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.