Uxmal and Kabah

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March 30th 2010
Published: May 30th 2010
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We took a tour to see Uxmal and Kabah today. After the hassles of getting to Chichen Itza I was quite relieved to be on a guided tour for the day, especially since it would take us to Kabah as well which we couldn't have managed in one day on the buses. I was pleasantly surprised when we were picked up by car, and again when we stopped to pick up the rest of the group which actually proved to be only one person. Being in a group of three with a private bilingual guide and an air conditioned car was certainly a good way to start a day of sightseeing. It improved as I tried to practise my Spanish with the Mexican woman, Aurea, and found she works at the university in Moreila, very close to where I'm living. We enjoyed the trip to Uxmal, stoping en route at an interesting shop/toilet stop. I stretched my legs awhile in a tiny rocky garden containing some carvings including a large carved seat, and overlooking a desert, a couple of lonely cacti setting off the scene.
We soon arrived at Uxmal, parked and walked in to the visitor's centre and shopping area. We met up with a second group and were split according to language and sent off with the two guides. Our driver led the spanish tour so we followed the new guy. He started his tour straight away, stopping on the path with the ruins frustratingly just out of view. The information was interesting though. He told us that the name Uxmal is linked to the number 'three' in the Mayan language. Some scholars say the name means 'thrice built' (although in actuality the city was built five times) and the theory our guide put forward is that Uxmal was an argricultural city and the name comes from their method of 'three sisters' planting. 'Three sisters' planting means that the Mayan planted all three of their staple crops; corn, beans and squash; together. The corn would grow tall and provide support for the bean plants. The beans added nitrogen to the soil, while the squash plants spread around the base acting as a live mulch.
Uxmal is one of the most well known of the Maya cities, and rated by many archaeologists as the finest. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 as it is considered that the ruins of the ceremonial structures represent the pinnacle of late Maya art and architecture in their design, layout and ornamentation. Maya chronicles say that Uxmal was founded about 500 CE by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the Xiu family, was the most powerful site in western Yucatan, and for a while in alliance with Chichen Itza dominated all of the northern Maya area. Sometime after about 1200 no new major construction seems to have been made at Uxmal, possibly related to the fall of Uxmal's ally Chichen Itza and the shift of power in Yucatan to Mayapan. The Xiu moved their capital to Maní, and the population of Uxmal declined.After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán (in which the Xiu allied themselves with the Spanish), early colonial documents suggest that Uxmal was still an inhabited place of some importance into the 1550s, but no Spanish town was built here and Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.
As we finally trapsed up the path we were met by the impressive sight of the Pyramid of the Magician, which according to folklore was built in a single night by a dwarf. The graceful elliptical shape and the different angles of inclination of the east and west staircases make the Pyramid of the Magician one of the most unusual in Mesoamerica. The pyramid has 90 steps, set at a 60° angle, and like so many Mayan structures was built on top of previous temples, each one being bigger and grander as it encompased its predecessors.
We walked slowly around the impressive structure, ducking under the low arches in the surrounding walls and coming out in a courtyard facing the opposite side of the pyramid. A group of local women were cleaning around the area and we saw intricately carved pieces of stone placed around the base of the pyramid, presumably because it is unknown where they came from. From this side we could see the carvings and decorations more clearly, all the way up to the elaborate doorway forming the mouth of a giant Chac mask, in honour of the rain god.
We walked on to the 'nunnery'. The building was actually a government palace but was given it's nickname by the Spanish who thought it looked like a nunnery. We got a rather exhausting lecture at this point, which was difficult to pay attention to due to the heat of the sun and the fact there wasn't the tiniest bit of shade to stand in. Still, I had to admit the carvings were particularly impressive, especially a detail raised carving of a cat, and the feathered snake from the cult of Quezicoltl. Afterwards we were walked towards the ball court. The ballgame was played by the Mayan people although it had many variations depending on location or time period. The ball game was sacred to the Mayans and an extension of their religion. The game may have been a re-enactment of the Mayan myth of the Hero Twins. In the myth, the Hero Twins had to battle the gods of death from the underworld by playing a ball game. In the story the Twins win and they rise into the heavens to be the sun and the moon. The ball is believed to represent the moon and the sun and the court represents the earth. The game was played with a rubber ball, around 20 inches in diametre, perhaps representing the sun and moon. Essentially the goal of the game was to pass the ball around, without having it touch the players' hands, and then get the ball to pass through one of the large stone rings, situated up on the inwardly sloping walls. Since the rings were so high and players were not allowed to use their hands, it was extremely difficult to get the ball through a ring. In fact, when a player did manage to get a ball through a ring, that usually ended the game. The game ended otherwise when the ball touched the ground. Legends say that the the winning captain would present his head to the losing capitan, who then decapitates him. While this may seem a strange reward, the Mayans believed this to be the ultimate honour.The winning captian getting a direct ticket to heaven instead of going through the 13 steps that the Mayan's believed they had to go through in order to reach heaven.
