The Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal.

My Mexico Trip, Part 7: Mystic Mayan Uxmal, Sun and Sand, and a Ballet Folklórico.

Continued from My Mexico Trip Part 6: The Forested Ruins of Palenque.

We got up early for another walk through the lush surroundings of the hotel in Palenque. Our rewards were unique bird-calls and a healthy appetite. After breakfast we boarded our bus and started on the long drive to Mérida. The picturesque forested ruins of Palenque kept going through my mind. What could beat that, I thought! Little did I know of what was yet to come in Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mal).

Gulf of Mexico
Sand, palms and a thatch to shelter from the hot sun, Gulf of Mexico.

We drove past the blue green waters of the Gulf of Mexico with its white sands, green palms and little thatch shelters that gave some relief from the hot sun. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop for a swim, I thought. But we had miles to go….

Pelicans fishing.
View from the patio where we were having lunch. Pelicans and gulls fishing, Gulf of Mexico.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant by the water watching pelicans and gulls dive for fish as we enjoyed a delicious fish course ourselves. I took videos of pelicans hitting the water with a loud splash hunting for fish. They failed many times—hunting is not easy. Mercifully, we have moved far from the hunter-gatherer stage. Agriculture and the progress of civilization have made possible dependable access to food for many, but not all. For some, food is still scarce though fortunately that number is small and rapidly decreasing.

My son and I with the Gulf of Mexico in the background.
After lunch, my son and I with the blue-green Gulf of Mexico in the background.

We arrived in Mérida and stopped at the Courtyard by Marriott where we stayed for two nights. That evening we were entertained with a Baile Folklórico (Ballet Folklorico), a traditional ballet-like Mexican dance with colorful costumes that emphasize local customs. It was very enjoyable.

Members of our tour dancing with the Baile Folklorico dancers.
Members of our tour dancing with the Baile Folklórico dancers.

At the end we were asked to participate and some took up the offer, swaying in rhythm to the catchy music waving red and green scarves enticing the “bull to charge”. (Bull fighting has been a tradition in Mexico and probably is still practiced in some parts.) It was fun. We posed for pictures with the dance ensemble.

With Baile Folklorico dancers.
With the Baile Folklórico dancers, Mérida, Mexico.

The next morning we headed for the ancient Maya ruins in Uxmal. The ground gradually rose from the flat plains of the Yucatán peninsula as we entered the “Puuc” region. (Puuc is Maya for hill.) There were several prosperous Maya communities in this region from 600-900 AD. They subsisted on agriculture and trade and developed a unique architecture— the Puuc style, remnants of which we saw all around us. Water was scarce and they built an elaborate system for collecting and storing rain water in cisterns called chultunes. Their apogee was in the reign of Lord Chac who built many of the buildings (890-910 AD) that still stand today. Interestingly, his name is the same as that of the Rain God Chak, a powerful god in charge of bringing rain, so crucial for survival, to a dry region. Great kings often aspire to divinity. A divine name was step one in the process. It was also meant to impress the subjects and impart authority.

Pyramid of the Magicians, Uxmal, Mexico.
Pyramid of the Magicians, west face, Uxmal, Mexico.

Our bus stopped at the archeological site and, cameras in hand, we entered the complex. the The first impression of The Pyramid of the Magician (Casa del Adivino) stays etched in your mind—a gigantic 34 meter (115 feet) high pyramid with a “monster-mouth” near the top. But, the rest is in the form of an oval, a very unusual shape for such a structure in Mesoamerica.

Pyramid of the Magicians, Uxmal.
Pyramid of the Magicians, oval surface, Uxmal, Mexico.

As was often the case then, Mayan temples were built in many stages. What we saw was the fifth incarnation built over four earlier versions. How did people climb up to the mouth, I wondered? The top of the pyramid represents a typical Mayan dwelling with a thatched roof.

Entrance to the Magician's house, Uxamal.
The Monster Mouth Entrance at the top of the Magician’s Pyramid-closeup, Uxmal.

We then walked past the Bird’s Quadrangle and proceeded toward four large buildings surrounding a central rectangular courtyard, The Nun’s Quadrangle (Cuadrángulo de las Monjas) or Nunnery. It was a 74-room complex so named because that is how the Spaniards interpreted it to be. The thoughts of man are a product of his experiences and imaginations.

Nunnery, Uxmal, Mexico.
At the Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal.

To the Spanish priest Diego Lopez de Cogolludo who gave that name, the structure resembled a nunnery in Spain. Hence the appellation. But, it could have been a palace, a school or a military academy. Who knows! It does not matter.

Chaak (the Rain God with the long nose) motifs on the buildings, Uxmal.
Chaak (the Rain God with the long nose) motifs on the buildings, Uxmal.

