- Travel and Places
The Ancient Pyramids of Mexico
Just South Of The Border But A World So Far Away
Between the middle of the second millennium B.C. and the 16th century A.D. Mexico was home to the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec civilizations. These ancient civilizations developed complex mathematics, writing systems, accurate calendars and unique art forms. They also enjoyed music, astronomy, religion and games of sport.
My husband and I found ourselves in the heart of this ancient world recently, exploring the awe inspiring sites of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Edzna, Palenque, Chicanna, Becan, Xpuhil and Tulum. Each location offered up its own rich history of artifacts, pyramids and architecturally unique ruins. It was very surprising to see large numbers of tourists from Japan and Europe at most of the sites. France and Germany seemed to be especially well represented as they arrived in caravans of rugged Mercedes RV's and Range Rovers usually covered with a plethora of stickers from every conceivable location in Mexico and South and Central America. Where were the hundreds of American tourists that could be seen on the streets of Cancun only days earlier? Our Mexican guide, Jose, provided the answer. "Gringos rarely travel beyond the luxury hotels and cantinas in the Cancun area. They have no interest in our ancient culture", he remarked politely. It seemed a shame that so many U.S. visitors were nearby and yet they were missing out on such a spectacular adventure. Perhaps the news reports of drug wars and kidnappings taking place in Mexico have made U.S. tourists a little apprehensive about leaving the security of the resorts, but most of these incidents are actually occurring many miles away. The Yucatan peninsula is really not that dangerous if you use caution and some common sense, traveling only on major roadways in daylight and if possible with a group. Having someone with some Spanish speaking skills can also be helpful as you travel. Although many of the locals speak an indigenous dialect unrelated to Spanish, most speak at least some Spanish.
We take our first steps into the Mayan world at Chichen Itza southwest of Cancun in central Yucatan. This is one of the most popular and well documented ancient sites in Mexico. Chichen Itza was a thriving Puuc city that reached its peak in 950 AD. The site is spread out over an area of 12 square miles with the monumental center boasting many picturesque structures including an observatory, nunnery, a large pyramid and a sacred water hole called a cenote. Getting to the site early affords you the opportunity to explore at your leisure before the crowds from the tour buses arrive and in the comfort of the cool morning air. There is so much area to cover that it's best to spend the better part of a day if possible.
Chichen ItzaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Close to the border of Yucatan and Campeche is an amazing site called Uxmal. This location has one of the best preserved ancient cities discovered to date. The region was established around 700 AD and was once the most important political center in the Yucatan before the rise of Chichen Itza. The pyramid at Uxmal is called The Pyramid of the Magician and is unusual in its construction, having a more rounded base as opposed to the traditional square construction found on most other pyramids. Local mythology tells a story of the pyramid being built by a dwarf and appearing magically overnight. The entire area is very serene and scenic with flowering trees and rich green grasses. Iguanas of all sizes can be seen throughout the site but they are relatively shy and quickly scurry away if you venture too close. If you arrive early enough in the morning you may witness the flying of the swallows as they swarm from their nests in the ruins by the hundreds in search of food. The buildings in Uxmal are probably the most impressive seen in any ruin. Ornately carved stone structures beckon you to enter through their ancient doorways and discover the secrets of a civilization long forgotten.
UxmalClick thumbnail to view full-size
Kabah and Sayil
Not as much time is needed to explore the sites of Kabah and Sayil, near the border of Yucatan and Campeche, as these ruins take up a much smaller area than those of Uxmal or Chichen Itza. However, they are definitely worth stopping to see as the architecture is beautiful. Archeologists suggest that the site of Kabah once housed a royal family and there are several ornately decorated buildings to support this assumption. Sayil too was a supposed palace for the elite class and the area around the main structure suggests that there where many gardens. Archeologists have also discovered a large number of ancient water tanks in the two square mile area of Sayil suggesting that the density of the population in that location was high.
Kabah and SayilClick thumbnail to view full-size
Crossing into Campeche and arriving at Edzna, it takes time to explore the area and climb to the top of the pyramid called The Five Story Building to get an overview of the ruins. This site was originally inhabited from 600 BC until 1450 AD.
