All stories start somewhere. On January 18, 1976, my mother Joanna and my father, Jorge met in the lobby of the Hotel Mérida. She was a Canadian airline rep. leading a fam group of tourism professionals through México and he was the guide who would take them to the majestic site of Chichén Itzá. Their eyes met, and on the very same day, nine years later, I was born.
My family has worked in tourism for three generations and our state’s archaeological sites hold a special place in my heart, no doubt because if it weren’t for people’s inherent desire to see them for themselves, I wouldn’t be here. Mom says I was just two years old when I insisted that she help me climb up and down the 150 steps of Uxmal’s Pyramid of the Magician. My grandfather told me that traveling to Uxmal in the early days wasn’t just a day trip, but rather an adventure of epic proportions into the thick of the Yucatecan jungle. And Dad loves to remember taking the train (yes, train) to Progreso from Mérida with his brothers. Tourism infrastructure and amenities have changed so much since those days, but Yucatán’s cultural traditions and attractions, including 19 unique archaeological sites, are still the brightest stars.
Maya culture fascinates on many levels. It flourished in Mesoamerica, one of only five regions on earth where culture developed independently without outside influence. We know that the Maya civilization was among the most advanced in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, resource management, agriculture, pottery, and writing, and also that they had a rich cultural and artistic life. Oral tradition tells us a great deal but details remain unconfirmed because most of the primary written sources were destroyed.
The archaeological sites spread throughout Yucatán make for an amazing road trip. And I’m going to tell you everything you’ll need to plan a grand tour as soon as travel conditions permit it. This should definitely be on your bucket list.
Life’s a Beach – Dzibilchaltún and Xcambó
Just 15 km north of town, along the Mérida – Progreso highway, you’ll find the exit for Dzibilchaltún. To the right, as you enter the archaeological zone, you’ll see the Open Chapel, a 16th-century construction. Further along, you’ll reach the best-known structure, the Temple of the Seven Dolls (named for the seven clay figurines found during the excavations). Multiple Sacbés and an above-ground cenote are two more of the attractions. If you want to take a short excursion, the proximity to both Mérida and Progreso makes this site a very convenient place to visit.
If you have more time, after visiting Dzibichaltún, you can get back on the highway and continue along the same road. Just before arriving at the port city of Progreso, take the coastal highway exit towards Telchac (east). You’ll reach Xcambó and the stunning scenery you’ll encounter on the drive makes it worthwhile in and of itself. Xcambó is a relatively small site but has several structures that you’ll love exploring. Usually, you’ll find that there are very few visitors, a real treat if you’re accustomed to crowded sites. Xcambó means, “Place Where Trades are Made” – because of its location it gained major importance as a salt mining center and as a hub for trade between the Maya and other civilizations throughout México.
Where to stay: You can get a hotel room in Progreso or rent a fabulous beach house in Chicxulub, San Bruno, Telchac, or San Crisanto.
Other nearby attractions: Visit the pink salt lakes in Xtampú or the mangroves in San Crisanto. You can also see flamingos and other waterfowl at the viewpoint in Uaymitún. It should be mentioned that the birds you’ll see are dependent on seasonal migration. El Corchito is also nearby.
The Puuc Route Adventure – Oxkintok, Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, Xlapak, Sayil, and Chacmultún
This cluster of sites in southwestern Yucatán are all close to each other, but you don’t want to rush through; so, dividing them up over a few days is a great idea. This also gives you more time in this region where you can partake in other adventures such as caving. At the sites, look up in the trees. You might see some beautiful birds, particularly early in the morning. These may include parrots, Yucatán jays, and motmots. Also, iguana sightings are pretty much guaranteed.
Driving through the area is one of the highlights since the south of Yucatán is quite hilly. In fact, “Puuc,” the architectural style you will observe at these sites, means mountain in Maya. As a kid, I used to love road trips to this part of the state and anticipated those first hills. I would know that we were close when we turned around the bend and caught a quick glimpse of the Governor’s Palace through the trees.
