About 80km south of Mérida in the Puuc hills lies a group of important archeological sites, well restored and many of them uncrowded with visitors. The chief attraction on the so-called Ruta Puuc is Uxmal, second only to Chichén Itzá in tourist appeal as well as size and historical significance, though greater in the beauty and harmony of its unique architectural style. Hwy-261 carries on from Uxmal to the lesser site of Kabáh; shortly after that, bearing east on a smaller side road, you pass Sayil and Labná. From Labná you can continue to the farming town of Oxkutzcab, on the road between Muna and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and head back to Mérida via Ticul and Muna. Or you can follow another scenic route, the Ruta de Conventos, north to Maní and its Franciscan monastery then past other fortified churches and the Maya ruins of Mayapán.
The distinctive Puuc sites clearly evolved from themes in the Río Bec and Chenes regions: you’ll see the same gaping monster mouths and facades decorated in mosaic-like Xs and checkerboards. In both cases, though, the techniques reflect a new strategy of mass production – the mask-covered front of the Codz Poop at Kabáh, for instance, is dotted with hundreds of consistently round carved eyes that form both a regular decorative pattern and individual images of the rain god Chac. A new core-and-veneer style of construction, rather than stone blocks stacked with mortar, yielded sounder buildings with a smoother appearance, which is highlighted by the tendency to leave the lower registers of buildings unadorned. However, though related architecturally, each site is actually quite distinct from the others.
Meaning “thrice-built”, the UNESCO world heritage site of Uxmal (pronounced OOSH-mal) represents the finest achievement of the Puuc-region Maya culture before it fell into its ultimate decline near 1000 AD. Its spectacular buildings are encrusted all over with elaborate, and sometimes grisly, decoration. It’s potentially more rewarding than a visit to Chichén Itzá, as the crowds are (somewhat) smaller, the decorative detail is fascinating, and you can still climb one of the pyramids. Try to arrive close to opening time (the drive from Mérida takes about an hour); you can see the major buildings in a couple of hours and leave before the buses start arriving.
As in all Maya sites in the Yucatán, the face of Chac, the rain god, is everywhere. Chac must have been more crucial in this region than almost anywhere, for Uxmal and the other Puuc sites have no cenotes or other natural sources of water, relying instead on chultunob, jug-shaped underground cisterns, to collect and store rainwater (most have been filled in, to prevent mosquitoes breeding, but Kabáh has an extant one).
Little is known of the city’s history, but the chief monuments, which marked its peaks of power and population, were erected around 900 AD. Sometime after that, the city began to decline, and by 1200 Uxmal and the other Puuc sites, together with Chichén Itzá, were all but abandoned. The reasons are unknown, although political infighting, ecological problems and loss of trade with Tula, near Mexico City, may have played a part. Later, the Xiu dynasty settled at Uxmal, making it one of the central pillars of the League of Mayapán, but a rebellion in 1441 overthrew that alliance and put an end to centralized Maya authority over the Yucatán.