Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

Yucatán and Quintana Roo are famous for their various mayan ruins, of which the most famous are Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Both of these archeological sites attract an evergrowing —and alarming— number of visitors each year; Chichén Itzá had around 2.6 million visitors in 2017 and Tulum reached its own record last year with more than 300,000 in the summer. These are the reasons why I am always dubious about visiting pyramids, I’m not the kind of person to actually queue in a 40ºC weather for a picture in front of an ancient temple, no matter how cool or old it is.

When I was in Yucatán last week, however, I really wanted to show a foreign friend some Mayan architecture, it was really unthinkable to spend a few days in Mérida and not visit any pyramids. So after some thought we decided to visit Uxmal. We chose it because it was nowhere near as popular as Chichén, but I must say I was prepared to pay an expensive entrance ticket and battle with crowds.

My first pleasant surprise was to learn how easy it is to travel anywhere in Yucatán from Mérida. You basically just walk to any of the two bus stations and they’ll get you on the right bus in no time and for a very reasonable price. This time we paid $120.00 MXN for a round ticket to Uxmal. The bus actually dropped us right outside the entrance and the driver told us to wait for the return bus right there. When we got out of the bus I could not believe my eyes: the place was empty, except for the 15-20 people who got off the same bus as us.

My second pleasant surprise was to learn Sundays are free for Mexicans, a very welcome piece of information since it meant I could now afford dinner. Foreigners do pay for the entrance, but if you have a valid student ID you’ll get a discount. I remember the same disounts apply in both Tulum and Chichén Itzá, but both are more expensive and have enormous queues this time of year. When I went to Tulum last year the queue must have been some 200 meters long, zigzagging around souvenir stands. These same stands could be found everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in Chichén Itzá, making it look more like a market than an archaeological site.

Uxmal was nearly empty. I guess there were other 25 or 30 people in the site with us, and for such a large area it felt like we were alone. The first thing you see when you enter Uxmal is a magnificent pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, and it is a sublime sight because it’s only surrounded by other structures, but there are no people around, drones or selfie sticks. Also, there’s not much shadow around, so bring plenty of sunscreen.

Another aspect that sets Uxmal apart from other sites is the fact that you can climb many pyramids and even go inside of many ritual chambers. On our time there we climbed up and down stairs, went through tunnels, entered houses and chased iguanas through narrow corridors. I kinda felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, to be honest.

It took us three hours to go around—including several water breaks and picture posing— and by the end we were exhausted and very happy (in my case, also severely sunburnt). As it happens with many archeological sites, there’s some kind of open air lounge at the entrance where there are restaurants and snack bars, but we decided to have a nice dinner back in Mérida. Next to our bus stop there was a coffee stand though, so that proved a perfect endind to the adventure.

All in all, I think Uxmal provides the same archaeological value as other archaeological sites —perhaps the pyramids don’t face the ocean or are not as big, but they sure are impressive— minus the hassle, the expense and the crowds of more popular places. Uxmal, or Oxmal, means “thrice rebuilt”, and seems to allude to the city’s history and the times it had to be rebuilt over time. It is, alongside Chichén Itzá and Tikal, one of the most important remnants of Mayan culture in the area, so I’m happy its being taken good care of.

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Chichen Itzá

The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itzá (which means something like well of the water wizards) is located in the state of Yucatán, around 3 hours away from the Mayan Riviera (Quintana Roo). Getting there from Playa del Carmen by car is pretty easy, although the tolls are quite expensive. Yucatán’s roads are in much better conditions than Quintana Roo’s (Yucatán is also one of the safest and pretties states in Mexico, to be honest) and there was no traffic, only rainforest to both sides and signs warning of monkeys and other animals crossing (we didn’t see anything though, just green everywhere, so much I actually wondered if we were going in the right direction a couple of times).

The most famous Mayan ruins are close to the capital of Yucatán, Mérida, but coming from the west we didn’t pass neither the city nor the famous town of Pisté. Getting closer to the archeological site, we still found desert roads and we, for some glorious minutes, thought the place wouldn’t be very crowded. Wrong. When we arrived they made us turn back to an alternative parking lot because the one in the site was full. So we parked like 2 kilometers away from the site (it was almost full too and we knew we’d be coming back to a hell hot car because there was no shadowy spots) and started walking towards the pyramids, a bit discouraged but still hopeful.