70 km from Mérida is Oxkintok. This site is actually bigger than you might think and it extends all the way to the border with Campeche. Its best-known building is Tzat Tun Tzat, a three-tiered structure that forms a maze in its interior and where a grave with a jade mask and other symbols of power were found during excavations. Other interesting finds at this site are the ball court and a Chultún or cistern. Chultunes are very common in the sites of the Puuc because cenotes and other natural sources of water are scarce. The Maya engineered these and other water reservoirs to supply vast populations with water year-round.
Uxmal is the crown jewel of the Puuc sites and there is lots to see since it is one of the sites that has received most restoration. If you can spend the day, you’ll not run out of attractions to see; you’ll need at least two hours just to see the archaeological zone. Highlights of course include the Pyramid of the Magician, the Governor’s Palace (where you get the most incredible view of the site), and the Nunnery. As impressive as these structures are scale-wise, what is equally impressive is the thoughtful layout and planning, using enclosed spaces and courtyards. The buildings themselves also feature intricate carvings that depict the rain god Chaac, animals, the cardinal points, and other elements of nature. None of these are random. Every etch carries meaning rooted deep in the ancients’ belief system and worldview.
Kabah is best known for the Codz Pop, an iconic facade full of Chaac masks and the arch that marks the end of the Sacbé that goes all the way to Uxmal, about 40 km away. The elevated roads were used for trade between different city-states and discoveries indicate that along particularly long distances, there were also checkpoints where messengers and other travelers could stop for food and water.
About 10 km from Kabah is Sayil. The buildings of greatest importance are The Lookout and The Palace, but several other interesting structures are to be seen as well.
5 km away is Xlapak which has three buildings and several mounds. It’s one of the sites in the area that has undergone the least restoration, so it’s perfect to visit with kids (or adults!) with strong Indiana Jones inclinations. It also features a very interesting Chaac rain god mask. It’s worth mentioning that although Chaac and rain is a very common theme throughout the sites in the Puuc, you’ll see a lot of variation in representations from one place to the next.
Nearby is Labná which means “Old House” in Maya and is famous for a few structures including The Viewpoint, the Palace, but above all, the intricately carved Maya Arch that marks the entrance to the city. You’ll note many examples of Maya arches (also called corbel arches) in the Puuc, but they are also seen in Maya buildings throughout the peninsula.
The last site is Chacmultún. It is not usually included in a typical Puuc Route tour, but it should be! You’ll see many similarities with the architecture found in other sites nearby. The red soil of the hillsides gives the buildings a pinkish hue and this is where it gets its name meaning “Red Stone Mounds.” It’s great for exploring and you’ll find four groups of buildings complete with different chambers and even murals. You’ll also get a fantastic view from the top of the buildings in the Xelpol Group that are located on the highest hill in the valley.
Where to stay: There’s lots of accommodation available in Santa Elena and Tekax. Also, I have very fond memories of staying at Hotel Hacienda Uxmal as a kid. Taking a dip in the pool after spending a hot morning trekking through the sites of the Puuc is absolute heaven. After the light and sound show, my brother Carlos and I would stare up at the stars in the bright night sky and wander along the paths that connect the rooms, looking for frogs and fireflies. The hotel also offers a very cool tour to the surrounding farm and jungle area – aboard their vintage fleet of Land Rovers.
Other nearby attractions: There is lots of caving nearby. Loltún is very accessible, but it has set visiting hours, so be sure to check and plan accordingly. Tekax and Calcehtok both have options for experienced, intermediate, and beginner adventurers. But a word of warning: bring a change of clothes – you can get quite grubby. Also, across the road from Uxmal, you can visit Choco-story, an interactive museum dedicated to the history of chocolate (hot tip: they sell a delicious chocolate frappé in their café and it makes the perfect post-Uxmal treat).
History and Culture Extravaganza – Mayapán and Acanceh
When I first started working for Yucatán Today, I rediscovered my love for the Convent Route. Believe me, it’s much more interesting than what its name implies. The area features all the best that Yucatán has to offer: history, culture, archaeology, cenotes, and food! What else could you ask for? Three of my very best friends joined me when I visited the area on assignment and we had a blast, but it would also be very fun to visit with your family or partner. There’s something for everyone. To discover the different attractions on the Convent Route, just follow Highway 184 south. The distances from one stop to another are short, which is great because you don’t feel like you spent the whole day in the car.
