While people may associate Mexico with beach vacations and unlimited margaritas, there is more to this vibrant country than guzzling fruit cocktails under palm trees (although that’s nice too). But if your family craves a more cultural experience, Mexico boasts hundreds of ancient ruins from the Mayan empire that you can explore.
The vast number of sites can make the sightseeing a little intimidating, but there are two ancient cities that are a definite must-see: Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Both located on the Yucatan Peninsula, these Mayan sites are the largest and remain the best excavated and best preserved. They were both named UNESCO World Heritage Sites and each offers a unique and slightly different glimpse into the impressive and mysterious Mayan culture.
Chichen Itza is Linked to the Stars
Located 110 miles west of Cancun, Chichen Itza covers about six square miles and has preserved 30 large buildings, some dating back to as early as 250 AD. The most famous of these is the Temple of Kukulkan (also called El Castillo), a 75-foot-tall pyramid that was named one of the Seven Manmade Wonders of the World in 2007. During Mayan times, it served as a temple to the god Kukulkan, a snake deity.
The temple also has astronomical significance. Every year at the spring and fall equinox, the sunlight that falls on one side of the pyramid, creates shadows on the other side that converge to form a serpent’s body, which joins a carved stone serpent head at the base of the pyramid. Such intricate structural work is one of many examples of the Mayan’s precise orientation to the stars and constellations.
Water Was a Sacred Resource at Chichen Itza
Another stunning and perhaps unexpected feature of the site is the Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Well. While the Yucatan peninsula region is generally arid, you might be surprised to know that there actually are bodies of water – but they are underground. Below the surface of the site there are underground rivers that surface in natural sinkholes, called cenotes.
This rare manifestation provided a water supply to ancient Mayans and was the location for several centuries of human sacrifice, often to please the Rain god. Coincidentally, Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” suggesting a strong tie between the people and their water.
Uxmal Boasts Unique Mayan Architecture
Moving further west along the peninsula, you come upon Uxmal, another popular ancient site. Younger than Chichen Itza, Uxmal was most active around 850 AD. And while both sites are of Mayan origin, Uxmal was built in a different style of architecture.
Large facades and ornate stone decorations garnish the buildings. In fact, the Governor’s Palace, which is the main temple, boasts the longest facades in Pre-Colombian Central America. It’s large size and lavish stone decorations suggest that it was built by hundreds of masons and sculptors.
The House of the Magician is another fascinating structure. It is unique even to Mayan architecture in that the shape of the pyramid is more oval, rather than rectilinear. The name is linked to a Mayan folklore in which a mythical dwarf was issued a series of challenges by the governor of Uxmal, including the completion of the pyramid, in order to complete a trial of strength and magic.
Chichen Itza and Uxmal are Easily Accessible
While the sites may seem a little distant, there are several options of getting to the ruins including bus and car (and even by plane to Chichen Itza). Chichen Itza is a popular one-day excursion from Cancun and many private tour companies such as Flavio Tours offer guided tours, often with small meals and snacks provided. If Cancun is going to be your base, check out this guide for the best attractions and tours.
Uxmal is located on the other side of the peninsula, closer to the cities of Merida and Campeche. If you plan on staying in Campeche, check out our Campeche Family Guide, where you can further explore Mexican culture and history.
Exploring the Mayan ruins can show you a piece of Mexico that is often overlooked when planting yourself in an all-inclusive resort. Chichen Itza and Uxmal are two sites that reveal the beauty as well as the complexity of architecture of a civilization that was advanced beyond its time.
Photo credit: UNESCO
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