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Uxmal: Thrice-Built Home of the Dwarf King

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An expansive city with soaring buildings that have somehow retained much of their detail, Uxmal is among the most important Maya archaeological sites. It’s about an hour south of Mérida in the Puuc Valley, and we showed up early in the morning after spending the night in nearby Santa Elena.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Uxmal, which means “Built Three Times”, was at its most powerful between AD 875 and 900. When the Spanish arrived the Maya who were still living among the ruins shared the story of their city’s creation. Of course, just because it came straight from the mouths of the Maya, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should trust it…

According to the legend, Uxmal was ruled by a magic dwarf from nearby Kabah. The dwarf’s mother was a witch who managed to goad the king of Uxmal into a contest against her son. The king challenged the little man with a series of tasks; the final one being to build, in a single day, a structure taller than any other in the city.

When the king awoke the next morning and found a towering pyramid outside his door, he was forced to abdicate, and the dwarf ruled the city for the rest of his days. Today, the stunning Pyramid of the Magician is the first structure you see when entering Uxmal. This five-story temple is notable for its steep incline and elliptical base.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Just past the pyramid is a set of buildings arranged around a spacious courtyard. This is the Nunnery Quadrangle: the central gathering place of the ancient city. Surrounded by buildings boasting exquisite sculpted motifs of snakes, Maya thatch-roofed houses and the Rain Gods of both the Maya (Chaac) and Aztecs (Tlaloc), the plaza is gorgeous. Its current name was provided by the Spanish. Nunneries, it scarcely needs said, were not a concept which existed among the Maya.

Other highlights include the reconstructed ball court, where the sacred Maya game would be played before ritual sacrifices. The House of the Turtles, a pleasingly simple house with a frieze full of turtles. The House of the Doves. The Great Pyramid. The House of the Witch. And of course, the Palace of the Governor, set atop a hill, whose intricately detailed facade is the longest anywhere in Maya architecture.

Our strategy to arrive as early as possible at the gates of Uxmal paid off handsomely. Just an hour south of Mérida, it’s a popular site with tour groups, but these tend to arrive around 11am. So it wasn’t until the end of our three-hour visit that the site was swarming with other tourists. And by then we didn’t mind. We were on top of the Great Pyramid, looking down on Uxmal as though we were the Dwarf Kings and the people below, our subjects. Just for fun, I picked one out for sacrifice: a strapping lad of twenty, with a strong and healthy heart. Almighty Chaac would be pleased!

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Neat Cabañas Where We Stayed in Santa Elena

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January 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm Comments (4)

Kabah and the Codz Poop

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Kabah was the fourth archaeological site we visited on a very long day dedicated to the Maya ruins of the Ruta Puuc. Our energy might have been low upon arriving, but it’s hard to feel listless in the presence of a building like the Codz Poop.

Kabah and the Codz Poop

Covered from top to bottom in a mesmerizing pattern of masks of the rain god Chaac, the Codz Poop was most likely used as a ceremonial temple. Its name might inspire juvenile laughs, but translates to the rather unfunny phrase “Rolled Mats”, which refers to the visual effect produced by the repeating masks. This repetition of a single decorative element is unique, and found at no other Maya site.

Kabah lies between Sayil and Uxmal, and was contemporary to both, but there is still academic debate about whether it was a satellite city of one of these bigger sites, or a powerhouse in its own right. In fact, there’s a whole lot left to be learned about Kabah. Today, you can visit the Codz Poop and a few other buildings, but the vast majority is yet to be excavated. That includes a massive pyramid laying just off the road, completely covered by overgrowth.

What mysteries are waiting to be discovered in the pyramid? What treasures? And the biggest question: how have professionals been able to resist digging for long? I’m seriously considering buying a shovel, and returning to Kabah myself.

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Kabah and the Codz Poop
Kabah and the Codz Poop
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January 2, 2014 at 12:40 am Comments (2)

Sayil

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The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán’s Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.

