Last Saturday I took a trip out of the city to Uxmal (“X” in Mayan makes a “sh” sound so Uxmal is pronounced as “oo-sh-mahl”). With a slight change in the weather and some drizzle in the morning, it provided for the perfect sunny-but-not-too-hot afternoon conditions for my outing. Rather than going there in the morning and baking in the sun, I chose to visit the ruins in the afternoon to limit my sun exposure and see a “espectaculo de luz y sonido” (light and sound show) in the evening. My guide was a bit concerned that it might rain and the show would get canceled but as luck would have it, we had clear skies and enough cool breezes to make things perfect.
This excursion to Uxmal was part of the curriculum at my Spanish school and the institute arranged for me to join a tour group, so for this trip I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was with about two dozen people; half of them were Mexican tourists from other parts of the country, two women from Argentina, a couple from Switzerland, two guys from China, two from Nicaragua, Linda, the Cuban American retiree from Florida/Merida, and a young woman named Inneke from Australia, whom I got to know better during the tour. The Chinese guys had an interpreter with them and everyone else spoke Spanish so we opted to just have one Spanish speaking guide- I have to keep practicing, right?
When we arrived at 3PM, we were the only ones in the entire archeological site. Francisco, our tour guide, pointed out a Ceiba tree (a very important tree for the Mayans) by the entrance and noted that the Mayans built an elaborate network of waterways underground (there are no visible rivers in the Yucatan peninsula- more on that here) and showed us one of the access points for the subterranean system.
He explained that Uxmal means “the thrice built city” in Mayan and there are remnants of six different temples inside the large pyramid. And because the pyramid was built around those temples, the corners of the pyramid are rounded out rather than being angular. We weren’t allowed to climb up the first pyramid (“Piramide del Adivino”) but I did later on climb the “Gran Piramide.”
We walked around to the front of the pyramid to marvel at the grandeur of it and then moved onto the “Cuadrangulo de las Monjas,” the Nuns‘ Quadrangle. There we learned about the different Mayan gods (there are 13 of them), the Mayan calendar (will the world really end in 2012? Most believe that a big change or a shift of energy/consciousness is coming), architecture, scientific and astronomical knowledge of the Mayans, and the fact they had the concept of “zero” as well as numerical notations.
From there we walked through the field where they played “juego de pelota” (ball game). I heard from my teacher at school and our guide confirmed that at the end of a game, someone was decapitated. According to Francisco, each team had 7 players and one would lose his head at the conclusion of the match (he said no one knows whether it was a winner or a loser), getting back to the number the Mayan’s favored, 13.
We had enough time to wander off on our own to explore the grounds before dinner so I headed to the top of the Grand Pyramid to get a bird’s eye view of Uxmal. From afar, the it looked imposing and my thoughts went immediately to the pyramids in Teotihuacan and the ruins of Angkor Wat. They were both difficult enough to climb up but very tough on the way down because of the steep and narrow steps. Thankfully the steps at Uxmal were wide enough for my small feet and I found it surprisingly easy to climb up to the top and to get back down.
The view from the Grand Pyramid was spectacular and absolutely worth the UNESCO World Heritage designation (along with the other Mayan ruins on the “Ruta Puuc” or the Puuc route, Labna, Sayil, Kabah, and Xlapak, Uxmal was declared a UNESCO site in 1996). Looking at the ruins below, I tried to put in the missing pieces as if it were a jigsaw puzzle to see if I could rebuild the walls and the palaces in my mind. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how many people worked for how long under the cruel Yucatan sun to create this vast city.
We had a fantastic dinner at a hotel restaurant by Uxmal, a wonderful Yucatecan meal… And at exactly at 8PM the light and sound show began. I was entertained by it for a few minutes but soon my mind drifted and my gaze lifted up to the sky. A bright white sliver of an eyebrow-shaped moon and thousands of twinkling stars stretched out over my head. A loud voice over the speaker was telling me a legend about a Mayan princess, but I let the words flow in and flow out. Even though some of the buildings have been restored and the grounds are kept immaculately clean and manicured, they say not much excavation has been done to find out how many people actually lived here (~15,000?) and how they lived. Uxmal was the capital of a Mayan state around 850-925 AD and with the decline of its ally Chitzen Itza, Uxmal’s ruling family Xiu moved to Mani. The Xiu’s sided with the Spanish when the conquerors came and because the Spanish never built a town over Uxmal, it became largely abandoned.
The Spanish spoken in these parts is peppered with Mayan words and expressions, not to mention all the names of towns in Mayan in the area. While it’s really difficult for me to pronounce the Mayan words and it certainly won’t help me much with my Spanish, I’m fascinated by how the Mayan culture continues to be a part of everyday life here in the Yucatan peninsula.
The Mayans from all those years ago looked up at the same sun, moon, and the stars as I do today, and I’m sure they tried to live their lives to the fullest as I try to do the same with mine. I’m happy to see that their story and culture lives on.