The Mayan ruins of Uxmal showcase the best of Puuc-style architecture


Uxmal, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is one of the most beautiful ancient Mayan ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula. Located about 80 kilometers from Mérida, the ancient city is part of the Ruta Puuc travel itinerary – which covers several archaeological sites, cenotes and other attractions.

The city’s name, pronounced “oosh-mal”, means “three times built”, which, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH), could refer to the successive occupations of the site. The name also translates to “the bountifully harvested place”.

Archaeologists estimate that the Mayans occupied Uxmal as early as 500 BC. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Uxmal became a political and economic seat of power in the Puuc region, a region in the northwest of the Yucatán peninsula.

The maximum population of the city is estimated at around 30,000 inhabitants. In particular, an 18-kilometer Mayan white road connects Uxmal to the Mayan site of Kabah, further south.

Uxmal was taken over by the Mayan city clan of Chichén Itzá in the late 9th century, and the city’s decline began around AD 900. It was finally abandoned around the 12th century.

Mayan tradition says that the House of the Magician was completed overnight using magic in response to a challenge from one of the rulers of Uxmal.

The architecture here is considered to be one of the best examples of the Puuc style. You can observe rich decorative elements on the structures, including gods, human figures and animals. According to INAH, some of Uxmal’s phallic decorations were removed from structures before Empress Carlota of Mexico visited the site in 1865 to avoid disturbing her.

During our recent visit to Uxmal, many structures that we had been able to access during a previous visit, as well as certain areas of the site, were cordoned off to visitors.

Upon entering the site, you will pass a chultun – an underground rainwater storage tank. Due to water shortages in the area, the ancient Mayans built a complex system to collect and use the rain.

Near the entrance is the magnificent 35-meter-high pyramid called the Magician’s House, also known as the Dwarf Pyramid and the Diviner’s Pyramid.

Legend has it that this pyramid, with its interesting cone-shaped shape and two facades facing east and west, was magically built overnight in response to a challenge from the ruler of Uxmal. It was said that the builder was a dwarf who was the son of a witch and born from a turtle egg.

However, contrary to legend, archaeologists have identified five phases of construction and several architectural styles within the House of the Magician. It is made up of five temples built at different times.

Mayan Ball Game Ring
A goal ring for the Mayan ball game played in a court commissioned by Lord Chac. drop photos

The western staircase of the pyramid is lined with long-nosed masks believed to belong to the god Chaac. An upper area called Temple IV has a mask of the land monster on its facade. Its open jaws create the entrance.

Near the Magician’s House is a square with four palace-like structures called the Quadrangle of the Birds. One building has a frieze with patterns resembling a roof of feathers or palm leaves and sculptures of birds. This group of buildings has been identified as the residence of the ruler of Uxmal, Lord Chac.

Next to the Quadrangle of the Birds is a large palace complex with four structures located around a courtyard called the Quadrangle of the Nuns – named by the Spanish priest Diego López de Cogolludo. The Spaniards believed that Mayan priestesses resided in these chambers.

The vault covers uncovered in the buildings have partial dates corresponding to the time of Lord Chac reign, according to the INAH.

Although these buildings are called palaces, it is believed that this complex served administrative and non-residential purposes.

The main access to the Quadrangle des Sœurs is through a beautiful vault on the south building. The facade designs are linked to deities and cosmogenic concepts believed to inspire an intense sense of fertility. There are many decorative elements on the facades of buildings, including masks of the god Chaac, symbols of the planet Venus, two-headed snakes, human figures and houses. Tláloc, the ancient rain god of central Mexico, is also depicted here.

Ruins of Uxmal, Governor's Palace
The Governor’s Palace is positioned to follow the movements and variations of the celestial bodies.

The North Building, a 26-room structure built on a 100-meter-long platform, is said to be the largest because of its platform that is taller than the others. The building has a wide staircase in front with two temples on either side.

The other three buildings in the quadrilateral also have many rooms and beautiful decorative elements that are worth seeing. The view from the arch of the south building is breathtaking.

To the south of the Quadrangle des SÅ“urs is the ball field, with two parallel structures and a playing area. Lord Chac is believed to have ordered the construction of the ball field, and INAH says the rings have inscriptions dating back to 905 AD.

Near the ball field, the eastern portico, with a row of columns, is said to have been the place where rituals and ceremonies took place before the ball games. Other speculated uses for the building include housing players and storing their protective gear.

Towards the south of the site, on a large platform, is a spectacular 98-meter-long rectangular building called the Governor’s Palace, also built during the reign of Lord Chac. Considered a royal residence and the main administrative center of the city, it is an extraordinary architectural creation with much for the visitor to observe. It is also positioned to follow the movements of the planet Venus as well as the maximum solar declensions that define the solstices.

A large staircase provides access to it and it has three sections separated by high vaults. The facade of the building is richly decorated and includes representations of rulers and Chaac masks.

The structure of the dovecote in Uxmal, Yucatan
The structure of the Uxmal dovecote has an impressive roof comb. drop photos

In front of the Governor’s Palace is the Jaguar Throne. Located on a small platform, it is a throne made up of a sculpture of a two-headed Jaguar.

Next to the Governor’s Palace is another interesting structure called the Turtle House. This building, with multiple entrances, has rooms with stools where the occupants could sit or lie down. The top of the facade is decorated with columns and features a cornice with carvings of turtles. Turtles were important animals associated with rain and soil. The views of the site from this area are magnificent.

The next notable building in this section is the Great Pyramid, measuring around 30 meters in height. It has a wide staircase and at its top is a platform with a crowning structure called the temple of macaws because of the macaw figures on its facade.

To the west of the site is a partially preserved building called the Pigeonnier with a beautiful comb roof. Unfortunately, this area was completely cordoned off during our recent visit.

There are several other structures to see on the site. After your exploration is over, visit the nearby Choco-Story Ecopark Chocolate Museum to learn about the history of cocoa, a Mayan ceremony to the rain god Chaac, and other park activities.

Thilini Wijesinhe, a finance professional turned writer and entrepreneur, moved to Mexico in 2019 from Australia. She writes from Mérida, Yucatán. His website can be found at https://momentsing.com/

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