Visiting Uxmal: The Pyramids in the Heart of Puuc

Last Updated on: 5th May 2024, 10:11 pm

Located 62 km south of Mérida, Uxmal is one of Mexico’s most outstanding archaeological sites. Not only are its structures monumental in scale, but many are adorned with some of the most beautiful stone friezes of the Mayan world. And with fewer visitors than Chichén Itzá, visiting Uxmal is a must if you’re hoping to have some top-class ruins all to yourself.

The Uxmal ruins feature one of the shining examples of the Puuc style of architecture, named after the Puuc hills in this part of Yucatán state. The style developed around 600 AD but reached its peak between 770 and 950 – when many of Uxmal’s most impressive structures were built.

The style is known for its geometric patterns placed on building facades, oftentimes resembling a woven mat. Puuc architects also utilized painted stucco figures, especially of the long-snouted rain god and sometimes the creator god Itzamna. Colonnades were a common feature of Puuc cities as well.

But while its beauty is undeniable, not that much is known about Uxmal historically. The city was first settled around 500 BC and then wouldn’t reach its zenith until around 800-1100 AD. During this time it was the most powerful city-state of the entire Puuc region. 

The only ruler archaeologists have been able to identify is Lord Chaak (r. c. 890-910 AD) who’s credited with commissioning Uxmal’s most prominent buildings.

*This article was updated in 2024 following the reopening of new areas in late 2023.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Uxmal Visiting Tips

As with many popular archaeological sites, you’ll want to arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds. Uxmal opens from 8:00 in the morning. But for those coming by bus from Mérida, you only have two options for departure: 6:00 and 9:00! (It’s still unclear if the new Tren Maya will eventually provide direct access to Uxmal.)

As difficult as it may be to wake up in time to catch the 6:00 bus, this is the only way to have the ruins to yourself (unless you have your own car, of course). A large majority of tourists take the 9:00 bus and things get packed by the time they arrive at 10:00.

The bus is managed by a company called Sur, but nevertheless departs from the main ADO terminal in Mérida’s historical center.

Whichever bus you take in the morning, you’ll have to wait all the way until 15:00 in the afternoon for the return bus, unless you’re willing to hitchhike. To pass the time, you have a couple of options. Nearby Uxmal is a popular museum called Choco-Story, which details the history of chocolate in the region.

But ruins lovers shouldn’t miss the chance to visit some of the other nearby ruins of the Puuc region, which include Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná (most are currently only accessible by private vehicle or tour).

Uxmal Map
The accessible portion of Uxmal as of 2022 - As of 2023, Grupo El Palomar has since reopened

Luckily, it’s possible to visit both Uxmal and Kabah on the same day via public transport. Finished with Uxmal, a bus headed further south should pass the ruins at 10:00 or 10:30 (you can confirm this with the staff), and it can drop you off at Kabah. Returning to Mérida, you can wait by the road for the afternoon bus.

Before the pandemic, there used to be a special bus departing from Mérida on Sundays which stopped at all the Puuc sites including Uxmal, though it doesn’t seem to be coming back.

Unfortunately, along with Chichén Itzá, Uxmal is one of the most expensive sites in the country for nonresident foreigners to visit. While you’ll have to pay separate fees to a few different agencies, it all adds up to a whopping $500 MXN!

The Pyramid of the Magician

The first thing you’ll encounter upon visiting Uxmal is what’s left of a chultun, or ancient water storage tank that the Mayans used to collect rainwater. With few natural sources of fresh water in these parts, rain was a big deal, and it’s no surprise that the rain god was such a major deity in the Mayan pantheon.

Straight ahead, you’ll come face to face with one of the most impressive and unique pyramids of the Mayan world: the Pyramid of the Magician.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Along with Chichén Itzá’s El Castillo, this is probably the most iconic pyramid of the Yucatán Peninsula. But the two structures are nothing alike, as this one has an elliptical base.

Standing at 37 m high, it was built in five different construction phases, likely extending from the 6th-10th centuries. Built along three tiers, it features multiple temples at the top. But while visitors could once climb all the way up, this is no longer the case.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

One of the most interesting aspects of the pyramid is the ancient legend of how it came to be. According to a story told to archaeologist John Lloyd Stevens in the 19th century, there was once a dwarf who hatched out of an egg belonging to an old woman. 

Later on, the king of Uxmal challenged this dwarf to build a pyramid in a single night. Miraculously, the dwarf was successful and was soon crowned the new king of the city.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Some of the ruined structures at the pyramid's base

There’s yet another version of the tale which contains even more detail. In this one, the dwarf was living in nearby Kabah. And at the time, a legend prophesied that whoever stole a particular magical drum would become king of Uxmal.

