While staying at Posada Yum Kin Hotel Tulum, guests can take advantage of Tulum’s location which is literally in a treasure trove of Mayan historic spots. Here are a few of the less traveled Mayan sites, many of which are nearby.
For longtime travelers to the Yucatan, the 2012 mythology that has taken hold brings a delicious irony: Worldwide attention is finally turning from the Yucatan’s white-powder beaches and sequestered all-inclusives to the remnants of the “lost civilization” buried under the jungle that drew the first travelers to Mexico’s mysterious southern peninsula after New York writer John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood recounted their explorations in the mid-19th century.
It’s a good bet that most tourists will still confine themselves to Cancún and the Riviera Maya, with a foray to Chichen Itza. On the Riviera Maya, scrubbed and manicured Tulum, Mexico’s third most-visited ruin, is worth seeing more for its stunning seaside setting than its architecture or historical significance; it was a coastal lookout on a busy trade route. Coba, well worth the journey 40 miles west from Tulum, is older than Chichen Itza and the least reconstructed of Maya cities, with 95 percent of the site still swaddled in jungle growth. Its quiet, shady depths and a largely intact network of the raised limestone causeways called sacbeob (singular: sacbé) that linked Maya cities all over the peninsula make it the Riviera Maya’s most effective time machine to the ancient Maya world. Coba’s own El Castillo tops Chichen Itza’s famous pyramid by 60 feet and is still open to climbers.
While the northern Caribbean coast, like the rest of the Yucatan, is mounting a host of special events paying tribute to the Maya that are worth seeing (we’ll cover some of those in a future column), it isn’t the ideal place to gain insight into one of the world’s most accomplished and intriguing ancient cultures through the cities they left behind.
This fabled city’s coronation as a “New World Wonder” actually has diluted much of that wonder. Encountering Plastic El Castillo key chains, night lights and other tchotchkes in every souvenir shop and standing in line to get an unobstructed photo seriously compromises the awe factor, and long gone are the days when you could scale Mexico’s most famous pyramid. (You can, however, climb down instead, into the pyramid beneath the pyramid for a first-hand glimpse of the common practice of building new structures over the old—and a sacrificial altar inlaid with jade.)
This is one of the world’s grandest ancient cities, to be sure. Walking among the stone temples, monuments and ball courts while visualizing them coated in brightly painted stucco, surrounded by common people’s homes in jungle clearings, is the only way to comprehend its city’s sheer scale. If you haven’t seen Chichen Itza, go—your best bet is stay nearby and visit the ruins early, before the tour buses roll inn. If the hotels at the gate are beyond your budget, try the Hotel Dolores Alba about 1½ miles east of the ruins, or stay in the historic town of Izamal or the underrated colonial city of Valladolid.
Be aware, too, that what makes Chichen Itza an archaeological marvel is its departure from Maya tradition; the city’s significance lies just as much in its strong Toltec influence. The good news is that the Yucatan offers many better places that are lightly visited and infused with a quiet, ancient spirit.
Increasingly popular but still far from crowded, Uxmal is the nearest large ceremonial complex to Chichen Itza. More beautiful and more purely Maya than the anointed New World Wonder, it is a masterwork strikingly distinct from other Maya sites. Instead of the colorful interior murals in other cities, Uxmal’s art is all in its expansive and intricately carved stone facades. This is the finest and most extensively excavated example of Puuc architecture, characterized by low, elongated palaces with intricate cornices, corbelled arches (also called Maya or false arches), rows of columns and upper walls covered with geometric stone mosaics and friezes.
Unlike other cities on the nearly flat peninsula, Uxmal commanded the one area endowed with some hills, and its elegant architecture incorporates the landscape’s varied elevations. Most cities depended on the peninsula’s abundance of cenotes, but Uxmal stands 100 feet above sea level and has no surface openings to the subterranean water. Its engineers devised a system of choltunes, or cisterns, to collect rainwater for an estimated 25,000 people. Water scarcity made Chaac, the rain god, supreme in Uxmal, and his image dominates the stone facades. The city’s tallest structure, the Pirámide del Adivino (Temple of the Magician), is built on an oval base and has rounded sites. Its imposing profile, visible throughout the site, is a marked contrast to the typical angular, stepped pyramids seen elsewhere. The pyramid is now closed to climbers, but you can easily see the gaping mouth of a gargantuan mask of Chaac at the top of the front stairway.
Just 17 miles southeast of Uxmal are several smaller and largely unexcavated ruins within a few kilometers of one another, each with unique features.
— Kabah’s Codz-Poop (Palace of the Masks) is covered in nearly 300 three-dimensional, stone Chaac masks, though many of Chaac’s curling elephant-trunk noses are broken off. The two male figures on the east side of the palace are among the few three-dimensional human figures appearing among Maya sites.
— Sayil’s Gran Palacio, appearing to stretch endlessly across the landscape, once housed as many as 350 people. Its facade, with three terraced levels and rows of columns, recall ancient Minoan palaces. In the jungle beyond the palace, Stele 9 claims its own small measure of fame with the image of a fertility god brandishing a phallus of hugely exaggerated proportions.