A complicated water system existed in this area consisting of thirteen main channels, thirty one secondary channels and eighty four deposits of water. The region was a commercial center, selling cotton, salt and sea products to the populations in the lowlands.
EdznaClick thumbnail to view full-size
After a long drive through Campeche and past Tabasco you will reach Palenque. Located in the jungles of Chiapas, this site is considered the true jewel of the Mayan world. It has been determined that this city was founded in the 5th century AD. The most dominant features at this site are the Pyramid of Inscriptions and the tower observatory in the Palace of Palenque.
The best word to describe Palenque is enchanting. The site is very large and well maintained with magnificent shade trees and wide varieties of lush vegetation. There are still areas being excavated within the dense jungle and a short walk down a narrow path into the foliage will take you back in time as you hear the howler monkeys calling from the treetops in the distance and view the remains of ancient structures barely visible, peeking from beneath the jungle's leafy camouflage.
Descend down mossy stairways to investigate primitive dwellings that seem naturally situated among the thick branches and massive tree roots. It feels like an Indiana Jones adventure movie as you explore the area. After taking a day to enjoy the archeological site it's imperative to stop in the museum and learn all you can about ancient Palenque. One of the most remarkable displays you will see there is a huge sarcophagus inscribed with what looks like a man in some sort of machine, complete with breathing tube. A legend tells the tale of the ruler, Pacal, climbing the sacred tree to visit the stars. It makes you stop and wonder what we don't yet know about these ancient civilizations.
PalenqueClick thumbnail to view full-size
If you travel beyond Palenque in Chiapas you will most likely pass through an area under Zapatista rule. The local people often pull a rope across the roadway in order to stop the traffic and sell bananas, tamales and candy. It is a good idea to carry a supply of coins in order to purchase some of the items they offer as this helps support the economy in the area and fosters a good relationship between the tourists and the locals. Bananas are the safest food option. It is not advisable to eat any tamales or other prepared food along the roadways as this can often result in severe stomach upset and a case of what is more politely referred to as “Montezuma’s revenge”.
While in Chiapas it is highly recommended that you take time to visit Agua Azul and Misol Ha.
ChiapasClick thumbnail to view full-size
Becan, Xpuhil and Chicanna
Driving back in the direction of Cancun in Quintana Roo, it's worthwhile to stop a few more times in Campeche to visit Becan, Xpuhil and Chicanna. All of these sites have their own unique qualities that are very interesting and extremely scenic. Chicanna is still under excavation and archaeologists remain mystified as to its origins and purpose. It is a good sized site and its most notable structure is what appears to be a temple with a gaping jaw as a doorway. Nearby is Becan which was founded around 600 BC and has a fair sized pyramid as well as the remains of other large buildings. Pathways wind all through the area and shade trees make the walk very comfortable. If you stop in Xpuhil it may be a bit of a challenge to find a hotel, so it's probably better to plan an early day trip with a more populated late day destination in mind. If you must arrive late in Xpuhil you might get lucky and find a one room hotel that is vacant for the night. The archeological site of Xpuhil is like a nature hike through the woods with occasional ruins to view on your way to the main structure, three tall towers built side by side. One tower has a very steep, narrow, nearly hidden staircase that will afford you an overall view of the area. The staircase is not recommended if you are uncomfortable in tight spaces. It is speculated that Xpuhil was also founded around 600 BC. Meandering around these sites can be really enjoyable and even though not much is yet known about these locations, it is nonetheless a rare and amazing experience.
Becan, Xpuhil and ChicannaClick thumbnail to view full-size
A final destination that should not be missed is Tulum in Quintana Roo. Tulum sits at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean and the scenery can only be described as breathtaking. The aqua waters of the sea below make this site one of the most picturesque places in Mexico. The ruins themselves are rather simple in design but with some very ornate carvings on some of the structures. It is here in Tulum that you will finally find a good number of U.S. tourists, most being guided on bus tours. The site can sometimes get crowded but not to the point where you must struggle to get some decent photographs. If you manage to arrive ahead of the afternoon tour buses Tulum can actually be a very tranquil place.