The dwarf did so, which understandably made the reigning king very nervous.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

And so the king challenged the dwarf to a contest: Whoever could break four baskets of a hard fruit called cocoyol over their head would become the new king. 

Before the contest, the dwarf and his grandmother secretly placed a hard plate on his head. As a result, the dwarf survived the ordeal while the king ended up fracturing his skull and dying. The dwarf then supposedly built the pyramid for himself and what we now call the Governor’s Palace for his grandmother.

Dwarves are a common theme in Mayan art and there are many Mayan tales involving them. While we don’t know for sure, this particular legend likely originates from well after Uxmal’s decline.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The best view of the pyramid’s upper temples can be seen from the small quadrangle to its west. While closed during my initial visit in 2022, the space, known as the Quadrangle of the Birds, finally reopened in 2023.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Interestingly, the temples on the pyramid represent both the Puuc style of Mayan architecture as well as the Chenes style, which originated further south in what’s now the state of Campeche. 

Notice how the main facade features the large face of the Mayan earth monster, as can be seen at numerous Campeche ruins

The Nunnery Quadrangle

As you make your way along the predetermined route (see map above), you’ll first see some beautiful three-dimensional reliefs of the rain god atop a building known as the ‘North Long Building.’ This is only a preview of the ornate Puuc-style art you’ll see throughout the next major landmark, the Nunnery Quadrangle.

This stunning complex is believed to have been built in the late 9th and early 10th century AD during the reign of Lord Chaak.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Entered via a gap between the buildings in the east, you’ll find yourself standing amidst four similar yet distinct long buildings. As you’ll notice, each was built at a different level, while they all have a different number of doorways.

And while the quadrangle appears as a perfect rectangle, it’s actually slightly skewed. This was done to keep the space aligned with Venus on certain dates. Numerous buildings at Uxmal, in fact, were built in alignment with the ‘morning star.’

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

This area’s current name was given to it by the Spanish, as they believed it resembled lodgings for nuns. But some believe this area could’ve actually been the heart of an ancient Mayan mystery school! (Learn more here.) When examining the details, it becomes apparent why. 

The North Building

The North Building contains thirteen entrances in total. Interestingly, thirteen is the number of layers of heaven in Mayan cosmology. Notably, this building sits on a platform considerably higher than all of the others.

Archaeologists suspect that the upper friezes were never completed, but on the sides you can see more long-snouted masks of a rain god. Interestingly, scholars believe that rather than the Mayan rain god Chaak, the masks represent Tlaloc, the rain god worshipped in Central Mexico.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

In the center of the staircase is a stele whose reliefs are sadly no longer legible. And over to the left is a Venus temple with four columns in front.

The South Building

Across the quadrangle is the South Building which features nine entrances. The Mayans believed that there were nine levels to the underworld. And interestingly, this building sits at the lowest level of the quadrangle. 

The upper friezes are decorated with lattice grid and more long-nosed masks. And in Uxmal’s heyday, the portal in the center of this building would’ve served as the Nunnery Quadrangle’s main point of access.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The East Building

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The east building features beautiful pyramid-like patterns above its doorways, formed by eight serpents lined up on top of each other. And in the center of the serpents you can find an owl mask, a symbol of warfare and wisdom.

This building features five doorways. And according to Jeff Kowalski, one of the leading experts on Uxmal, this building represented the sunrise.

While most of the buildings were off-limits during my visit, some of the rooms of this building could be entered, in which one can see piles of old stones, some of them inscribed with crossbones.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The West Building

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The west building features seven doorways and may have been associated with the concept of the sunset (and therefore, completion). The friezes here are arguably the most impressive of the quadrangle, and they feature mat grids, numerous serpents, Chaak masks and more.

In the center, meanwhile, is a striking depiction the earth god Pawahtun with the body of a turtle.

Clearly, the ancient builders of Uxmal had something big in mind when constructing the Nunnery Quadrangle. In fact, it could be argued that the quadrangle represents a map of the Mayan universe itself – including the four corners of the Middle World (our world), along with the various layers of the Upper and Lower Worlds.

The Mayans commonly used the symbol of the ceiba tree, the Mayan Tree of Life, to depict the universe – both vertically and horizontally. 

While not evident today, it’s likely that something representing this Tree of Life once stood at the center of the courtyard to serve as the axis mundi, or center of the world.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The Large Plaza

The Ball Court

Leaving the Nunnery Quadrangle via the South Building, you’ll find yourself within a large plaza between the quadrangle and the House of the Governor. And the main object of interest here is the 34 m-long Ball Court, host to the Mesoamerican ball game played all throughout the region.

While the current hoop is a replica, we know that the ultimate aim of the players was to get the ball through the hole. But they were limited to using their hips, thighs and elbows. And as the balls were made of hard rubber, players required thick padding for protection.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

It’s fitting that this Ball Court lies right outside the Nunnery Quadrangle, a symbol of the universe, as the ball game itself served a similar symbolic purpose. The ball, for example, was likened to the sun and its movements.

