I have to admit that last time I was a bit skeptical about the Yucatan, I thought it was too touristic and not interesting for me, and that was probably one of the main reasons I skipped it. But now I decided to fill in the gap and I didn’t regret it.
The southern part of Mexico turned out to be incredibly beautiful and significant in historic sense, because for many centuries it used to be the Mayan land. Many ancient cities and pyramids have been preserved here, and only visiting them you can spend weeks or even months here. But it was impossible for me to see them all, and I chose five main pyramids I wanted to see now.
So, the first one on my list was the famous Palenke.
Palenke is the conventional name of the ruins of a large Mayan city in the northeast of the Mexican state of Chiapas, the political and cultural center of the Maya in the 3-8 centuries, at an altitude of 150 meters above sea level. This place is one of the most humid places in Mexico. Well, I guess for this reason the city was called Lacum Ha in Mayan times, which means “Big Water”.
The city had 12 rulers during its existence. The most famous of them is Pakal the Great, who ruled the city for 68 years since 615. During his reign, the city flourished through trade, with many military victories and alliances with neighboring tribes. On 25 August 2018, Mexican scientists found a small mask depicting the face of an elderly man with long wrinkles. Scientists assume that this was Pakal himself.
Palenke perished probably as a result of a tribal invasion from the Gulf of Mexico coast in the 9th century. Due to the very humid and warm climate, the city was very quickly overgrown with vegetation and lost in the jungle. Only in the 18th century were the remains of an ancient city discovered. But excavations were not conducted regularly, and up till now only about 10% of the ancient city has been excavated.
The archaeological complex itself is about 9 km from the modern city of Palenke, where you can stay for a few days while sightseeing. Of course, there is an excellent infrastructure for tourists – hotels, restaurants, shops of any level and price category, so you can come over without any hesitation. I booked a place on Booking.com that I found interesting and with good reviews, the camp-hostel T&C Camping, just 2 km from the city, and I was very satisfied with it.
The next morning, I went to an archaeological site. It was recommended to go there in the morning, because of the heat and humidity, but I was not able to do it, because the day before I was very tired and wanted to stay in bed longer. I was lucky it was cloudy in the morning and not very hot, but the humidity was still there.
The entrance ticket was cheaper than I expected, only 80 pesos (about 4 USD), but you still had to pay about 30 pesos to enter the national park itself and 20 pesos for parking a motorcycle.
The pyramid complex itself was quite large, you could climb some of the pyramids, so I spent quite a lot of time here. It was getting unbearably hot towards the middle of the day, and the last few pyramid climbs were not much fun. But it was still worth it. Of course, you can buy a variety of souvenirs here, as well as use the service of professional tour guides.
There was still a lot to go around and see, but I had almost no energy left, so I decided to follow the signs to the exit. The exit signs led to the opposite side of the entrance, which did not worry me at first, though should have … But I learned about it later. As I was walking to the exit, I went through the jungle, saw very beautiful waterfalls along the way, and generally very pleasant landscapes. It was only when I finally got to the exit I found out that actually it was one of the exits, and it is one kilometer away from the parking lot. It meant that now I had to walk another kilometer, and not just to walk, but to go uphill. Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I scolded myself a little bit, but then I remembered what interesting places I walked through and decided that everything turned out for better.
I was able to visit the other two pyramid complexes in one day because they were very close to where I was staying – Playa del Carmen. They were the ruins of the city of Coba, about 100 km from Playa del Carmen, and 40 km from the town of Tulum, and the second ruins I managed to visit that day.
During the Mayan civilization development, Coba was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan. For reasons unknown to this day, the city was abandoned by the Mayas after arrival of the Spaniards to the peninsula.
The main attraction of the ancient city of Coba is the highest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula! The pyramid is called Nohoch Mul, which means “Great Mound”, or “Great Pyramid”. Its height is 42 meters! And you can climb it.
But it is located about one kilometer from the entrance to the archaeological complex. You can get there by walking, or you can rent a bike or hire a rickshaw to take you there. I decided to walk, especially since the path was very nice and it was not very hot, as you would walk among the trees. But still you would need to carry some water, especially when you have already reached the main pyramid.
After I saw the pyramid, and most importantly, the number of people who were crawling up with some huge efforts, I had doubts whether I wanted to follow their example at all. Especially since the space is already open here and it would not be possible to hide in the shade. So at first, I turned around and started to go back. But then something brought me back, or rather a thought – since I’m here, and actually that was the reason to come, how can I leave without climbing this pyramid? I can manage somehow.
The pyramid steps got worn out with time, and climbing and descending them are not the easiest things to do. Therefore, visitors are advised to have comfortable shoes on and hold on to the rope with knots, in the center of the pyramid. With some efforts and stops for break I got to the top. Water which I carried along, even though it was already warm, helped a lot. On the top there was a very small platform, in the open sun, and with a lot of people trying to recover a bit before the upcoming descent and taking pictures of not so much of the jungle around, but more of another portion of people crawling up.
I have to admit I was really worried about how I was going to get down. It didn’t look easy. Most of the people coming down were desperately holding onto the rope in the middle of the pyramid and going down one step at a time. It didn’t look very presentable, but I knew I was about to follow their lead, and I didn’t care at all how it looked from outside. The main thing was to go down in one piece and not to fall, or rather not to faint under the scorching sun. Descent took longer than the climb, in all this time I wondered several times whether it was worth of such a struggle, and when finally I stood firmly on the ground, I thought that if I ever find myself again in this place, I will not repeat this feat.
