fantastico!

However, at its zenith, Palenque was a sprawling religious center that spanned nearly 25 square miles. Only approximately one square mile (2.5 km) has been excavated revealing what many consider to be the architectural apex of western Mayan civilization. It is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city has been explored leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle. How astounding! The knowledge that there's so much yet to be excavated at Palenque is definitely part of the site's alluring charm and mystique to me!

                 Some of the Mayan leaders and gods to be found at Palenque.

                                UXMAL, YUCATAN, MEXICO

                The Temple of the Magician rises out of the jungle in Uxmal.

Whereas PALENQUE is intimate, exotic, and intriguing to me, I find UXMAL to have a sense of strength, grandeur, and spaciousness which are inspiring. The contrast of their natural settings, with Palenque in the deep jungle and Uxmal in the rolling jungle-covered hills of the Puuc region of Yucatan, is wonderful. It makes me wonder how the Maya of the many diverse regions of this culture felt when visiting and paying homage at these grand centers of their civilization. Maybe they responded the same way I feel. I like to think so. So let’s get to know a bit about Uxmal.

                       The architectural detail at Uxmal is astounding!

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.

                    It would appear the ancient Maya had no fear of heights!

Uxmal was founded about 700 AD and the layout of the buildings dates it until about 900 AD. It had some 25,000 inhabitants. This was not a small pueblo by any means! Its layout also reveals knowledge of astronomy. The term Puuc is also used to designate the architectural style of ancient Maya sites located within the Puuc hills. This style reached its zenith during the Terminal Classic Period which was between 800 and 900 AD.

                      The stone detail and carving at Uxmal.

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.

       More of the amazing stone detail as seen in the structures at Uxmal. 

In the Puuc architecture buildings were decorated with carefully cut veneer stones set into a concrete core. This was an improvement over the previous method of using stones piled on top of each other and held together with plaster for the core. This advanced construction method allowed for slightly larger and more stable interior rooms and may account for the excellent condition of many of the thousand-year-old buildings at Uxmal. Puuc architecture has several predominant features, most notably constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. Carvings most commonly found include serpents, lattice work and masks of Chaac, the rain god. Note: CHAAC (also spelled Chac) is the name of the Maya rain deity.

         The grandeur of the pyramids makes one feel quite insignificant! 

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, QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO

             Tulum's location on the Caribbean is without compare!  

Our last stop on this mini exploration of my favorite Mayan sites in Mexico is TULUM. Why Tulum, do you ask? Well, the short answer is because of its unique and spectacular location overlooking the stunning blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the eastern coast of Mexico. I know of no other archaeological ruin of this nature (or actually any nature!) which commands the most amazing view of what is one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Latin America. So let’s visit TULUM!

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.

         A visit to Tulum is a great way to appreciate the variety of Mayan sites!

Tulum was a city of importance with an estimated population of 1,000-1,600 inhabitants. At first glimpse one might mistake Tulum for an ancient country club with its beautiful grass grounds and sweeping views of the sea. If one delves deeper, however, this illusion is disturbed by the presence of a large wall that surrounds the site which speaks of the need for defense against invaders from both land and the sea. Tulum is also the Yucatan Mayan word for fence, wall, or trench, and the walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to be defended against invasions. Tulum had access to both land and sea trade routes which made it an important trade hub.

        What's not to like about exploring ruins under a Caribbean sky!

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.

                My husband would say this is some serious "old folk stones"!

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.

                   It's always fun to explore archaeological Mayan ruins!

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.

This “diving god” is also depicted in the Temple of the Descending God in the central area of the site. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved which gives the temple its name. 

El Castillo (the castle) was not an actual castle, but a place where the Maya chief/leader would make pronouncements and perform sacred rituals (often sacrificial!) in order to keep the Mayan gods happy. El Castillo also functioned as a lighted beacon to its seafaring canoes when they were returning from trading expeditions.

                                   A breezy day awaiting you at Tulum!

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!

                                      Sending love from Tulum!                                 

After this brief introduction to these three very special, but very different and unique Mayan archaeological sites, possibly you can understand their appeal to me. I hope you have enjoyed your visit to “the old folks and their stone remains” at PALENQUE, UXMAL, and TULUM. Until next time, please enjoy the following SLIDESHOW and PHOTO ALBUM.

From my computer to your device, here are a few links which I found informative, interesting, and useful:


PLEASE NOTE: I have included photographs of beautiful AGUA AZUL (BLUE WATER) in my Web Album for this posting. Why, you ask? Because Agua Azul is one of the most beautiful natural areas in the state of Chiapas and a convenient excursion when visiting the Mayan ruins of Palenque. So there you are! Here's a link to check out:

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

                                     Memories are just a click away!

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