— Labna, with just four restored buildings, is best known for its 20-foot corbelled arch. Flanked by two chambers, it was probably part of a more elaborate structure now lost to history.
Under excavation only since 1997, with one of the northern Yucatan’s longest records of human occupation, Ek Balam is believed to have been larger than Chichen Itza, waning as Chichen Itza rose to power. It is best known for the elaborately carved and miraculously preserved stucco friezes — 85 percent is original, unretouched plaster — on the Templo de los Frisos, which is crowned by a toothy mask of the underworld god Balam. You can scale the 100-foot El Torre (or Acropolis) pyramid, one of the largest Maya buildings yet discovered, for views of two large, untouched ruins disguised as jungle-covered hills to the north and the tallest structures of Coba, 30 miles to the south. Ek Balam is unique for its two concentric walls enclosing the ceremonial heart of the city and an unrestored network of sacbeob still visible as raised lines radiating out through the jungle in all directions. Discoveries here have caused scholars to revise Maya history, and it may prove to be one of the most important sites ever found. It’s an easy day trip, 20 miles from Valladolid.
Small and out-of-the-way Mayapan (31 miles south of Merida), last of the great Maya city-states, was the capital of a Maya confederation that included Chichen Itza (which it equaled in size) for nearly two centuries, though it was abandoned in 1450 following a revolt by some of its subjects. What you find today is a compact ceremonial center surrounded by the requisite jungle-covered mounds. Restored structures include a pyramid that looks like a smaller version of Chichen Itza’s El Castillo (also called El Castillo) and an observatory that mimics Chichen Itza’s. It is also notable for its vivid red and orange murals dominated by scenes of war, and stucco figures including columns shaped like human figures, soldiers, macaws, entwined snakes and a stucco jaguar.
Archaeologists consider Edzna, 40 miles southeast of Campeche, one of the most significant Maya ruins, yet it gets fewer visitors in a year than Chichen Itza does in a day. The elegant architecture reveals the city’s significance as a crossroads, employing roof combs and corbelled arches similar those of Palenque and giant stone masks characteristic of the Petén style made famous by Tikal in Guatemala. Populated as early as 600 B.C., it grew into a powerful regional capital between A.D. 600 and 900. Its architects displayed uncanny urban-planning skills. Given a region with no lakes, rivers or water of any kind, they built 100 choltunes throughout the city and devised an elaborate canal system that must have taken decades to complete. No fewer than five pyramids crown its Great Acropolis. The largest, the oft-photographed Pyramid of Five Stories, is unique in combining the vaulted chambers of typical palace construction with the solid pyramidal platforms containing a couple of interior temples or burial passages. Surveying the whole site from the pyramid, ponder whether those leafy mounds radiating out from Edzna, seemingly into infinity, are just jungle growth or overgrown temples and tombs. Campeche state has more than 2,000 known ruins, with new ones discovered every year. Only about 20 are open to visitors, and most will never be disturbed.
Calakmul & Rio Bec
Stretching across the neck of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Rio Bec region contains numerous ruins displaying heavily stylized, lavishly decorated architecture. Here you really do feel you are discovering lost cities, still cloaked in trees and vines, vibrating with the clamor of monkeys, birds and the occasional distant jaguar.
The big dog here is Calakmul, which is both a huge archaeological zone and a vast biosphere reserve that comprises about 13 percent of Campeche state’s entire territory. Continuing research indicates Calakmul could be the largest site in the Maya world, more than equal to Guatemala’s Tikal in size and significance. Built by a warring state with little time to devote to art or culture, it doesn’t have the most fascinating architecture, though Structure III, probably a noble family’s home, is unique and quite lovely. It retains its original design, with no sign of the remodeling efforts typical of most Maya buildings.
The deep-jungle setting and abundant wildlife offer more than ample compensation for lack of architectural fireworks. Some structures display the Peten style characteristic of Guatemala (high crested structures, steep staircases, false facades), while others are typical Rio Bec Style (steep-sided pyramids or false towers topped by false doorwas and false temples, facades carved with monster masks and fantastic animals). The approximately 120 stelae (more than at any other Maya site) that have yielded so much information about the city date from A.D. 364 to 810. By the time of the Spanish conquest in 1519, Calakmul’s population had dwindled to fewer than 1,000. If you’re up to the climb, Structure II — the Yucatan’s tallest Maya structure, at 175 feet — offers views across 31 miles of jungle to the ruins of El Mirador, Calakmul’s sister city in Guatemala.
Among the other sites on the Rio Bec route, Dzibanche and nearby Kinichna, Kohunlich with its famous Pyramid of the Masks, Becan, Chicanna and Balamku with one of the largest stucco friezes in the Maya world, all present their own pleasures.
This article from SFGate, a product of San Francisco Chronicle. Former Chronicle travel editor Christine Delsol is the author of “Pauline Frommer’s Cancún & the Yucatán” and a regular contributor to “Frommer’s Mexico” and “Frommer’s Cancún & the Yucatán.”