Of all the ancient Maya cities in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, none is more spectacular than Uxmal. As Frank Lloyd Wright observed, its evocatively named structures – the Pyramid of the Magician, the Houses of the Turtles and of the Birds, the Nuns’ Quadrangle – are among the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen. (Certainly their horizontal planes and severe rectilinear forms would seem to have been an influence his work.)
For many, Uxmal has a magical feel and deep spirit not found at Chichen Itza. This UNESCO Mayan ruin site is less crowded than others and entices visitors to an overnight stay at local hotels so you can fully enjoy the Uxmal experience during the day and in the evening. The Uxmal archeological site is a wonderful balance of jungle, wide open spaces, and few visitors as you marvel over the classic Puuc architecture of the Maya.
The name Uxmal means ‘thrice-built’ in Mayan. This name refers to the construction of its highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician which was built on top of existing pyramids. In this case, five stages of construction have been found.
Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatán peninsula on the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route), and at its height was home to approximately 20,000 Maya. Uxmal and other surrounding Puuc sites flourished in the Late Classic Period (around 600-900 AD) before they were overruled by neighboring settlements. The rulers of Uxmal are also thought to have presided over the nearby settlements of Kabah, Labná and Sayil. There are several sacbes (white roads of the Maya) connecting the nearby sites.
The ancient city of Uxmal is locate in the southwest portion of the State of Yucatan, 78 kms due south from Merida. Its hallmark buildings are the Birds’ Quadrangle, Nuns’ Quadrangle, Governor Palace and Fortune-Teller’s Pyramid. The latter is 35 meters high, and hence its top is an ideal vantage point to admire this beautiful site.
On Sundays, admission is free for nationals (with ID). There is no student discount on arrival, you have to request it in writing: You can send a request to INAH for your group. Must be in school letterhead and include the date of your visit, how many students and teachers to:firstname.lastname@example.org
Part of the magic of visiting Uxmal lies in its remoteness, for it remains surrounded by jungle, a good five or six hours by road from the Caribbean coast. It has therefore resisted the Disneyfication of better known sites such as Chichen Itza and is spared the coach parties. But it does mean you need a place to stay, in which case my recommendation would be Hacienda Santa Rosa, one of a small group of converted haciendas that are now part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection.
It isn’t new – I first stayed there 15 years ago – nor recently renovated, but it has been transformed since my initial visit, thanks substantially to its resident manager, Elda Orihuela, and her efforts to integrate the hotel with the neighbouring village.
The first time I came here, the hotel was expertly run with German efficiency. A guard stood sentry by the towering locked gates to the estate (established in the 18th century as a sisal plantation), so as to protect the hotel from the neighbouring village, a place of grinding poverty that had recently been ravaged by a hurricane. I don’t know that it presented a danger, but the impression was that it might.
Now, however, the gates stand open, and the village, though still not a place of beauty, has been substantially rebuilt, repaired and cleaned up with the support of the hotel.
I learnt this during a three-night stay in one of the rooms in what had been the machine house, an elegant old-fashioned suite with stencilled walls, an 18ft beamed ceiling and a huge iron bedstead topped with a goose-down quilt. (Sybille Bedford never got to the Yucatan in her enchanting Mexican memoir, A Visit to Don Ottavio, but even so it felt the just sort of place she might have stayed.)
Outside was a covered veranda with a dining table and chairs, two hammocks and a small plunge pool, lined in chukum, a watertight mixture of lime and resin that also happens to be the basis of chewing gum and which reflects the light so that it seems to change colour as the sun sets.
The staff member with whom I chatted most was Edgar, whose title is supervisor and who came from the village, as do most of the staff, and had worked there since the early days of the hotel. In those days, with then scant English (it is fluent now), he’d had a junior back-of-house role, but he had worked his way up to become second in command.
Rather than see the village as something to shut out, Elda and her team have sought to work with it. And rarely have I stayed anywhere that felt quite so positively connected to its local community, nor where the largely local staff seemed to thrive so much from their employment, for the air here is one of confidence, happiness and pride. I was charmed in particular by the way one of the waiters, Fidel, would gently correct my imperfect Spanish: much more useful than tolerating my mistakes because that way I learnt.
In short then, there are two compelling reasons to come to this remote stretch of the Yucatan. Uxmal, which remains truly a wonder of the world, and the many lesser once-lost cities in the area, and Hacienda Santa Rosa, which with its gardens, its arcaded pool, its little spa in what was once the chapel, is as charming and relaxing a hotel as I know.
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