The so-called Ruta Puuc includes five Mayan sites (Uxmal which we’ve covered in a previous post, Kabah, Sayil, Labna and Xlapac) and one unusual cave in the Puuc region of the Yucatan Peninsula . Puuc is the Mayan word for hill and even though Yucatan State is almost pathologically flat there are actually rolling hills in this area.
“Southern Mexico is lousy with Mayan sites,” we hear you say. “Why do these get a special route all their own?” Because their architecture and symbolism is different from other sites and marks a transition from the Mayan Classic Period to the Post classic period. That’s why, smartie.
As you know, we’ve seen more depictions of Chaac (the Mayan god of rain) than we care to admit and our visit to Kabah on the Ruta Puuc added hundreds more to our tally. On the facade of the El Palacio de los Mascarones (aka, Codz Poop) alone there are 300 Chaacs—no surprise since there are no cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) in the area.
What’s even more interesting at Kabah is the pair of atlantes—rare 3-D depictions of humans, iconography not normally seen in Mayan architecture. Add to that the perfect V of the site’s Mayan Arch, an impressive collection of columns (a hallmark of Puuc era architecture), clear remains of a major sacbe (a raised Mayan highway also known as a white road) and lovely jungle to wander through from excavation to excavation and you’ve got one lovely Mayan site.
Next up is Sayil which was first settled in 800 AD. Sayil has lots of multi-level structures, most strikingly El Palacio with its nearly 300 foot long base and three tiers—practically a skyscraper by Mayan standards. Sayil also reveals more Puuc columns as well as great examples of another Puuc architectural habit: elaborate carved stone “cockscomb” roof decorations.
Be sure to allow enough time to walk through jungle paths to other areas of the Sayil site –though be aware that the Angkor Wat-like all-enveloping tree roots that some guidebooks describes as draping the South Complex have been removed. However, an enormous phallus is still in place at the site which is called The Obelisk or Stele 9 or the Stele of Yum Keep (for real). You’ll know it when you see it.
The remains of the Mayan city of Labna offer more Chaac masks, more cockscomb roof decoration and El Arco Labna, one of the most jaw-dropping Mayan arches we’ve seen. Labna’s El Palacio is also one of the longest known buildings in the Puuc region at more than 393 feet across the base.
The fourth Mayan archeology site in the Ruta Puuc grouping is Xlapak but we chose to skip that one. Sometimes you just don’t feel it.
The Grutas Loltun (Loltun Cave) is also part of the Ruta Puuc and people have been living in the caves since pre-historic times, including the Mayans who retreated to Loltun during the War of the Castes in the 19th century. These Mayans hid out in the cave, barricaded themselves inside and managed to fend off the Spanish conquistadors for a while.
To commemorate their presence or mark their territory or whatever the Mayans decorated sections of this truly massive cave with depictions of hands and flowers and other simple artful motifs some of which are still visible.
Mother Nature’s art is also visible in the form of huge stalactites and stalagmites. In one section of the cave they’ve met to form columns which resonate with pleasant tones when gently thumped—which our guide encouraged us to do.
After about an hour inside the cave (which does not smell like bat guano) we came to the end of the .6 mile tour and found ourselves in the mouth of a gaping open sinkhole that serves as the exit. At just about the moment we arrived it started pouring.
We stood there staring up from our vantage point in the mouth of the cave under the sinkhole exit as the rain got louder and stronger and it felt like looking into another world. It’s easy to imagine that this is how the Mayans felt as they hid and hoped that someday they might be able to emerge.
As the rain grew even stronger it seemed as if the cave would begin flooding, however, the interior stayed perfectly snug as the water disappeared into the countless cracks and crevices in the limestone. Another brilliant real-estate choice by the Mayans.
Though our Lonely Planet guidebook said a tour guide (required) was included in the 70 peso cave entrance fee when we got there we were told it would be an additional 600 pesos (more than US$40) for an English-speakingguide. We balked and were eventually allowed to tag along with a group going out with an English speaking guide in exchange for a ‘”tip” to the guide at the end. Also, the cave floor can be slippery so wear sneakers or even boots.