Just 7 km south of Kabah, the ancient Mayan city of Sayil shares a lot in common with neighboring sites in the Puuc region. The city, however, was founded in the 8th century AD – considerably later than either Uxmal or Kabah. And Sayil is also known for its unique and humongous Great Palace which remains in a great state of preservation.
Sayil is rarely visited on its own, as it’s just one site among several along the popular ‘Puuc route.’ Visitors traveling either with their own vehicle or with a tour typically visit Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna and Xlapak on the same day.
Entering the site, you’ll first encounter several stelae, which largely seem to depict local rulers. And after passing a few small mounds, you’ll soon see Sayil’s largest and more notable structure in the distance.
The massive Great Palace consists of 3 stories and 94 rooms, and it stretches out to over 70 m at its longest end.
It was mainly constructed between 800-1000 AD and could’ve likely housed up to several hundred people. But we don’t know for sure how many actually lived there.
Quite possibly, many of the rooms were instead used for administrative purposes or simply as storage. Furthermore, the bottom level was home to eight chultunes, or cisterns for holding water.
Considering how Sayil was established while nearby Uxmal and Kabah were at their zenith, you’ll notice a lot of architectural similarities, such as banded columns and stone masks depicting the rain deity Chaak.
Interestingly, Sayil is one of the few Mayan sites to feature a depiction of the ‘Descending God,’ also sometimes called the ‘Diving God.’ As you can observe above the rooms on the second floor, this mysterious deity is depicted upside down, as if diving from heaven to earth.
Some believe he may be associated with the god of bees, or possibly the maize god. But as he only appears at several other sites, his true identity remains an enigma.
Sayil is the only Puuc site to depict him, and possibly the first in the Mayan world. He’s also depicted at Cobá, Chichén Itzá and at Tulum, where he’s featured most prominently. But Tulum wouldn’t be established until centuries after Sayil’s Great Palace was built.
While the palace itself is inaccessible to visitors, you can try walking around the left side, where you’ll find additional sections, some of which remain buried beneath the jungle.
Having visited most of the accessible Mayan sites in Mexico, I can say that Sayil’s Great Palace is easily one of the most impressive Mayan structures that’s not a pyramid.
While the Great Palace is easily the star of the show, there are several other structures to seek out during your tour of the ruins. The city of Sayil was largely built along a sacbe, or raised stone causeway, that stretches out to a kilometer long.
The remaining ruins can mostly be found on either side of the sacbe, which today appears a basic forest trail.
While Sayil is not an incredibly large site, I found it useful to get around with the Maps.me app, which displays a number of alternate pathways along with some of the more distant, minor ruins.
Not far from the palace is a structure simply known as ‘2-B-5,’ which appears to be a temple or palace that’s now largely surrounded by rubble.
About 300 meters south of the Great Palace is the Mirador Temple. Representative of the Early Puuc style of architecture, it now only consists of a small temple with roof comb on top.
The structure sits atop a pile of rubble, which was apparently once an elaborate pyramidal base.
Within the temple, archaeologists have discovered traces of red, green and blue paint.
Just nearby is Sayil’s most notable attraction that’s not a building. Officially known as Stele 9, this large phallic stele was surely related to some type of fertility cult, though beyond that we know few details.
As mentioned above, most people only visit Sayil as part of larger day trip consisting of several archaeological sites. But as I was solely dedicating my outing to these ruins, I was determined to see everything I could.
While not recommended for the casual visitor or for those in a rush, the northeast part of the site is home to a largely unexcavated structure known as Temple of the Columns, or simply 2-C-4.
In order to find it, I headed back north via an alternate path to the east, and then turned right down a path taking me way east of the main causeway.
My only reward was a temple covered in thick overgrowth that was hardly visible. Deeper in the nearby jungle, meanwhile, were more signs of ruins, though everything was largely buried under dirt and plants.
Again, while not for the casual visitor, these outer, unexcavated ruins help one get a better sense of Sayil’s original size and density.
Returning to the main causeway, I headed back south, after which I took a short trail heading west. Here, about 200 m west of the Mirador Temple, lies the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Jamb.
Originally consisting of six vaulted rooms, several of them are now largely buried. Representative of Classic Puuc architecture of 800-1000 AD, its most notable feature is its door jamb inscribed with hieroglyphs.
Presumably, archaeologists would have uncover the full structure to get the gist of the message.
Returning to the main sacbe and walking all the way south, you’ll reach the aptly-titled South Group, home to the South Palace. This palace also features banded columns along its facade that are typical of Puuc architecture of the era.
