The Mayan empire started to rise around 250 CE, building up vast cities which stretched along the Yucatan peninsula and into modern day Guatemala. From 900 to 1519, Yucatan was the main center of the empire, flourishing until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. As the empire fell, their cities were left behind to be consumed by the jungles, only to be unearthed in our modern era. Today, we have the opportunity to explore some of these sites and learn about the enriching history and cultures of the region.
Temple of Kulkulkan, Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is the most famous of all the Mayan archaeological zones in Yucatan. In fact, Chichen Itza is the most visited site in all of Mexico. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chichen Itza is also considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The site is located about 90 minutes driving time from Merida, however it is best enjoyed with a stop in Piste, the closest town and/or Valladolid in order to maximize the time available to explore this massive and crowded site. The pyramid of Kukulkan, The Thousand Column Plaza and The Temple of the Warriors are the most notable structures. The most popular times to visit this site is during the spring and autumn equinoxes when the ancient Mayans intuitions are best seen as Kulkulkan is perfectly lit up for his descent down the stairs. Purchasing souvenirs is easy with the numerous vendors located around the grounds, often times overwhelmingly so. The entrance fee for this site was the most expensive at 650 pesos as a foreigner, as expected due to its popularity.
Mayapan is the lesser known of the ancient Mayan cities in Yucatan which we can visit today. Its small size is not indicative to the importance it held at the height of it's dominance in the region from 1200 to 1450 at which time the city served at the primary governmental and cultural hub. The site is very accessible from Merida as it is located about 30 miles to the southeast of the city. The entrance fee for foreigners is less than 100 pesos making it a very affordable stop during a day trip outside of the city. One main difference with Mayapan is that of the three discussed here, Mayapan is the only site which allows visitors to climb upon the structures. The main landmark is the Temple of Kulkulkan with numerous other buildings around the site.
Temple of Kulkulkan, Mayapan
Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal
Upon your entry to this UNESCO World Heritage site, you will be greeted immediately by the Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal is a very large site with many structures to explore. After enjoying the awe of the pyramid, the path with lead you to the Nunnery Quadrangle followed by a stroll through the center of the field where the Mayans once played their now well-known ball game. Climbing the stairs around the corner will bring you face to face with the Governor's Palace and sweeping scenery of the site, including a gorgeous view of the Pyramid. Uxmal is notable for its Pucc style constructions, which featured smooth walls derived from the local limestone as a predecessor to concrete, and masks paying homage to the Rain God, Chaac. Located across the street from Uxmal, you will also find ChocoStory to complete the visit. Not only can you learn about the cultivation and history of chocolate, but local wildlife is also on display. ChocoStory is a separate ticket, not included in the 550 pesos entrance fee for foreigners to visit Uxmal.
While Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan are the most well-known sites, there are other notable archaeological sites located throughout the rest of the state, such as Ek Balam, Dzibilchaltún and various modern-day cities built upon former ruins such as Izamal, Motul and the state capital, Merida. While visiting any of these locations, it is best to bring a water bottle, sunscreen, a hat and wear light clothing with comfortable shoes. I would also recommend starting off a visit earlier in the day before the heat of the sun or showers of rainy season flare up in the afternoon. The climate in Yucatan can be unrelenting and the archaeological sites provide very little shade.
Kulkulkan was an important deity for the Mayans, seen here with the temple at Chichen Itza behind
As beautiful and interesting as Chichen Itza is, it is also difficult to recommend as a must-see destination due to the crowds and unrelenting vendors which make the experience difficult to fully enjoy. Uxmal was a better experience, however during my visit much of the site was closed off. I am unsure if this is the norm or only due to the pandemic, however. Of the three sites, Mayapan was my favorite by far. When I visited, there were only two other groups present and most of the time it felt as if we had the entire city to ourselves to explore. Being able to climb to the top of the temple also provided for an amazing vista of the entire site and the surrounding area which is unforgettable. When planning a visit to Yucatan, Mexico, be sure to include a day or two to visit these amazing pieces of history. Regardless which site you do visit, you will certainly enjoy the glimpse into the past.