The Yucatan Peninsula in 36 Hours

Hey guys! Last week, I mentioned how action-packed and exhausting my weekend was. However, this week makes that totally pale in comparison. Visiting two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, trekking to the top of steep Mayan pyramids, and driving over 8 hours through backcountry roads through the jungle really winds you down.

Yesterday morning, at around 9 AM, my parents picked me up to set off towards Merida, a metropolis of over 1.2 million which is commonly regarded as the economic and cultural center of the peninsula. Along the way we saw many different attractions. First was the colonial town of Tekax. We stopped there for lunch nearby the massive cathedral, which was assembled out of the same limestone once part of Mayan ruins. Here’s a picture:

The Cathedral in Tekax
The Cathedral in Tekax

After a brief lunch of traditional Mayan specials such as the sopa de limon (shredded chicken and tortilla strips served in a sour lime broth) and the chicken pibil (chicken rubbed with an achiote paste wrapped inside a banana leaf), we exited the main highway and entered the scenic, yet extremely difficult to drive on and navigate “Ruta de Puuc.” The Puuc region is the only region of the Yucatan with any sort of hills, and it hosts 4 or 5 lesser known and scarcely visited Maya sites within a few kilometers of each other. Here’s a photo of the view from the road:

I'm really in the jungle now
I’m really in the jungle now

The first site we encountered and visited was Labna. We were the only visitors at the ruins, not surprisingly given the lack of visible signage. The site is notable for its triumphal arch and intricate palace. Also, we were allowed to walk on a traditional sacbe, or ceremonial elevated road, from one side of the site to another. Here are some photos:

Close detail of the main palace at Labna.
Close detail of the main palace at Labna.
The triumphal arch and unrestored pyramid at Labna
The triumphal arch and unrestored pyramid at Labna
The sacbe at Labna
The sacbe at Labna

Next was the second most powerful city-state in the Puuc region, Kabah (no, not related to the Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca). Much bigger and more triumphant than Labna, the site had more visitors. I was able to climb up into the temples and navigate unrestricted through the different passageways and balconies. At this site were the first Maya sculptures and hieroglyphic inscriptions encountered on this trip. Here are some photos:

Labna
Kabah
View of the Temple of the Masks, named for the hundreds of Chaac masks which cover its facade
View of the Temple of the Masks, named for the hundreds of Chaac masks which cover its facade
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View from the balcony behind the Temple of the Masks

However, we were not able to see a large chunk of Kabah and two whole other sites because it was already approaching 4:00, the time when the gates to Uxmal close. Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the most powerful cities of the Maya and is now one of the most significant archaeological finds in the peninsula. Less crowded than its glitzy counterpart Chichen Itza (which I will cover later in this post) but equally as impressive, the ruins seemed almost empty when we arrived an hour before closing. I really enjoyed these ruins because they allowed you to ascend the pyramids, walk through the original gates, and explore the settlement rather than keeping you on a single path weaving around the buildings. Here are my photos (it was very difficult to select these from the many excellent views offered at the site):

The Pyramid of the Magicians at Uxmal greets visitors as they enter the site
The Pyramid of the Magicians at Uxmal greets visitors as they enter the site
Detail of the top of the pyramid.
Detail of the top of the pyramid.
The Quadrangle of the Nuns (reminds me of Exeter's quads)
The Quadrangle of the Nuns (reminds me of Exeter’s quads)
The stairs of the other, Great Pyramid. A good workout for the legs.
The stairs of the other, Great Pyramid. A good workout for the legs.
The climb was well worth the wonderful view of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.
The climb was well worth the wonderful view of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.

After Uxmal, we drove to Merida to spend the night. However, we did not stay there for long, waking up at 8 AM in the morning today to set off for our next round of sight-seeing.

As we were leaving Merida this morning, we happened to make a wrong turn and ended up in front of a surprisingly modern and rather intriguing building. At first it seemed to be a stadium or some sort of fancy movie theatre. However, once we approached further, we discovered that it was the “Gran Museo del Mondo Maya,” which held many exhibits dedicated to Maya history, achievements, and culture. Their collection of artifacts, ranging from stelae made in the Yucatan thousands of years ago to contemporary Mayan handicrafts, was absolutely stunning and an unexpected surprise. While there, I tried to practice my Mayan skills by trying to decipher the Mayan descriptions of the exhibits (at very least I could pronounce them correctly!).

The sleek exterior of the museum.
The sleek exterior of the museum.
Can't read these... yet...
Can’t read these… yet…
A facsimile of the Dresden Codex, one of the three known remaining Maya books not burned by the Spanish during the conquest of the Yucatan
A facsimile of the Dresden Codex, one of the three known remaining Maya books not burned by the Spanish during the conquest of the Yucatan
My birthdate in the Mayan calendar.
My birthdate in the Mayan calendar.

After we left the museum, we set off towards Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World and another UNESCO World Heritage site. It is not enough to say there were many tourists. Once the most powerful Maya city state in the Yucatan during the Post-Classical Era, the city exhibits significant Toltec (a warlike people from Central Mexico) influence in its architecture, religious tradition, and ritual.The place was absolutely swamped with tourists, guides, and vendors trying to sell everything from Golden State Warriors themed Maya masks to toy whistles that made dinosaur sounds (a common sound throughout the park). Despite the crowds, however, the site was well worth a visit; it wasn’t named a Wonder for nothing. I will never forget the first view of El Castillo, the main pyramid in the complex.

No words necessary
No words necessary
The Observatory, used by the Maya to make remarkably accurate mappings more precise than those of the Europeans at time of first contact.
The Observatory, used by the Maya to make remarkably accurate mappings more precise than those of the Europeans at time of first contact.
This building was once a school for the sons of the prominent inhabitants of the city. Exeter's Academy Building should look like this.
This building was once a school for the sons of the prominent inhabitants of the city. Exeter’s Academy Building should look like this.
The Ball Court used to play the Mesoamerican Ball Game, in which teams of seven used their hips, knees, elbows, and chest to keep a 3-kilo rubber ball in the air and hit it through a hoop. It is unclear and still debated whether it was the winning or losing captain sacrificed to the gods.
The Ball Court used to play the Mesoamerican Ball Game, in which teams of seven used their hips, knees, elbows, and chest to keep a 3-kilo rubber ball in the air and hit it through a hoop. It is unclear and still debated whether it was the winning or losing captain sacrificed to the gods.

After Chichen Itza, it is fair to say that we had had our share of ruins for the weekend. We drove back to Tulum and took in a little more beach time. Tomorrow morning I will be taking a taxi back to Carrillo to start my last week of Maya class— I can’t believe how quickly these last two weeks have passed! Although I’ll reflect more in a future post, it’s really been a life-changing experience so far on so many levels, and I wish I could stay longer. Here’s to one more week!

My next update will be on Wednesday. Thanks for reading!

Bliss

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The Yucatan Peninsula in 36 Hours

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