Ruta Puuc – Chasing the Ghosts of Ancient Maya in Yucatan

The Rain God and the Dwarf - forget Cancun, Ruta Puuc is where the real adventure lies

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Look, I’ll be honest – when we first set off to see the five ancient Mayan sites along Ruta Puuc in the Yucatán’s Santa Elena valley, I was a little skeptical. More crumbling piles of rocks, I thought to myself. I’ve already seen Chichen Itza. How many of these things can one person take, right?

Mayan hieroglyph

“If the ancient civilizations had emojis, their hieroglyphics would be a lot easier to decipher.”

It turns out, Chichen Itza isn’t the most touristy Mayan ruin in Mexico because it’s necessarily the most spectacular but because it’s the closest one to Cancun. It’s the easiest to get to from the beach. It became the Mayan Disneyland, commercial and noisy.

Ruta Puuc – Just You and Two Italians Yesterday

The real Yucatan adventure lies along the Ruta Puuc. The 123km route through the Yucatan peninsula is dotted with some of the most impressive ancient Mayan archaeological sites: Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. These names meant little to me. But as we wound our way (in our rental car) through the gently rolling hills of the Yucatán, I quickly realized that this was no ordinary road trip.

These weren’t just fairly well preserved 1500-year-old buildings; they are wildly mysterious, outrageously adorned monuments, unapologetically sticking out of the Yucatan jungle.

The Magician of Uxmal

At Uxmal, we joined a smattering of other visitors and paid the 550 pesos ($32 usd) entrance fee. The Pyramid of the Magician (El Adivino in Spanish) towers over the entrance with its rounded sides, unlike any other Mayan pyramid. If you stand in just the right spot and clap your hands, it echoes back, sounding like a bird’s call or a crack of a whip.

You just stare at it, bewildered. How on earth did these people manage to construct this 10-story tall engineering marvel, way out here in the middle of the Yucatán wilderness, without trucks to transport the stones and cranes to lift them? And, most importantly, why?

The legends have an answer: There once was a childless witch, living in a hut where El Adivino now stands. She conjured up an egg of which a dwarf was hatched. Possessing magical powers, he then built the pyramid in one night and became the ruler of the city. So there you have it, one mystery solved.

See a 360° virtual tour of Uxmal.

Read about Izamal, a Pueblo Magico that got a sunshiny makeover.

There’s more to Uxmal than El Adivino. It was a whole, developed city.

In 1839 to 1841 John Lloyd Stephens, an American writer, adventurer and diplomat, and his friend, illustrator Frederick Catherwood, visited the site to record and sketch the layout of the complex. From his notes, Stephens wrote the famous book Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan. This is what he has to say about his first encounter with Uxmal:

“We took another road, and, emerging suddenly from the woods, to my astonishment came at once upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins, and vast buildings on terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a bush to obstruct the view, and in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes… …The place of which I am now speaking was beyond all doubt once a large, populous, and highly civilized city. Who built it, why it was located away from water or any of those natural advantages which have determined the sites of cities whose histories are known, what led to its abandonment and destruction, no man can tell.”

John Lloyd Stephens, 1843, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan

As you wander through Uxmal, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe, reverence, and insatiable curiosity. After all, it’s not every day that you stumble upon a city that’s been mysteriously abandoned for over a millennium.

250 Masks of Kabah

The road to Kabah, our next stop, unspooled like a dusty ribbon through Yucatan’s jungle. The crowds dwindled away completely. The ticket offices turned into simple grass-thatched shacks, manned by a lone person with just a log book for you to sign. We paid 75 pesos each and walked in.

From the outside, Kabah seems like an unassuming little Mayan city buried in the jungle of the Puuc hills. But once you emerge into the vast, sun-drenched clearing of the square, you’re hit with a full-frontal assault of deliriously ornate stone carvings.

It’s the Palace of the Masks that really gets you in Kabah. Nearly 250 carved stone masks of Chaac, the Rain God, staring at you from the façade. Water was scarce, no cenotes in sight, so appeasing Chaac must have been the activity du jour.