By the way, the next day, to my surprise, I had sore muscles, and for a few following days i found it difficult to walk, to sit and to get up. So these were the consequences of climbing the highest pyramid in the Yucatan. But the main thing is that I’ve been there and I don’t regret it: )
Lunch at a restaurant nearby, which I planned for myself immediately after visiting Coba pyramid, helped a bit to recover from fatigue and added some resources for visiting the Tulum ruins, which had yet to be reached.
Tulum, the pre-Columbian city of Mayan civilization, served as a port for the city of Coba. By 900, the Mayan civilization had begun to decline, and the major cities in the south were abandoned. Tulum remained the only Mayan city-state that reached a high level of development in the 13th century. As a major trading centre and seaport on the Caribbean coast, it controlled maritime commerce from Yucatan to Honduras. Tulum remained inhabited for about 70 years after it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadors, and was finally abandoned. However, the local Maya continued to visit temples until the end of the 20th century.
The ruins of Tulum occupy a very small area, and in my opinion, their main attraction is that they are located right by the sea, and this gives the whole area a stunning romantic touch. I got here in the afternoon, and I was far from being in the best physical shape, so I rushed through the pyramids of the complex quite quickly, in anticipation of the next part of the day.
The thing is I left my bike a few minutes’ walk away from the entrance to the complex, near the beach Santa Fe, and now I could not wait to go back there and spend at least one or two relaxing hours on the beach of the Caribbean Sea. To my shame, I have to admit that at that time I was more interested in going to the beach rather than historical significance of the ruins. But, unlike Coba, I would not mind going back to Tulum and spend more time at its ruins. But next time, I will definitely come in the morning and dedicate at least the whole day to this part of the Yucatan.
The next archeological complex on my way was, in fact, one of the most famous and visited in Mexico, and even recognized as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The famous Chichen Itza. When I was in Mexico the first time, many people asked me if I had been to Chichen Itza, and it made me upset a bit because I couldn’t give a positive answer. That’s how I realized that it was a kind of landmarks of Mexico, and to miss it this time would be unpardonable. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the second most popular archaeological site in Mexico.
So, a little historic background. Chichen Itza is political and cultural center of Maya in the north of Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, sacred city of Itza people. The history of the city can be divided into two periods. The first lasted from the seventh to the tenth century, when the city belonged to the Maya tribe. The second began with the conquest of the area by the Toltecs in the 10th century.
Later, due to unknown reasons, the city was completely destroyed. It happened in 1194. It’s not known why the city was deserted. Some researchers talk about the terrible famine, others about the bloody war. Anyway, things changed with the arrival of the Spaniards. The 18th century was marked by various studies and archaeological excavations. Since the middle of the last century, the Mexican government has issued a decree to restore the city of Chichen Itza to its original shape. All possible works have been done and it is now an uincredible popular place.
As with all other pyramid complexes, it is recommended to arrive in Chichen Itza by the opening time, at 8 am. Not only because of the heat, but also because of the large number of tourists. So the sooner you arrive, the more privacy you might get. Although it’s not 100% probablity. I arrived at, ok it wasn’t 8:00, but 8:30, and already most of the parking was occupied by tourist buses, and it took me some time to find a place for my motorcycle. And I had to wait about half an hour in a line to buy an entrance ticket. The price for the entrance ticket for foreigners was not a pleasant surprise either. Of course I expected that it would be higher than in the other complexes, but 500 pesos, compared to 80 pesos that I paid for other pyramids so far, seemed to me a little overpriced.
But I can tell you it was worth it. The architectural monuments you’ll see on the complex grounds will leave you very impressed. Moreover, the territory is so vast that you can find some privacy even despite the large number of visitors. So don’t be discouraged from visiting this place just because it is too touristic.
There are several hotels in the immediate proximity of the complex, but I cannot even guess what is the price. The more popular stop-over before visiting Chichen Itza is the pretty town of Valladolid about 40 km from the archaeological complex. You can find cheap accommodation here and the town itself is worth seeing. The only thing is you have to wake up early to get to Chichen Itza by the opening time.
Well, the last ancient city and ruins on my way, and to be honest, my favorite at the moment is the city of Uxmal. It’s a major Mayan ancient city in the northwest Yucatan Peninsula, 68 km south of Merida. It is a little bit off the main tourist routes, so not everybody finds time and opportunity to get here, so it is very likely that there will be fewer visitors than in other complexes. Especially if you come here on Monday, because on Sunday, entry to all the complexes for Mexican tourists is free and the next day you will see only foreigners.
The city, whose name means “built three times”, was founded in the 6th century, by the turn of the millennium it had become the dominant Mayan center of Yucatan, then was defeated and by the arrival of the Spaniards was already abandoned.
Scientists estimate that there were up to 25,000 people living in the city. The buildings of the city are known for their size and finish. Buildings are typical of the Puuk style. They have smooth low walls decorated with friezes typical of Mayan huts. Some buildings use the terrain to rise above other buildings.
Something in this area and on the territory of the complex itself seemed to me special and magical. Or maybe because this is where I learned about the Mayan sacred trees called ceiba, which grow here in large numbers and which, according to the locals, have a special impact on people. I don’t know if this is true or not, I like hugging trees in general, but I felt that after hugging this tree I felt something special.
This town is located on the famous route called Puuk, and there are many other cities and pyramids, less known but interesting too. I hope that one day I will find myself again in this part of the world, and I will be able to enjoy these places and this atmosphere again in a calmer and more relaxed way.