The Yucatan Peninsula is renowned for its Mayan ruin sites that feature large pyramids, well preserved artwork, and buildings. The sites are scattered across the region within the Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. The big names among those sites are Chichen Izta, Tulum, Palenque, and Uxmal. These four have risen to the top each for its own reason, although large and impressive structures are a major factor in their popularity. To learn about ruin sites and the Mayan culture you are going to want to visit one or more of those locations. You are guaranteed to learn more at a major Mayan ruin site than anywhere else.
Or are you?
My journey to a half dozen Mayan ruin sites taught me that might not be the case.
Chichen Itza is perhaps the most impressive of the sites. Its pyramid is large and well-preserved, with crisp straight lines. In fact, people gather at the equinox each year to watch the shadows of the sun create the image of a snake on the pyramid. In addition to the central structure, the area has many other features that have survived the test of time such as ceremonial platforms, a market, and a ball court.
Tulum has earned recognition not so much from size and or elegance but rather its appealing placement. The ruins at this site overlook the Caribbean Sea where travelers can view ruins then play in the surf.
Palenque is the most mysterious of the group. It is located in the southern reaches of Mexico and is bordered by true jungle. An unusual tower rises over the site and the pyramid is the only one known in the area that had a body buried within it. A small town nearby is a fun place to stay.
Uxmal is extraordinary in the number of buildings both restored and yet-to-be restored. Looking across the landscape from the top of a pyramid reveals mounds within the trees where the Mayan people once lived in a massive urban complex. Uxmal also has well-preserved sculptures and hieroglyphic writing.
Those large and impressive cities of the ancients seem to have it all. So what more could one learn by going elsewhere? You might be surprised.
While living in Merida, Yucatan, we attended classes at a local school. Near the end of the term, our instructor required that we go to a ruin site in the region and thereafter write a report about the site. In the blink of an eye I scanned through my choices, at least the ones I knew about. A big juicy ruin site would be ideal. However, I knew I would get only one shot. I would only have the resources of time and money to see one, and therefore have one day to take it all in and learn what I could.
That is when my mind jumped to the least impressive site we had visited. Its name was Dzibilchaltun. It had no pyramid, just a stone hut, albeit a sturdy one. To the side was a crumbling church from the colonial era and, at another spot, some crumbling Mayan structures with no roofs. A cenote* graced the site and, just beyond it, large mounds rose within the scrub brush. The mounds were ruins that had yet to be uncovered and restored for viewing. That was it. It was possible to tour the entire site in about fifteen minutes. Compared to the major ruins sites like Uxmal and Chichen Itza, it was a real dud.
The lack of impressive buildings flashed through my mind just before I tossed the thought aside. I claimed Dzibilchaltun before any of the others could, and invited my closer friends to join me. I explained my reasons to them after they followed my seemingly foolish choice. You see, I told them, Dzibilchaltun was only one hour from our accommodations. We could visit it as much as we wanted and if no cars were available, we could take a bus with very little trouble. The other ruins sites were much farther away. Secondly, the cenote at the site was open to swimming. Our ruin site had its own pool!
Lastly, I explained that, because of the small size, Dzibilchaltun would be easier to write about. That might have seemed counter intuitive, but it turned out to be truer than I imagined it would be.
We visited the ruins multiple times. We even had the benefit of one additional visit after writing our rough drafts and realizing what we had missed at the site. The best part, however, was that we were able to dissect the history of each structure on the site. We learned the individual history of the stone hut, which, to our surprise had actually been buried under a subsequent pyramid of small size. The crumbled Mayan houses offered their own surprise by revealing how Mayans built walls and that they even had a form of crude concrete. We even learned how we could identify what Mayan era a home came from based on the building methods used. The information went much farther in depth than I would have guessed.
We walked away from the experience better educated than we expected. Looking for the easiest site to visit, perhaps a lazy move, wound up enlightening us in ways we had not anticipated. In fact, when it all was over, some of the students who chose the major ruin sites wound up envious of our strategy.
Based on that experience, I now recommend that people go to smaller sights and explore them thoroughly. Large sites are dazzling and should never be passed up, but keep the lesser-known places in mind. They might not take your breath away, but they could provide the opportunity to learn which the overwhelming larger sites won’t allow.
*Cenote: A cenote is spring that rests just below the surface of the ground. The limestone of the Yucatan Peninsula allows water to filter through, creating the underground reservoirs. Once in a while, the limestone ground cover will collapse, exposing the water below. Mayan communities often sprouted around the fresh water supply offered by cenotes.