TulumClick thumbnail to view full-size
If you remain in Cancun for a while, enjoy some of the ambiance the city offers. There are plenty of good, clean and reasonably priced restaurants in Cancun as well as some very nice lodgings. You might even choose to stay in a hostel if you are trying to economize. You may be pleasantly surprised by the quality of your accommodations. You can also drive around the outskirts of Cancun and find some very beautiful locations to photograph and enjoy. Beware, however, as local traffic police sometimes try to extort money in order to avoid issuing traffic tickets. (If you have violated a traffic law it might be better to pay the “fine” in order to avoid any long delays in your vacation plans that could be caused by receiving a ticket.)
A final note; for every ancient site we visited there are probably ten more we missed. The region is literally rich with ruins, many not yet excavated and some still waiting to be discovered.
Around CancunClick thumbnail to view full-size
More pyramids outside the Yucatan peninsula - There are many more ancient and amazing sites in the interior of Mexico
Although there are hundreds of beautiful locations, pyramids and ruins to see in the Yucatan peninsula you might want to visit the interior of Mexico in order to see some really amazing ancient sites such as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Tenochtitlan, Tula, El Tajin, Monte Alban as well as many others. As time passes more sites are being unearthed throughout the Maya region and each site is unique and amazing. Mexico is our close neighbor and the culture and land is so rich with experiences it would be a shame to miss any of it.
Teotihuacan - An ancient marvelClick thumbnail to view full-size
XochicalcoClick thumbnail to view full-size
Tenochtitlan (Temple Mayor) - In the heart of Mexico City (Zocalo)Click thumbnail to view full-size
A few other pyramids in Mexico - There are hundreds of pyramids in Mexico and these are only the few we have seen.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Cholula - A massive pyramid buried beneath a historic churchClick thumbnail to view full-size
An Ancient Temple Above Malinalco - A long trek up a steep hill but it's worth it.Click thumbnail to view full-size
More journeys into the Yucatan Peninsula and beyond
Not far from the road on the way to Chichen Itza is an interesting site called Ek Balam. The area is not too large but has a fair amount of very interesting structures amid shaded trails. The most beautiful portion of this site is the temple near the top of the tallest structure. The cost for this site is currently 62 pesos and well worth it. There are facilities available as well as small shops. The site is open daily from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
A Nice Way To Cool Down
The Yucatan area is dotted with hundreds of cenotes (underground pools of fresh water). Even in the winter months the heat can be oppressive and these lovely pools offer a break from the hot sun. We located a small cenote not far from Ek Balam called Sak Awa that offered an island in the center of the water that gives you the sense of a very private beach. We had the cenote all to ourselves all day and thoroughly enjoyed the cold water and curious fishes.
Cenote Sak Awa
Chichen Itza (the second time around)
While in Yucatan we could not pass up another chance to see Chichen Itza. This site never disappoints as it is massive and full of very interesting structures as well as some big iguana who are happy to pose for photos. The cost is currently 216 pesos and 30 pesos for parking. There are facilities at the entrance and within the site and an excellent restaurant and some very nice shops.The site is open daily from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Try to arrive early to beat the heat and tour buses and make sure to bring water as it can get hot as you walk around and although there is plenty of shade many of the structures are in the open areas where the sun can get intense.
Another site well worth seeing more than once is Uxmal. This is also a very large site and probably the best preserved ruin in Mexico. There are nice walkways through the area with shade trees and flowering vines as well as a large population of very photogenic iguana. The cost is currently199 pesos and a 30 peso parking fee. There is a luxury hotel just off the site with an impressive grass roofed restaurant. There are facilities at the entrance as well as some nice shops and an excellent restaurant. This site is open daily from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. It is good to arrive early to beat the heat and maybe even get a chance to see the swallows exit the ruins for their morning flight. The late great author, Michael Chichton once visited this site and wrote about it in his book "Travels".
