About 80km south of Mérida in the Puuc hills lies a group of important and well-restored archeological sites, linked along a road commonly called the Ruta Puuc. The chief attraction is Uxmal, second only to Chichén Itzá in tourist appeal as well as in its size and historical significance. From Uxmal, Hwy-261 continues on 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.

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. A new core-and-veneer style of construction, rather than stone blocks stacked with mortar, yielded sounder buildings with a smoother appearance.

Uxmal

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 can be a bit lighter, the decorative detail is fascinating, and you can still climb one of the pyramids. If you 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 rolling in. There’s a pay car park at the entrance to the site, where the visitor centre includes a small museum, bookshop with guides to the site, crafts store, snack bar and ATM.

The main restored buildings are set out on a roughly north-south axis in a large cleared site; the alignment of individual buildings often has astrological significance, usually connected with Venus or the sun. 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).

Brief history

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. 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 1441 rebellion put an end to centralized Maya authority.