But it’s considerably smaller than the Great Palace, featuring about 18 rooms spread across two levels. It’s still an impressive structure, and perhaps future excavations will reveal more of its original splendor.
While I seem to have missed it, this palace faced Sayil’s main ball court, where the highly import and ritualistic Mesoamerican ball game was played.
Finished with the South Group, it was time to walk back north up the central causeway, once again stopping to admire the Great Palace before heading for the exit.
I’d decided to reach the ruins by taxi from the town of Santa Elena, after which I’d return to the highway on foot to catch the last bus of the day back to Mérida.
I walked west for about an hour along the local road, trying to outpace the swarms of mosquitos that were following me. I eventually lost them and arrived at the intersection a bit early. Fortunately, the Mérida-bound bus arrived right on time.
Be sure to check below for details on the journey.
For those traveling independently by public transport, and assuming the Ruta Puuc weekly bus is still not running, you’ll have to visit Sayil as its own day trip.
Uxmal and Kabah can be visited together since they’re both located along the main highway. Sayil, on the other hand, is located on a separate road off the main highway. The journey from the intersection takes about an hour on foot.
With zero information online about reaching Sayil independently, I decided to wing it. I first stopped at the nearest town of Santa Elena, hoping I could rent a bicycle there. If not, I could at least hire a taxi. (Having already been to both Uxmal and Kabah, I was already aware that no taxis can be found at either site.)
Santa Elena is actually north of Kabah, but it seems to be one of the only towns in the general area. To get there, the only option was the bus most tourists take to Uxmal, which departs at 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning.
While I’d recommend the 6:00 bus for those visiting Uxmal and Kabah together, I took the 9:00 bus on this trip to Sayil. (As you should definitely visit Uxmal first before attempting this day trip, I’m assuming you’ll already be familiar with this bus and its schedule.)
Getting off in the tiny town of Santa Elena, I was disappointed, but not all that surprised, to learn that the town contains no bicycle rental shop. And so the only option was to hire a rickshaw taxi.
Also unsurprisingly, the drivers would not give me a price near what I’d hoped. In a town like Santa Elena, all the drivers know each other. And they’ll chat to each other about your situation in Mayan so you can’t eavesdrop. Needless to say, you can’t exactly ‘shop around’ here and look for a better price.
But should I have just had the bus drop me off further south near the closest intersection to Sayil and then walked? Considering how one must make it back to the highway to catch the last return bus around 14:30, taking a taxi from Santa Elena saved me time and it’s probably the best option for most.
My auto rickshaw driver was at least friendly and he confirmed where I’d have to wait to catch the bus back to Mérida. This is the same bus that departs from Uxmal at 15:00, but since Sayil is a lot further south, it will pass by the area about thirty minutes earlier.
If all that sounds like a hassle, and especially if you haven’t yet been to Uxmal and Kabah, this tour will take you to Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labna in the same day. It’s the only such tour that I was able to come across online.
But if you’re still intent on visiting independently, here are a couple of other ideas:
While, as mentioned, the town of Santa Elena lacks a bicycle rental shop, you can rent a motorbike. But be sure to have all the proper licenses and paperwork, as there’s a large police checkpoint right by the turn to get to Sayil. (You won’t have to pass through it, but the police will have a clear view of you nonetheless.)
Another option would be to book an Airbnb in Santa Elena that has a bicycle to lend you (ask them before booking). While you still might want to divide all the Puuc ruins up over a couple of days, visiting them all by bicycle sounds like a fun adventure that beats dealing with the inconvenient bus schedule from Mérida.
I’ve just outlined the process of visiting Sayil independently from Mérida. But you may still be wondering if Sayil is worth all the hassle.
It depends. The main site to visit in this region is Uxmal. And as already mentioned, for those traveling by bus, Uxmal and Kabah, which are both along the main highway, can be visited together on the same day.
There are also several other archaeological sites that make for easier day trips from Mérida. Oxkintok is the most essential after Uxmal, while Mayapán and Izamal are awesome sites with frequent transport connections.
So as impressive as Sayil’s Great Palace is, getting there via public transport (plus taxi and a long walk) is a lot of work considering how there’s really only one noteworthy structure there. Therefore, I’d say visiting Sayil as its own day trip is only for the true Mayan ruins enthusiast. As a ruins enthusiast myself, I have no regrets about visiting Sayil even if it was more complicated that I’d have liked.