Sayil Maya Ruin

Sayil rose to prominence between AD 800 and 1000, toward the end of the florescence of Maya culture. The city was completely desolate by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, but recent excavations suggest that at one time up to 10,000 people lived here.

Before our move to the Yucatán, I had never given much thought to the complexities of the Maya. I suppose I had just considered them to be a single powerful kingdom that eventually collapsed. But this is so far from the case that it’s laughable. At best, the term “Maya” is extremely vague. It refers to a people who shared a counting system and certain cultural aspects, but were never unified. The Maya consisted of innumerable kingdoms, each with its own history and identity, and over twenty completely different languages. The biggest enemy of Copan was Kalakmul, for example; two totally distinct, warring empires we now refer to under the blanket term “Maya”.

I tried to keep this in mind while visiting Sayil. Here was a major city of the Terminal Classic era, which ascended only after the collapse of the grand civilizations of the southern highlands. The people who lived here traded with Uxmal, spoke Yucatec Mayan, and were as far away in time from the pre-Classic Maya of Guatemala, as we are today from Sayil.

The most imposing structure is found right at the entrance: the Great Palace, boasting three stories and nearly a hundred rooms. Unlike the compact site of Labná, Sayil is an expansive place, stretched out on a long, straight sacbé, or road, which leads into the woods. Eventually, we reached a flat structure called The Mirador and, farther down the path, we found a strange phallic statue.

Sayil was our third set of ruins in a single day and we were starting to feel a little fatigued by the time we finished here. But there was no opportunity for rest; the hour was growing late, and the nearby site of Kabah still remained on our list…

Location on our Map

Great Hotels In The Yucatan

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December 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)

The Eco-Museum of Cacao

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We weren’t sure what to expect from the Eco-Museum of Cacao, found between the archaeological sites of Labná and Xlapak. Apart from a flier we’d picked up in a tourism office, we hadn’t read a thing about it, and that’s usually a bad sign. But the museum turned out to be excellent, with nicely-presented information, a chocolate-making demonstration, animals and even a re-creation of an ancient Maya rain ritual.

The Eco-Museum of Cocoa

In a world of Hershey’s and fine Belgian pralines, it’s hard to remember that the West didn’t even know about chocolate until the conquest of the Americas. When Christopher Columbus first encountered American natives, cacao beans were among the treasures he received as a gift. Ignorant to the magic contained within, he disregarded them completely. But the Europeans would learn and eventually come to consider themselves masters of a plant that won’t even grow in their land. And here come the patents and the factories and the Cadbury and the Nestlé, and everyone’s getting rich… except, of course, the Maya.

The word “chocolate” comes straight from the Mayan “Xoko-atl”, or “hot water”. In the Yucatán, it has always been a highly-venerated luxury, considered the food of the gods. The beans were even traded as currency; 100 could buy you a slave. The Yucatecan Maya were the first to develop cacao plantations, and consume their chocolate as a drink. After roasting and grinding the beans, the powder was brought to bubble over fire and then made frothy by either blowing into it or stirring it violently.

The Eco-Museum, located on the grounds of the working still-operating Tikal Cacao Plantation, presents this information in a series of lovely thatch-roofed huts that lead into the jungle. Midway through, we had a chance to see a Maya ritual to honor the rain god. It began with just a single man blowing into a conch shell. These noises were echoed from the woods surrounding us, and soon five other musicians emerged from the trees to join their leader at the altar. Their ensuing performance was bizarre and riveting.

In the final hut, we got to see how the Maya prepared their favorite drink, and then sample it. It was a great conclusion to a museum we really loved. A definite highlight of our trip along the Ruta Puuc.

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Eco-Museo del Cacao –

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The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
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December 27, 2013 at 12:42 am Comments (0)
Uxmal: Thrice-Built Home of the Dwarf King An expansive city with soaring buildings that have somehow retained much of their detail, Uxmal is among the most important Maya archaeological sites. It's about an hour south of Mérida in the Puuc Valley, and we showed up early in the morning after spending the night in nearby Santa Elena.
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