When thinking about Mexico one of the images which usually comes to mind along with giant sombreros, tequila and beaches is the image of pyramids, particularly Chichen Itzá. Although it is a World Heritage Site and there is no doubt that the structures are spectacular considering the time in which they were built and that it has been extremely well restored, it is rather overrated.
What I’m sure was once a truly amazing site has become overrun with tourists who cover the place like ants along with numerous vendors who line the walkways selling repetitive trinkets to unwary foreigners at higher than normal prices. It’s more like the county fair than a magnificent ancient site full of mystery. In saying that, the souvenirs sold inside the site are not actually that tacky – in truth some are actually quite cool. However, this commercialization has caused Chichen Itzá to lack that special magic one would expect to experience during a visit.
Something not so well known is that there are many ancient ruins scattered all over the Yucatán Peninsula, some barely restored and others in very good shape. Although there are many, many ruins and I would love to talk about them all, at this moment I will only highlight two – Uxmal and Kabah – both easily accessible from Merida.
Also making the World Heritage Site list, Uxmal is one of the most important Maya sites from the classical period. The first thing you see when you enter is the huge Pyramid of the Magician. Carrying on through the site you can see government temples, a ball court, the governors palace and also the Great Pyramid (which you CAN actually climb – thumbs up) where you can get a great view from the site as a whole.
As the first ruins I visited in Mexico, I was very impressed with this site. There were very few other people there – giving the place a feel that it belonged to the past, making it all more mysterious and impressive. Not only was the lack of crowds of tourists great but, I must say, I loved how the pyramids seemed to jut out from the trees surrounding them creating a kind of indescribable mystical atmosphere not found in the famous Chichen Itzá. And, needless to say, the ruins themselves were in tip top condition.
Connected to Uxmal via a 18km pedestrian ceremonial causeway, Kabah is the second largest site in the Puuc Maya region after Uxmal. Although currently undergoing restorations and not in sparkling form like its neighbour, Kabah is still definitely worth a visit.
The Palace of the Masks, covered in representations of the rain god Chaac, is unique in its repetition of one figure, but not surprising since the Maya in this area were dependent on rain as a source of water thanks to having no cenote to rely upon.
What was most apparent to me about this site was the detail used on the structures, something I hadn’t seen to such extent in other sites. What I also quite liked, strangely enough, was that the site was not completely restored, giving an alternative perspective to the recreated Maya image found at the more popular sites. Although it is not completely overgrown by surrounding forest, the current state of the ruins creates an ambience of recent discovery. Visiting Kabal is like going back in time to the recent discovery of a previously forgotten world.
These are only two of the countless Maya sites found all over the Yucatán Peninsula all of which are great alternatives to for those looking to take a small step off the beaten track and escape the crowds for a little while.
Opening hours for Uxmal are from 8am to 5pm, 7 days a week with a small charge for entry. Opening hours for Kabah are also from 8am to 5pm daily with an entry fee of around 30 pesos. There are many tours of the area leaving from Merida (along with other towns and cities), which can often be organised directly with the tour operator or through your hotel or hostel at a slightly higher price.