A Mayan Site | Mexico | Living in Mexico

A Mayan Site

Years ago we visited the two major Mayan cities easily accessed from Cancún: Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. They are, of course, stunning, and some day I may return to them. But on this trip, I wanted to look at some of the less well-known sites. I hoped to get away from crowds bused in from the beach resorts, and to see structures that haven't been photographed to death. (I swear that in a couple of years, tourists' cameras will have sucked the last photons out of El Castillo, and it will become invisible.)

A number of small ruins dot the Puuc Route, a hilly part of the generally flat Yucatán Peninsula. Because we arrived late, we visited only one site; Sayil.

The minor sites have been left in a state more like they were when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled here early in the 19th Century. As I walked through Sayil, I tried to imagine what they must have thought, peering through the dry jungle, as they first glimpsed unnatural piles of rocks...


... that on closer inspection bore carvings of glyphs, cut into rubble-blocked doorways by an unknown people who used an alphabet.


Clear away enough trees and underbrush, and entire buildings emerge from the jungle. Catherwood drew them almost two centuries ago, inspiring travelers down to the present day to explore the Mayan World.


Tulum. Frederick Catherwood

This small pyramidal temple is known as El Mirador—The Lookout.


The structure on top is called a roof comb and is purely decorative. Trees and plants have been allowed to remain growing on the roof. In time, roots will surely tear the stones from the roof comb.


The main ruin at Sayil is El Palacio, which had 90 rooms and is thought to have housed on the order of 350 members of the ruling elite. It was built more than a thousand years ago, while European culture stagnated in the dark ages.


A half collapsed room provides a cutaway view showing how Mayan buildings were constructed.


Interior spaces were narrow because Mayan builders had not discovered the keyed arch. Without a keystone, they could only be made as wide as a corbeled arch (cantilevered stones) would allow.

El Palacio has several Chac (rain god) masks and other carvings in fine condition.


The elephant-like noses of most Chac masks have been broken off, so it's exciting to find one intact. You're more likely to find whole Chac figures on friezes.


Mayans lacked the arch and the wheel, but they were better astronomers and calendar-makers than their European contemporaries. Their culture collapsed before the arrival of the Spanish, who nevertheless did their best to eradicate any surviving traces of Mayan culture. Still, much was protected by the jungle, hidden from the eyes of Spanish hacienda owners and Catholic church-builders.