Mexico’s Mayan ruins

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This item appears on page 34 of the November 2013 issue.

Magnificent Chichén Itzá is the most visited set of Mayan ruins in Yucatán, Mexico. It’s certainly the most famous. Busloads of visitors descend upon Chichén Itzá’s pyramid El Castillo daily. Meanwhile, equally impressive but underrated Uxmal slumbers less than a 200-kilometer drive away. 


My wife, Paula, and I spent five nights in the state capital, Mérida, in December ’12. While certainly worth a visit on its own merits, Mérida — relaxed and safe (rumored to be the safest city in Mexico) — is perfectly positioned as a base for exploring Mayan ruins, scenic cenotes (sinkholes holding pools of water) and charming colonial villages.

On different days, we visited Chichén Itza and Uxmal, both readily accessible via good roads. From Mérida, it’s a 1½- to 1¾-hour drive east to Chichén Itzá, located roughly midway between Mérida and Cancun, just south of the toll road that connects the two cities. Uxmal is slightly closer to Mérida, only 1¼ to 1½ hours away to the south. Day tours are available.

With interesting collections of structures of varying types and sizes, both sites are fascinating and have been restored extensively. Their monumental architecture is of different eras and styles. 

At Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, one or two local guides approached us at the entrance to each site; they were not pushy. We guided ourselves using Lonely Planet’s “Mexico” guide and maps we downloaded from Lonely Planet’s website. 

 Both sites use a tricky 2-ticket system for entry. You have to buy separate tickets from separate offices (federal and state) at the entrance.

Uxmal’s Casa del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician).

Uxmal gets far fewer visitors, so you aren’t likely to be fighting any crowds there. One big advantage to visiting Uxmal is that visitors are still allowed to climb and enter many of the structures. This enriches your experience more than you might expect.

Another difference between the two big sites is that Uxmal is located just minutes away from several small, but intriguing, Mayan sites. We toured Kabáh, Labná and Sayil, which are so seldom visited that you can get lonely exploring them! As at Uxmal, you can climb into and enter the various buildings. Some of the structures are remarkably preserved, while others are ruins.

So which should you see: Chichén Itzá or Uxmal? It’s a trick question. You should see both. The proprietor of our B&B in Mérida encourages his guests to see both, and afterward he asks them for their favorite. The results of his unofficial poll are that 90%-95% of his guests prefer Uxmal. 

Uxmal was our choice, too.


Charlotte, NC