The Ball Court likely dates to the 10th century AD, during the reign of Lord Chaak, though some scholars believe it’s a few centuries older.

In ancient times, there was likely a processional route connecting the Nunnery Quadrangle with the Ball Court and the House of the Turtles, situated on the large platform directly above it. 

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Over to your left, you can spot a long temple featuring eleven columns. But the next major destination is the Pigeon House Group located to the northwest.

The Pigeon House Group (Grupo El Palomar)

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

While formerly opened to the public, the Pigeon House Group was recently closed to visitors for years. But fortunately, following new excavations, it finally reopened in late 2023.

This area is believed to date back to around 850 AD. And in the center of the newly excavated plaza stands a large ceremonial altar. But why is this area called the Pigeon House Group?

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Ascending the staircase, you’ll encounter a series of structures considered to be dovecotes, or buildings meant to attract birds in order to use their droppings as fertilizer.

The stairs just beneath the dovecotes are a great place to rest your legs during your explorations of the ruins. And when ready, look for the opening to the south which takes you directly to the Great Pyramid.

The House of the Governor

The Great Pyramid

The House of the Governor, also known as the Governor’s Palace, is located on a large platform situated toward the south of the Uxmal ruins. But first you’ll encounter what’s known as the Great Pyramid just next to (and partly attached to) the platform.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Standing at 30 m high, this impressive pyramid consists of nine tiers on a square base. It features an especially wide staircase leading up to the top, and it long used to be climbable by visitors. Sadly, it still was not as of late 2023.

At the top is a temple known as the Temple of the Macaws. Like the main pyramid of Izamal, it was dedicated to the sun god Kinich Ahau, an aspect of the creator god Itzamna who was symbolized by the macaw.

One of the older structures at Uxmal, it likely dates to the 8th century.

House of the Turtles

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Ascending the large platform, you’ll soon encounter a building known as the House of the Turtles at the platform’s edge. Notice how its smooth, minimalistic walls contrast greatly with the other prominent structures of Uxmal.

Built sometime between 900-1000 AD, it consists of three doors and seven rooms, while multiple three-dimensional turtles can be seen around the top – around 40 in total.

It may have been used for invocations involving rain, of which turtles were a symbol. And its position directly across from the Ball Court and Nunnery Quadrangle means it surely had some kind of ritualistic connection with both.

It’s from right next to the House of the Turtles that you can enjoy the very best vantage point of the ruins. Visiting Uxmal around opening time is a must if you want to appreciate this view without any crowds.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins

The Governor's Palace

The main highlight atop the massive platform is, of course, the Governor’s Palace itself. At over 100 meters long, the palace features 25 rooms in total. And like the buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle, you’ll find intricate Puuc-style friezes above the doors. 

Amazingly, this one utilizes over 15,000 pieces of carved stone and features over 100 long-snouted masks!

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

In front of the palace is a large altar on which sits a jaguar throne. Jaguar thrones were common seats of Mayan royalty, but this one in particular has two heads! Underneath the altar, archaeologists discovered various pieces of jade jewelry, obsidian knives and ceramics.

In front of the altar is a large monolith known as the Pillory column. This may have been a stele originally painted with the Mayan World Tree. Perhaps a similar stone once existed in the Nunnery Quadrangle as well.

Visiting Uxmal Ruins
Visiting Uxmal Ruins

Walking down from the platform and following the predetermined loop, I passed by some more interesting yet unlabelled buildings in the middle of the large plaza. And before I knew it, I was right back at the Pyramid of the Magician. But I couldn’t resist completing the loop one more time.

Additional Info

In Mérida, I highly recommend people stay as central as possible. Some popular mid-range hotels in the center include Casona 61 and Kuka y Naranjo. Those on a tighter budget should also enjoy the highly-rated Hotel Santa Maria and Hotel Real Toledo.

As Mérida is so spread out, things may be much farther apart in reality than they appear on a map. Before making any booking, it’s best to confirm the precise walking distance from your accommodation to the city’s main square, Plaza Grande. From there, you can easily get around to most of the major sites and bus terminals.

Also within the historical center is the main ADO bus terminal that can take you to the ruins. It’s especially important to be close to this terminal if you plan on visiting Uxmal first thing in the morning (see above for more details).

There are various Uxmal tour options out there, allowing you to avoid the hassle of the complicated bus schedule. This tour takes you from Mérida to Uxmal and nearby cenotes, while this tour also includes a visit to nearby Kabah.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there don’t seem to be any tours that take visitors to all of the Puuc sites. But perhaps accessibility will improve in the near future after the expansion of the Tren Maya.

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