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Uxmal Yucatan

Uxmal: Queen of the Puuc

The first building youíll see as you enter this fabulous archaeological site is la Casa del Adivino (House of the Magician; AKA Pyramid or Temple of the Magician). The name of Uxmalís unusual and iconic structure derives from the story of its construction by an alux, or magical, dwarflike creature. Lovely and harmonious, the elliptical temple mound is adorned on the west side with finely carved masks of the rain god Chac.

Heading to the right from the 35-meter (115-foot) tall Casa del Adivino, el CuadrŠngulo de las Monjas (Nunnery Quadrangle) is another outstanding example of classical Maya architecture. Four impressive stone buildings face a grassy plaza. These structures are decorated with some of the most exquisite examples of veneer mosaics in the Maya world, owing in part to the high-quality limestone of the area. Adorning the upper portion of their facades, amid complex fretwork designs, are figures of snakes and owls, human beings, monkeys, birds, and the inevitable Chac masks, proof of the importance of the rain god in this region of often insufficient rainfall. On the buildingís south and west sides, representation of thatch huts alternate with Chac images. Iguanas bask in the central plaza or clamber up onto walls where rule-abiding humans fear to tread.

Leaving the Nunís Complex, youíll walk through el Juego de Pelota, or ball court, where one of the rings through which players had to pass the ball is perfectly intact. The lower walls are decorated with feathered serpents, the deity Quetzalcoatl.

Declared a World Heritage Site in 1996, Uxmal is perhaps the most beautiful of Mexicoís rejuvenated Maya cities, and the most representative of the regionís Puuc architectural style. In addition to the multitude of hook-nosed Chac masks on friezes and facing out from the corners of buildings, Puuc style elements include the presence of Maya arches and ornately carved friezes of veneer masonry.

On a huge raised platform, the magnificent Palacio del Gobernador (Governorís Palace) is considered the most representative example of Late Classic (AD 600-900) Puuc architecture. Religious and civic ceremonies were conducted within its 24 rooms. Visitors at this point can still climb to the top of the structure for excellent views. (Compared to Tulum and Chichen Itza, this site near the Campeche border receives far fewer visitors; another reason a visit here is so enjoyable.)

To deal with the areaís relatively scant rainfall, the Maya invented chultunes, underground water tanks that were part of a hydraulic system for collecting and distributing precious water. More than a hundred of these cisterns are found in the central part of the ancient city alone; each held between 20 and 35 thousand liters of water. Archaeologists have determined that, unlike cities to the north and south, the Puuc region was unable to grow and prosper until engineers invented the chultķn.

Uxmal was most likely the headquarters of the region, which enjoyed a period of uncharacteristic cooperation in the Late Classic period after Maya cities like Tikal, to the south, had been abandoned. By the beginning of the 13th century, however, Uxmal followed their fate. Among the reasons for its demise, experts consider overpopulation and depletion of resources, but itís still speculation.

The adventurers John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood began exploring here in 1840, and the latter produced many drawings and engravings. Reproductions can be purchased in Uxmalís excellent site museum. Other famous visitors over the centuries have included the Empress Carlota (wife of Maximilian von Habsburg, who ruled Mexico briefly in the mid-19th century), Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Rainier of Monaco.

A light-and-sound show begins in the evening around dusk. The narration is a bit hokey, but itís wonderful to enjoy the colored lights playing up the beautiful structures in the deepening darkness. You can purchase admission along with your original ticket to visit the archaeological site, or separately. Those staying for the light and sound show may enjoy the lovely---if pricey, by some standards---lodgings in the immediate vicinity: the Lodge at Uxmal and Hacienda Uxmal. Otherwise, the closest hotels are in Santa Elena.

See the Uxmal Travel Guide for information about visiting the site, as well as our Southern Yucatan article and Travel Guide for more information about traveling in this region and seeing the other archaeological sites.

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