The exterior surfaces of the buildings are covered with geometrical patterns and motifs resembling the face of Chac (or Chaak), the rain god, with the long curved nose. In several places we also saw Quetzalacoatl or Kukulcan, the feathered serpent. We had first come in contact with Quetzalacoatl at Teotihuacán described in My Mexico Trip, Part 1, proof of considerable interactions between the Maya and Aztecs at that time.

Quatzelcoatl or Kukulcan (the feathered serpant) motifs on the Nunnery buildings, Uxmal.
Quatzelcoatl or Kukulcan (the feathered serpent) motifs on the Nunnery buildings, Uxmal.

Swallows had built their nests in several of these abandoned buildings and we saw them constantly flying about. I poked my head into one of these open doorways and was met with the pungent smell of their droppings. Glad that they found a semi-secluded place to nest.

The Maya Arch, Nunnery, Uxmal.
The Corbeled Arch (Maya Arch) at the Nunnery, Uxmal, Mexico.

On the southern face of the quadrangle, we found a wonderful example of the Maya Arch. Notice how the corbeled stones lean progressively inward as you go up the arch until they meet the capping stone on top. Together it is a very stable structure. It has stood for centuries. Note further how precisely fashioned they are, and these were made by men with only stone tools!

The Ball Court, Uxmal.
The Ball Court, Uxmal. Note the hoop through which the rubber ball had to be thrown.

We headed over to the Ball Court (Juego de Pelota), a popular game then where the contestants had to toss a ball of rubber through vertical hoops. One such hoop was still attached to the wall. I later found it was a reproduction, the originals were removed for preservation. The balls were heavy and the game required great stamina and skill. The inevitable comparison to basketball came to mind. More on this topic later when we visit Chichén Itzá and its celebrated ball court.

On the way we met an iguana posing for a picture in the hot sun. I marveled at its camouflage precisely mimicking the tan and black surface it was on.

An iguana, Uxmal.
An iguana posing for tourists. Note how its coloring matches with the stones, Uxmal.

We then headed for the the Governor’s Palace (Palacio del Gobernador) after climbing a flight of steep steps. I was glad there was a railing to hold. It made the climb, and later, the descent, easier.

We stopped in front of the House of Turtles so named for carved images of turtles on the walls. Turtles were associated with rain, hence, important for the Mayans in parched Uxmal. From the high platform we got a jaw dropping view of a large section of the Uxmal archeological site. The pyramid was dazzling in the bright hot sun outlined against the deep blue sky with fluffy white clouds. It was a toasty 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Pyramid, Ball Court and Nunnery, Uxmal, Mexico.
The Pyramid, Ball Court and Nunnery, Uxmal, Mexico.

We posed for some photos. I could not resist adding the next one with its caption.

My son and I at Uxmal. Number one Dad.
My son and I at Uxmal, Mexico. I think he is saying #1 Dad. The Pyramid of the Magician is in the background clearly visible above the trees.

Next stop, the Governor’s Palace.

Palacio del Gobarnador. Uxmal, Mexico.
The Governor’s Palace, Uxmal, Mexico.

This was an imposing edifice set high on a massive foundation with geometric carvings over its facade. Its elevation must have given the governor a good view over his domain and allowed him to enjoy the breezes wafting over the Puuc. There was the ubiquitous image of Chak in front. I saw plants and creepers growing on the walls. Someone was engaged in clearing them. That was good. Left untended the expanding roots would dislodge the stones destroying the buildings.

Two-headed jaguar throne, Uxmal, Mexico.
Two-headed Jaguar Throne, Uxmal, Mexico.

In front of the Governor’s Palace, on a raised platform, we saw the two-headed jaguar throne. It was carved from a single block of stone, a notable artifact from that time. Some thoughts immediately went through my mind. It was narrow, I could just fit into it. And hard and curved. There was no back-rest. I pictured the king sitting on it for hours tending to his duties. It must have been a very uncomfortable throne. Such was life, even for a king, in those days. Modern day potentates (the handful that are left) have cushioned thrones with back and foot rests, and ermine and velvet.

The Grand Pyramid, Uxmal.
The Magician’s Pyramid with a colonnaded temple in the foreground, Uxmal.

We climbed down the steep stairs. On the way back we saw the top of the Grand Pyramid and another pillared temple that would not be out of place in the Parthenon complex. It looked like a Greek temple. How could these two very different architectural styles appear in one place at the same time? This question kept cropping up in many places we visited in Mexico.

My knees were beginning to protest after the long walks and steep stairs. It had been a wonderful, eye-opening, educative experience seeing the remains of the ancient Maya communities in Uxmal. We headed back to our bus and Mérida.

Continued: My Mexico Trip, Part 8: Merida.

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