Pursuing Remote Mayan Ruins

La Ruta Puuc
By Ted Nusbaum
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The Puuc Route technically runs from Kabah to Oxkutzcab—27 miles (41 kilometers) of winding two-lane highway through dry, forested hills. The sites along this route can be seen in a hurried day (best on Sunday because admission is free), but with the addition of Uxmal, it's best to spend at least two days between them.

The first stop, Kabah, yields an artistically fierce temple fagade called the Codz Poop, or the Palace of Masks, because it is made of nearly 300 masks of the rain god Chaac. From afar, the temple appears disjointed, but a closer look reveals the wall of masks to be a detailed and meticulous work of art and muscle. Each mask contains 30 individually shaped blocks of cut stone which infuse the temple wall with a vibrant energy. A hike over the grounds will yield an almost endless stream of pictorial histories and ceremonies, and craftsmanship of the highest caliber. Archaeologists believe that there are at least 80 unexcavated structures at Kabah—evidence that its proximity to Uxmal (three miles by foot) and the other sites formed an ancient megalopolis.

Down the road at the ruins of Sayil lies El Palacio, a beautiful three-story building over 200 feet in length. This palace has 50 double-chambered rooms and a large carving of Chaac, the rain god, to coax the heavens into fulfilling the ever-present need for rainfall. I climbed the crumbling stairway to an upper portion of the temple and explored a long-deserted chamber before two swallows peeled out of the darkness into the light. I headed for the rear of the complex, where a small ballcourt once housed ceremonial contests, and sat among the remnants which sprawl through the jungle thicket.

Further along the Puuc Route is Labna, quiet and peaceful, offering impressive stone carvings including a human face emerging from a serpent's jaws. There are also a number of smaller and less-explored sites along the route, all worthy of your time should your curiosity inspire you to see more than the average tourist does. Try hiking a sacbe (sacred Mayan trail) or driving (four-wheel drive only) into the jungle where rarely-seen sites like Sodzil and Nophat survive today. Consider hiring a guide by inquiring at the entrance of either Kabah or Labna, or pick up a copy of Hidden Cancun and the Yucatan by Richard Harris (Ulysses Press).

Should you explore no other cave system in all of Mexico, visit the Grutas de Loltun, where cave drawings from the Mayans date back 4,000 years. I descended into the caves via a human-made stairwell, but soon the sun disappeared and an underworld of damp, smooth rock ranging in color from pink to red to purple appeared. Each passageway would tighten, then open, to reveal yet another spectacular cavern. I descended until I rested in a chamber with stalactites ten feet long. Striking one of these hollow tubes evenly with the palm of your hand causes a Buddhist-like "Om" to emanate through the cave. Ancient Mayans used these very stalactites for ceremonial ritual over 4,000 years ago. Guided tours are given every 90 minutes from 9:30 to 3:30 p.m.—be prepared to tip generously.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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