The first stop on the route is Acanceh, and it is well known for its Plaza of Three Cultures named thus because it presents buildings that are modern, colonial, and pre-Columbian, living and coexisting in a contemporary Mestizo culture. Beautiful. Now, you might see the outside façade of the main structure in Acanceh – right on the main square across from the church – and think “Ah well, I’ve seen that. On to the next…” But stop. What isn’t visible from the street are the four enormous stone masks on the other side of the building and some additional structures. It’s a small site consisting of three buildings, but you can see the masks up close and they are stunning. Don’t miss out.
About 20 minutes from Acanceh is Mayapán. Often dubbed “Little Chichén Itzá,” this site has many magnificent structures that you can climb! The stars of the show are the Palace and the Astronomical Observatory, but there are over 5,000 mounds at this site. Mayapán was a fortified city. Just across the highway, you’ll find Cenote Nah Yah where you can swim and cool off. If you want to see a different cenote, the whole Convent Route is peppered with them, just ask around the local villages.
Where to stay: After making your way down the Convent Route, you can spend the night in Maní or at Hotel Puuc in Oxkutzcab.
Other nearby attractions: The area is chock-full of attractions – head south and hit up Tecóh, Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, Telchaquillo, Cenote Nah Yah, Tekit, Mama, Chumayel (where the legendary Chilam Balam was found, one of just four Maya codices that survived the purge), Teabo, and Maní (where the infamous Inquisition took place in 1562).
Archaeological Pueblo Mágico – Aké, Chaltún Há, Izamal
On your way from Mérida to Izamal down Highway 180, you’ll pass Aké. The vestiges of the site and its proximity to both Izamal and the ancient city Th’ó (now Mérida) leads archaeologists to believe that it was a very important settlement. It is also a site that doesn’t get enormous amounts of visitors, so you’ll be able to let your curiosity wander and take your time seeing it. Also, practically onsite is the Hacienda San Lorenzo Aké, part of which is built atop pre-Columbian building remains and is also open to visitors.
In Izamal there is plenty of archaeology to discover. You may know Izamal is a Pueblo Mágico, but it’s also one of Yucatán’s archaeological sites and an important one at that. The Kinich Kakmó, dedicated to the solar deity Kinich Ahau and located right in the city’s historical center, is the biggest pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula. The fact that the pyramids are within the city makes it a very convenient choice if you’re traveling by bus or combi. Pyramids and remains are everywhere in Izamal including the former convent San Antonio de Padua, located on top of the foundations of an ancient construction. And if you go to Hotel San Miguel Arcángel, you’ll see that the wall at the back of the property is actually also part of the Hun Pic Tok structure. It’s an outstanding place to watch history unfold before your very eyes.
Within Izamal there is also Chaltún Há, a group of 168 structures and mounds – some excavated, some not. It is also well worth your time when in Izamal. This part of the city looks a lot more like what you expect an archaeological site to look like.
Where to stay: Izamal
Other nearby attractions: Izamal is famous for its convent San Antonio de Padua and the trademark yellow colonial architecture, but its cuisine is also reason enough to visit. If you’re looking for a place to swim, Cenote Chihuán is a 30-minute drive.
Discover Sites Unknown – Kulubá
Kulubá is one of the lesser-known sites in the state, and because the heartland of Yucatán is more dedicated to cattle ranching than tourism, it’s probably fair to say that it is one of the least visited. In fact, Kulubá is not really “open” – there is no entry fee, no Parador, and no staff, but the caretaker who will open up for you to explore appreciates any tips you’d like to leave. That being said, there is lots to see and do around here. So, if you want to go off the grid and experience a site pretty much to yourself, this is a great option.
You’ll find that the site has three groups of Puuc-influence buildings with intricate geometrical designs as well as some Chaac masks. One of the constructions even retains some of its original red paint. Archaeologists have discovered that the inhabitants of this site harvested cocoa which was of great importance as it was used for consumption and as a means of currency.