Palenque (A happy return)
Palenque is by far my favorite site in all of Mexico. The area is on the edge of the jungles of Chiapas and you can often hear and see howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the treetops. The site is large and very peaceful and beautiful. The heat is not so oppressive here as the jungle offers cool breezes from the lush vegetation and numerous streams within. I can lose myself to this site as there is so much to see and many of the structures are within the jungle canopy and offer up such a unique experience. If you visit this site plan to spend the whole day as you will want to take advantage of every minute. There is also a museum just outside the main parking area and a lovely waterfall. There are several small eateries and lots of small shops. The admission cost is 64 pesos. There are facilities within the site. Palenque ruins are open daily from 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Cascada Roberto Barrios
A very lovely waterfall called Roberto Barrios is located within a nearby Zapatista village. It is a short walk from where you can park but the site is very beautiful and well worth seeing. The cost is 70 pesos. There are no facilities or shops or restaurants but the area is not too large and shouldn't take long to view and photograph. Locals use the area for swimming and will not mind if you decide to take a dip.Keep your eyes and ears open and you might even spot some monkeys.
Cascada Roberto Barrios
Another lovely site to visit in Chiapas is called Tonina. The area is green and beautiful and the ruins are impressive. There are facilities on site and a small restaurant with a small section of T-shirts and a few other trinkets. The climb is not too difficult and the view from the top is spectacular. We traveled there on a Sunday and there was no charge but I have read online that the weekday fee is 45 pesos. This site is open 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. daily.
After visiting Tonina and driving back toward Palenque it got late and we were tired. We stopped at Aqua Azul and paid 45 pesos but the falls were closed and the idea of staying in a local posada (hostel) for the night didn't seem too inviting for us so we continued on to Cascada Misol Ha and were delighted to find a cozy cabin near the waterfall for 400 pesos. There was also a pretty good restaurant at the site that offered a fair selection of dinners. Our sleep was very restful with the sound of the waterfall nearby and we woke in the morning to the distant calls of howler monkeys in the jungle outside our back window. I have read that the cost of seeing the waterfall is normally 25 pesos but because we rented a cabin we were admitted as part of the rental package. There are facilities on site, a restaurant and a gift shop.
A small but worthwhile site in Campeche is called Balamku. It is within a couple miles of the bio-reserve of Calakmul and only takes about an hour to explore. There is an amazing stone carving within one of the structures that should not be missed. It is behind a locked door so if you ask for someone to open it for you when you arrive it is a good idea. (A tip is always appreciated by the guy who has to walk back and unlock the door for you.) There are facilities at the entrance but no food or gift shop. The price is currently 39 pesos and the site is open from 8:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. daily. Bring water as it gets hot even in the winter months.
Calakmul and the bio-reserve
You cannot see Calakmul without passing through the bio-reserve. It is about 60 km from the main highway through the reserve to the entrance of the pyramid site. You currently pay 28 pesos per person plus 56 pesos per car to use the roadway to the bio-reserve then you pay 61 pesos per car to drive into the reserve and 52 pesos per person for the site itself. There are facilities but no food, water or shops of any kind on the site. It is essential to bring water and maybe even a snack as the site is very large and you can spend the better part of a day exploring everything there is to see. There is also plenty of wildlife on this site. We saw spider and howler monkeys, lots of ocellated turkeys, a fox, a hawk, several curassows and a very colorful woodpecker. Near the entrance off the main highway is a beautiful hotel and restaurant called Hotel Puerta Calakmul if you want to have an excellent meal and stay close to the reserve. The cost is currently 160 USD per night for a very lovely private cabana. About a couple of miles down the main highway is another option called Cabanas Calakmul for a rustic private cabana for 600 pesos if you have a smaller budget. There is a little outdoor restaurant at this location that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For Your Information
An Interesting Graph Of Pyramid Sizes
A Timeline of MesoAmerican Cultures
Information on Mexico and Pyramids of Mexico
This book gives some great details about ancient sites.
This is my favorite of all books on Mexican pyramids. The map in the front of the book also gives you an idea of where to look for these sites.
good idea to take a guide to the country