We got there at around 12pm, having failed again at getting up early. The day was hot and there were barely any clouds in the sky when we took our place on the longest queu ever, so long that it went around the ticket booths and went zigzagging around some souvenir stalls. We should have learned right there that Chichen Itzá (at least in July) was mainly about those two things: crowds and vendors. And so we queued for like 15 minutes, sweating as if we were doing vikram yoga, when I decided to take a look at how long the queue was. I discovered that, being a Mexican student, I didn’t have to pay and I didn’t even have to queue, which was awesome. So I got my ticket and rejoined my friends, non Mexican and so unfortunate students, and we queued for another half hour, which was not awesome. I believe this was the day I got the killer tan that still hasn’t faded.

Once inside we confirmed our suspicions: there was a hell of a lot of people, a hell of a lot of vendors selling a hell of a lot of Mayan and non-Mayan stuff, and a hell of a lot of ruins. The first thing you come across as you enter, is the huge pyramid known as “El Castillo” or the castle, a huge temple dedicated to Kukulkan, the Mayan god of the wind. The explanade around the pyramid is so huge that it didn’t even look crowded. This was the first moment of the day that I was glad for the clear sky: the view of El Castillo against a blue sky is really breathtaking. This pyramid is really really huge and much more beautiful than other Mayan constructions, even the ones in Tulum. It is also surrounded by tropical vegetation, which sets it apart from other big archeological zones in Mexico like, say, Teotihuacan (I like Teotihuacan but it’s a freaking desert).

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Apart from Kukulcan’s temple, there are many other important ruins in Chichen. There’s the colonnade, the ball game court, more temples and houses, most of which are surprisingly not crowded. If you take your time wandering around you’ll eventually find spots that are almost deserted, the site is so big that even huge amounts of people can disperse and, anyway, most people just go there to take pics in front of The Castle “for the gram” (of course I did too). What really is amazing, in a sad way, is the amount of vendors and stalls. They’re everywhere and it gets annoying after a while.

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In Chichen Itzá there is also an open cenote, which actually explains the weird meaning of the name. Cenotes are very common in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, they’re not just underground pools, they’re parts of an underground river that goes on for like 500 kilometers. Because they’re open parts of this river, the water is sweet and clear. However, the one in Chichen is no longer connected to any underground current of water and is now just a greenish round pool known for its last ritual use. It is very deep and believed to have been use for sacrificial purposes, which may have caused its foul smell.

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All in all, you could spend between 2 and 5 hours walking around, or just as long as you can handle the heat. I remember that day I drank like 5 liters of water and had 3 coconut ice pops. I still sweated like I was in a sauna. Worth the visit? Definitely. Despite the crowds and the merciless sun, Chichen Itzá is one the biggest, most important archeological sites in the world, named one of the seven wonders of the world too, and one of the few places where you can buy made-in-China miniatures of the Mayan pyramids.

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Have you been to Chichen Itzá or any other pyramids?

Teotihuacán

In Ecatepec, Estado de México, one hour and a half away from the busy Mexico City, are the ruins for the ancient city of Teotihuacán, a political and religious centre for the teotihuacanos. The city is said to have been found abandoned by the aztecs, who claimed it as theirs and probably used it as a political centre too, though much about this ruins remains a mistery.

Last weekend I went to see (and climb) the pyramids for the third time. Despite being rain season, the morning was sunny and warm; if you visit Teotihuacan, I definitely recommend starting early, since there are barely any shadowy spots and the afternoon sun can be intense.

The pyramids are located in Ecatepec, and you can get there easily by bus or car, as there is a road that connects the city with the archeological site. Once there, the best thing is to start at gate 5, right behind the Pyramid of the Sun, and make your way through the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb both pyramids, but as the best view is from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I recommend leaving that for the end.

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On our way to the Pyramid of the Moon.

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View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

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We were in Teotihuacan on a Saturday in July, although it might sound like a bad idea to go there on a weekend during the summer holiday, there was not many people around until like 1.00 pm. I have been here on October too and honestly I didn’t notice much difference in the weather.

Overall, Teotihuacan is a must visit if you’re in Mexico City. Walking around and climbing both pyramids won’t take more than 3 hours, counting many picture stops, and visiting the site museum at the end will provide you with more information about the ancient city. There are guides you can hire at the entrance; it might be a bit expensive if you’re not in a big group, but a good idea if you’re interested in prehispanic culture and would like to know more about the pyramids that meet the eye.

For more information you could also check out Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living by Esther Pasztory, which incorporates some of the latest theories on where the teotihuacanos came from and what happened to them, as well as speculations on what their mural paintings and architecture might have mean back then.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? What did you think of it?