Where to stay: Tizimín, Valladolid, El Cuyo
Other nearby attractions: If you go north, you’ll reach the beach paradise that is El Cuyo. Go west to Tizimín to get a real taste for Yucatecan cattle ranching or head southwest to Valladolid.
The Epic Heartland – Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, Yaxunáh, and Grutas de Balamkanché
In the past couple of years, the heartland of Yucatán has become one of the most popular cultural tourism destinations in southeastern México. You’ll find a good variety of sites including two of Yucatán’s largest.
For part of its history, Yaxunáh was occupied by the city-state of Cobá and the longest Sacbé of the Maya world, measuring about 100 km, was built to connect these two settlements. Eventually, the rise of Chichén Itzá would be the downfall of this city and would lead them to construct a fortification around the city of which you can still see some remains. The buildings at this site are quite unique and you’ll particularly enjoy seeing the circular temple. Nearby there is also a local cooperative that offers guided tours to the site and other nearby cultural and ecological attractions such as cenote Lol Há. Another important note is that, although I always recommend packing plenty of snacks and water, here it’s particularly important since there isn’t a Parador where you can purchase supplies, so come prepared.
Just over 23 km away is Chichén Itzá, one of the New Seven Wonders and the best-known site of the Maya world. The iconic Pyramid of Kukulkán needs no introduction as it is plastered all over brochures and posters. But Chichén Itzá isn’t a tourist trap, it has a number of other structures and details that are also notable. One of the most interesting things about Chichén Itzá is how acoustic features that imitate sounds from nature were incorporated into the design of some of its most important buildings including the Ball Court and the Pyramid of Kukulkán. The site is absolutely massive and generally divided into three groups, one of which is closed to the public. It’s a must-see attraction for anyone visiting the state but be prepared as it is the second most visited archaeological site in the whole country. Visiting early, when it’s just opened and before it gets too hot, is probably your best bet.
Just 6 km from Chichén Itzá is Balamkanché. Because it’s located inside a cave, there are no large constructions or pyramids at this site. Many remains and artifacts have been found in caves, caverns, and cenotes around the peninsula because they were considered entrances to the underworld and were very important for religious and ceremonial practices The two most important stops on the tour of the Balamkanché caves are the natural stone formations of the Jaguar’s Throne and the Sacred Ceiba.
About 20 minutes from Valladolid is Ek Balam, which translates to “Black Jaguar” or “Jaguar Star,” depending on who you ask. This city was even bigger than Chichén Itzá, spanning over 12 km. During its time it was a major social, economical, and political power. Today, it’s well known for beautiful structures and representations that span a variety of influences including Puuc, Río Bec, and even some winged characters that are unique to this site. What you can’t miss when you visit Ek Balam is The Acropolis, the Monster of the Earth (believed to be a pathway into the underworld of Xibalbá), the Ball Court, and the numerous masks, hieroglyphs, and stellae at the site.
Where to stay: Valladolid, or stay a night at Hotel Hacienda Chichén.
Other nearby attractions: Besides visiting Valladolid and enjoying the museums, shopping, architecture, and restaurants, there is tons to do in the neighboring area. There are many cenotes nearby, including Tsukán Santuario de Vida, Zací and Ik Kil (where, if you look closely, you will also see small mounds and archaeological remains that would have belonged to the city-state of Chichén Itzá – which was enormous in its heyday). You can of course also make this part of your trip if you’re going on a beach vacation to Cancún or the Riviera Maya since it’s located pretty much midway between Mérida and the Caribbean beach resorts.
And there you have it, a mini-guide to our state’s archaeological sites.
Supporting local and responsible tourism in the upcoming months will be more important than ever before. But let’s not look at sustainable tourism as just “the right-thing-to-do.” It is an absolute privilege to live in and travel around a region that is so naturally and culturally beautiful as Yucatán. It’s up to us to keep it that way and ensure that the generations to come can enjoy a natural and real Yucatán.
Visit www.yucatantoday.com to read the extended version of this article and get ideas for accommodation and activities nearby.
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