After reaching the end of the ballcourt we were allowed time to explore the site alone but found after the admittedly very interesting lecture we had a mere 15 minutes before we needed to be back at the main entrance. We took the time to race up to the Govenor's Palace seated at the time of a large staircase. Climbing the steps of the palace itself we discovered a fantastic view across the site. We clambered into a small chamber to explored the small darkened space then gave another fleeting glance to the view before hurredly retracing our steps. We arrived back at the main entrance a good ten minutes late abd very overheated. We rejoined our driver and Aurea and drove on for lunch. We stopped at a beautiful roadside restaurant surround by colourful gardens, before our driver realised he'd brought us to the wrong restauant and we returned to Uxmal and went to the restaurant on site. Our included meal was surprisingly good and the three of us relaxed and chatted before eventually moving on to Kabah.
I was surprised to find Kabah literally at the side of the road, surrounded by a metal fence and with a patch of dirt serving as the car park. We clambered out of the car and entered the site. Our driver pointed out where to go but it was pretty obvious as this is a much smaller site compared to Uxmal. Despite my drivers comment of 'there are only two buildings' I really enjoyed Kabah. We were basically the only people there and I only saw two other people towards the end. Away from the other tourists we were able to explore at our leisure and take in the sight of the ruins devoid of people, which was much more atmospheric than trying to take photographs without that one annoying person in bright red getting into every shot. The name Kabah is usually taken to be archaic Maya language for 'strong hand'. This is a pre-Columbian name for the site, mentioned in Maya chronicles. Not much is known about the history of Kabah, but It seems to have been a dependency of the great city of Uxmal. The two centers are linked by a sacbé, a Mayan 'white road' used for ceremonial purposes. This area was inhabited by the 3rd century BCE, but the principal buildings on the site date mostly from the 9th century CE (a sculpted date of 857 was found near one of the doors). Kabah was abandoned by around 1200.
We clambered up the steep steps of the Palace of the Masks. The Palace of the Masks or Codz Poop (meaning 'Rolled Matting'), has a facade covered in hundreds of stone masks of the hook-nosed rain god Chac and makes an impressive sight. We looked at the various carvings placed on the grass in front of the palace and then viewed the facade before peering into the far duller interiors. We walked around behind the palace of the masks and eventually descended the steps on the other side and visited the palace. Eventually we walked back towards the entrance and rejoined our travel companions. We drove on and our driver asked if we would be interested in taking a little detour on the way back and stopping to visit one of the cenotes. We agreed and he drove us off the main road.
We passed through a small village. A ruined hacienda stood beside the roadside, nothing more than a few empty walls containing an archway leading nowhere. A tiny 13th century church stood opposite and we stopped a few metres down the road to buy our tickets. Driving on we turned onto a dusty track framed by tall grasses. A sign warned us to beware of jaguars so we excitedly peered into the long grasses in the hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of something but to no avail. We stopped in another dusty parking space and climbed up the slope to view the cenote from above. Cenotes are surface connections to subterranean water bodies, common across the Yucatan peninsula and some nearby Carribean islands. The name comes from Yucatec Maya dzonot or ts'onot, meaning 'well'. The clear water of the pools is usually very deep and leads to underground caves many of which continue for miles underwater.
We walked down to the cenote and I was amazed by the clear rich blue colour of the water. Tangled roots hang from the surrounding cliffs and green plants surround the water creating a very tanquil atmosphere. We sat by the water for some time enjoying the peace. We did hear some strange snarls and growls but our driver laughed when we casually asked if we needed to be wary about the jaguar sign we'd seen earlier. However he did then find it amusing as we sat quietly watching the still blue water, to hurl a large lump of rock into the water making us all jump!
We eventually wound our way back to the car, piled in, and drove off in an impressive cloud of dust. The car was actually brown by the time we reached the proper road again.
We drove back to Merida and were dropped off by the plaza opposite our hotel. Saying our goodbyes we returned to our room, relaxed, made use of the internet and then popped out to the Oxo to buy some food for dinner. Back at the hostel we sat on the patio area under the night sky eating our food, ice cream first so it didn't melt.

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30th May 2010

Thanks .I have been waiting for this one. Another fascinating read. You always make it so interesting. I feel I have been there already. Keep writing and I'll buy your book.

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