Home Alone in Sayil

Another grass-roofed shack and a welcoming guy with a log book to sign. We were the first visitors of the day – at noon. The previous page held only two names, an Italian couple from the day before. Our trip was turning into a blissfully tourist-free adventure.

10,000 people used to live in Sayil, over a thousand years ago, the plazas, palazzos, and markets buzzing with life. Today, you walk through the city all alone. The only sounds you hear are your own breath, your footsteps, and the critters scampering in the jungle.

The Sayil Palacio is a marvel of Mayan architecture, a sprawling complex of 90 rooms on three levels that must have been the envy of every noble in the region. And the way the structure is set against a vast, grassy expanse in front – as if the architects were trying to create a sense of grandeur, of power and prestige, that would leave a lasting impression on all who laid eyes upon it.

Many structures are still swallowed by the vegetation, tree roots twisting through the walls. As you walk through the jungle between the sites of Sayil, things can go from grandiose to creepy in a hurry.

My eyes played tricks on me. By the crumbled El Mirador temple I saw leaves on the path in front of me rustled by an invisible critter. I’m half convinced that if you were brave enough to spend a night, you’d get a chance to commune with the ghosts of the lost Mayan world.

Not-at-all-steep Xlapak

About 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) down the road through the verdant tunnel of branches, you’ll find Xlapak, pronounced “shla-pak”, which strikes me funny since “šlapák” (the same pronounciation) is a slang for a “damn steep hill” in Slovak, my native language. Don’t be fooled, the hills of Puuk region are small and gentle.

There are 4 groups of buildings in Xlapak, each with its own small palace or temple, and a loop through the forest connecting them. The site is quaint, the buildings nicely restored but not spectacular. It’s getting late and we have one more site to explore. Onward and upward.

Swinging at Labná

I love Labná. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is small, but fantastic. You step in and the place just comes alive. You can explore, climb, and wander. The iconic (and, let’s be honest, very photogenic) El Arco, a massive stone arch that Labná is famous for, seems to defy both time and gravity.

We traced the outlines of the weathered walls with our fingertips, marveling at the craftsmanship that had lasted for over a millennium. Swinging gently on a liana vine swing, suspended from the branches of a towering tree, I was struck by the sheer scale of the vegetation that had reclaimed this once-bustling Mayan city.

The grass grew in strange, mohawk-like shapes, as if the earth was trying to add to the whimsy of the place. And the trees – their canopies stretched so far, they could have easily sheltered a small village from the elements. Labná is positively enchanting.

We did it! Five ancient sites in one day – Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná. With a sense of accomplishment, we hopped into our rented chariot and set off on the two-hour trip back to Merida.

Once in the city, our rumbling bellies led us straight to the renowned El Apapacho, where we had their much-lauded (and much-overpriced) mole – a delicious savory sauce made with cacao. However, the same could not be said for their coffee, which regrettably ranked among the worst we’ve encountered in all of Mexico.

Back at the hotel, I was so exhausted from the full day and 24,000 steps, that I accidentally brushed my teeth with hubby’s toothbrush (don’t tell him).

Should you do Ruta Puuc?

Of the Mayan ruins we visited in Mexico, none quite captures the delightfully serendipitous spirit of exploration like the ruins along Ruta Puuc. From the moment you set foot on the sprawling jungle-clad compounds, you realize this isn’t going to be one of those neutered, tourist-tracked experiences.

Here you are practically encouraged to clamber up precipitous steps, roam the jungle pathways, and tempt the enduring centuries by scampering about on rooftops and terraces, dodging the ubiquitous grasses that insist on snagging your ankles.

It’s all part of the rustic charm really – the constant mild peril of plunging off the side of some weathered edifice.

Ancient sites along Ruta Puuc are the real deal. They will fill your head with unanswerable questions. Every building is a kaleidoscopic mindf**k of mythological beasts and supernatural imagery. I don’t know what sort of ayahuasca the ancient Maya were on, but it must have been industrial-strength.

So do yourself a favor and make the pilgrimage. It’ll change the way you see the world.

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